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Tea carriers in 1908
Many Chinese factories rely on human labor rather than machines to make products. Because labor is so cheap in China tasks that are performed by robots or sophisticated machines watched over by highly-skilled workers in other countries can be performed more cheaply in China by low-paid workers or simple machines watched over by low-skilled workers.

Many workers have switched from state jobs to jobs with private firms. Workers that once made $25 a month at state factories now earn $100 a month working for a private company

Some regions are known for filling certain employment niches. Anhui Province is famous for producing maids for people in Beijing. Middle class families with two busy parents are increasingly hiring maids. The demand for maids has risen as it has become easier for people in the countryside to move to the cities. See Anhui

Good Websites and Sources: China Labor Watch chinalaborwatch.org ; China Labor Bulletin clb.org.hk/en ; China Law Blog on New Labor Laws chinalawblog.com ; Book: Understanding Labor and Employment Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2009) cambridge.org/us ; Gloomy Photos of Workers zhouhai.com

Articles About LABOR IN CHINA factsanddetails.com MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China ; LABOR-INTENSIVE INDUSTRIES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

State Workers in China

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Factory cadres at a meeting
In 1995, about 40 percent of all Chinese industrial workers still worked for the state. The payroll of some government-run operations such as the Beijing subway are filled with people who don't really do much.

A typical male workers at the China Bicycle factory in Longhua live six to room, earn $100 a month and shout out workers anthems during morale training. A $100 a month is four times a rural workers wage. The salary may not be great but traditionally they received good benefits such as housing and health care.

Workers have often worked at the same factory with his or her spouse since he a teenager. They are typically provided not only with wages but also with housing, education and medical care and other iron rice bowl. They are vulnerable to losing his jobs.

A typical worker lives in a modest subsidized house with his wife, children and parents. Their main possessions are a television, bicycles and a cell phone. They have little and spend a lot of their money on education.

Reforms of the remaining state-owned enterprises have included boosting productivity by giving shares in the company to workers and offering high salaries to top-rate managers. Bonuses were one of the first economic reforms. They depend on position, cost of living and the kind of work done. Wages steadily went up. In Shanghai they have doubled since 1990 and 1995 and quadrupled between 1985 and 1995.

Some government agencies have limit their worker's hours (but allow them to keep their apartments) so that they can put their energies into more lucrative and productive free market pursuits.

See Laid Off Workers

Chinese State White-Collar Workers in the Mid-2000s

Some people still seek state white-collar jobs for the security and benefits even though the salary can be relatively low. The number of people taking the civil service exam to land such jobs rose more than 1600 percent from 32,000 in 2001 to 540,000 in 2005.

Benefits from state jobs include good health care generous pensions and a residency permit. Some people get free shampoos and toilet paper and work in offices where the fridge is always filled with free bottles of green tea and cola.

In some case state workers receive 1,500-square-foot apartments worth $50,000 to $100,000 for as little as $1,300. Some unscrupulous officials obtain apartments and make huge profits selling the at their market price.

Many of the benefits are worked out by work units. Good work units dispense things like oranges, soap, bath towels, mosquito coils and cooking oil among its members. If someone needs an operation the work unit collects money to pay for it. It provides temporary work for working-age children who can’t find jobs.

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Die-cast factory

Chinese Factory Workers

There are roughly 60 million factory workers in China. Most are still employed by the state and they make up the bulk of the urban work force. It will not be long most factory workers work for private companies if that hasn’t happened already.

A typical worker at a textile factory earned $85 to $100 a month, working 11 shifts seven days a week, with one day off a month, working for piece work pay. In some cases workers have to pay a finders fee just to get the job. Skilled or particularly adept workers can earn much more. Some skilled workers earn around $300 a months at private companies.

Light manufacturing and textiles ate the largest industrial sectors in China As of 2005, 19 million people were employed in the textiles industry, working 12 hour days for around $60 a month. Basic sewing can be done by unskilled. Even illiterate workers.

In some automobile factories, workers begin there with company songs and calisthenics like their counterparts in Japan. But in additions the workers are also sent of boot camps run by PLA drill masters who instill in the workers the importance of hard work and nationalism.

Service Industry in China

The service industry — which includes restaurants, retailers and other services — is growing very fast but makes up 43 percent of GDP, far lower than the world average of 70 percent. China has only about 5 million health care workers for 1.3 billion people and only about 4 million people in banking and insurance. In an effort to increase this figure the Chinese government has encouraged banks to lend more money to companies in the service sector and allowed foreign companies in that could provide a boost to things like health care and insurance.

Today’s young people are increasingly picking the service sector over factory jobs. The service jobs pay better (around $400 a month) than the factory jobs ($150 a month).

The Chinese service is industry is characterized by thousands of small private businesses that often operate informally without paying taxes and are not captured by government statistics which tend to measure things like production levels of tangible objects. The Chinese economy has traditionally been oriented towards manufacturing and the government regulations that are obstacles for the service industry and while Beijing aggressively pursued foreign investment for manufacturing it has created obstacles for foreign investment in the service industry

China’s National Bureau of Statistic breaks down the service industry into three categories: 1) wholesale, retail and catering; 2) storage, post and telecommunications; and 3) real estate. The second category is dominated by state-owned postal and telecom services and is easy to measure. The highly speculative real estate sector and storage business, which uses more than 1 million trucking and removal companies, are more difficult to measure.

The service industry is growing as new restaurants open, apartment are sold, and goods are moved from place to place but is also spurred by growth in leisure activities and education as well as financial and technology services. Economic growth has spurred demand for accountants, lawyers, bankers and consultant with specialist in marketing, advertising and public relations, not to mention security. There are more than 1 million security guards in China.

Yale’s Stephen Roach wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 2011, “Services are an important piece of China’s pro-consumption strategy — especially large-scale transactions-based industries such as distribution (wholesale and retail), domestic transportation, supply-chain logistics, and hospitality and leisure. Over the next five years, the services share of Chinese GDP could rise above the currently targeted four-percentage-point increase. This is a labor-intensive, resource-efficient, environmentally-friendly growth recipe — precisely what China needs in the next phase of its development.

See Education, Tourism

Taxi Drivers, See Infrastructure

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Human-powered street rollers in the 1920s

Engineers in China

China has the world’s largest number of science and engineering graduates. Chinese generally seem to be excited about becoming engineers and are excited to go to work and put in long hour even though they get paid about one sixth to one tenth what their American counterparts get paid.

China produces more than 600,000 engineering graduates each year, including 50,000 in computer science. By comparison the United States produces only 70,000 engineers and 30,000 computer science university graduates.

The 600,000 figure is a little misleading and the original source is not clear. Many of the numbers are based on provincial government reports that are often of dubious accuracy and includes automobile mechanics and refrigerator repairmen and people that would people that would be considered technicians not engineers in the United States and graduates from technical schools with little more than vocational skills.

Many Chinese engineers have theoretical training but little practical experience. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that “fewer than 10 percent of Chinese job candidates, on average, would be suitable for work [in a multinational company] in nine occupations we studied” including engineering.

A careful survey by Duke University found that the United States annually produces around137,500 engineers while India produces 112,000 and China 351,500.

A number of unemployed and retired Japanese engineers have gone to work in China. They earn about a quarter if what they get got paid in Japan but are happy to have jobs. In Japan these days competition is very fierce.

Outsourcing in China

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Sidewalk shoe repair

China is expected to be a major player n the outsourcing business in the not too distant future. As of 2008 it was still far behind India. China’s outsourcing revenues in 2007 were about $3 billion compared to $18 billion in India. But China’s outsourcing work is growing at rate roughly twice that of India.

American companies are starting to look more and more to China for outsourced labor rather than India. They like China because its infrastructure is better than that of India, many workers are skilled and the costs are about 30 to 40 percent cheaper. But India, with its English-speaking labor pool, has a clear advantage.

Outsourcing in China tends to be done in sectors like software development and preparation of tax returns where English is not prerequisite as it is in things like call centers and preparing reports and patent fillings. Neusoft, China’s largest outsourcer, has increased revenues seven-fold to $2.8 billion between 2000 to 2005. Much of revenues come from doing software outsourcing work. Changsha-based Chinasoft processes medical bills and health insurance claims for the U.S. doctors.

Much of China’s outsourcing is for companies in Japan, South Korea or other Asian countries. Dalian is becoming an low-cost telecom hub and call center hub in Asia, particularly for Japan and South Korea, and for companies like Dell, General Electric and Motorola. There are a lot of Japanese companies in Dalian and many Japanese speakers. The plan is to make Dalian to Japan what Bangalore is to the United States. There also many Korean-speaking ethnic Korean Chinese in the Dalian and there plans to open call centers for South Korean companies Employees at the call center are paid about $130 a month

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The Chinese government is attempted to nurture the outsourcing business. Through its “Thousand, Hundred, Ten” campaign, it is attempting to create 1,000 Chinese outsourcing companies to cater to 100 major foreign clients, by offering tax breaks and setting up special outsourcing zones.

Self Employment in China

In Maoist times there were few shops, restaurants, vendors and markets. Now it seems like everyone in China is selling something. In additions to street vendors and market hawkers, you can find roadside masseurs, karaoke stalls and sidewalk dentists.

Common jobs among the self-employed include peddling a bicycle rickshaw, serving up noodles and driving a taxi or minibus. A taxi driver can make around $240 a month. One of the most common slef-employed jobs for women is prostitution.

See Laid Off Workers, Chinese Labor and Working Conditions

These days many university students have said they would rather start their own businesses than go to Beijing and work for the central government. One problem is that many people who start new businesses launch the same kinds of businesses: witness the 39 karaoke bars opened up in one Shanxi town by unemployed state workers

Sea Turtles

Returnees from the United States, known as “sea turtles,” sometimes have a hard lading a good job or getting ahead when they return to China because they are perceived as being out of touch with what’s going on in China. Those that do get jobs often find the have to work long hours for little pay. The Mandarin word for “overseas returnee” sounds like the mandarin word for “sea turtle.”

More than 1 million Chinese have studied in the United States, with only about a quarter of them returning home. About 42,000 students returned to China from the United States in 2006, up 21 percent from the previous year.

Some middle class Chinese who lived in the United States returned to China because they found life in the United States boring and predictable. Some ea turtles that have been away for some time find the China they have returned too to be almost unrecognizable from the China they left. One told the Washington Post, “People think in a more complicated way. I’ m more straightforward now, but they’ re all zigzagging.”

In a typical case a Chinese who returned to China after four years with an MBA from a good American university and fluency in English hopes to land a $40,000 information technology position but can only secure an $16,000 a year entry-level job with an insurance company. Those that can’t get any work at all are referred to as “sea weed.”

Chinese-Americans or Chinese who have had success in the United States have similar problems. Even those with million-dollar support and sophisticated technology and management have problems and often have to turn to relatives to help them navigate through red tape and figure out who to bribe.

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Making dikes on the Yellow River

Huge Labor Intensive Projects in China

China has a tradition of harnessing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of workers to build huge projects. The Great Wall and the Great Canal both required a million workers to complete. Over two million laborers were put on the eastern capital of the Sui Dynasty and the imperial palace of Emperor Yang (A.D. 604-617).

China still relies as much on muscle and sweat as machinery to complete its big jobs. In big cities canals and building foundations are sometimes dug, not with bulldozers and earth movers, but by hand by men and women with buckets and poles balanced over their shoulders. On the Yangtze River, coal is delivered to barges by human chains of laborers dirty coal piled high on their shoulders and boats are pulled upstream and boulders are pulled uphill by workers harnessed to them by chains.

The Chinese sometimes achieve near-miraculous results by mobilizing massive labor forces. A thirty mile stretch of road, for example, had to be widened through rough mountainous terrain, between Chengdu and Guanxian. In the United States a similar project would have taken years. In China, with the help of 200,000 laborers, it was completed in a week. In Xinjiang, a sandstorm once buried 350 miles of train track. Again with the help of thousands of laborers — and soldiers — it took only two days to clear it.

The Chengdu-Kunming railway, which has 427 tunnels and 653 bridges, was built in 12 years by soldiers and prisoners who could be shot for sloughing off on the job. Entire graveyards set alongside the track are filled with men who died while constructing it. The steel rails were laid at rate of one very 30 to 90 minutes per rail by two man teams who cut he rail with a hack saw, and cooled the metal by dripping water from a bucket.

One old Chinese man who helped hundreds of thousands of workers build a dam told Theroux that he cried when the project was finished because, "We had done it all ourselves, with our hands. Like picking the tea. That was why we cried."

Pole Men and Laborers in China

Low-paid labors are often put to work carrying stuff over their shoulder on a bamboo pole. Known as pole men, they carry grain, fertilizer, cement, air conditioners, anything that can balanced on either end of a shoulder pole. One pole man told the New York Times, “I work like this so that my daughter and son can dress better than I do...I sell my strength just as a prostitute sells her body.”

At Huashan, a steep mountain and popular tourist sight in Shaanxi Province, laborers earn money by hauling supplies on their back up the mountain. They live in a $6-a month room a the base of the mountain and typically get paid $3 per trip for carrying a straw basket filled with 100pounds of supplies up steep steps and often dangerous trails.

One laborer there told the Los Angeles Times, “On my first day I carried about 50 pounds and made $1.80. Afterwards my back and legs were so sore I could hardly move. But they paid me in cash right away. That’s better than any job I ever had.” He had worked in the past making bricks and lost his arm in a coal mine accident. “Of course I get scared. But I keep my fears inside and don’t dare look back. If I want to make a little money, I must keep going. So far this is the only place that give me the freedom to do that..”

Porters known as tiaofu do similar work at Tai Shan mountain. They work in pairs or teams or alone, carrying things — like oil drums, sacks of rice, cases of soft drinks, heads of cabbage, beer, cement and even refrigerators, heavy generators and beds — tied to ropes on poles up the steps to restaurants, temples and shops at the top of the mountain. For each three hour round trip the porters get paid slightly less than $2. The weight they carry often exceed their own weight by five or ten kilograms. On a good day they can make three trips. But often the weather is too hot for that.

Regarded as part of Tai shan culture, the porters call themselves “old oxen.” Their strength and stamina are admired have been the subjects of stories and songs. About 200 of them work on the mountain. After a hard day of work they have a meal cooked on an open fire and sometimes are so sore they can’t sleep. They have been managed to keep their jobs even though freight lifts have been put in service. Customers like the old oxen because the wait time is less. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

In the old days, Chinese laborers were called coolies

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Beijing's Alley Vendors

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Not long after daybreak, before the city begins its full-throated roar, the shouts and calls can be heard here up and down the old alleyways and deep within the walled courtyards that form the crowded heart of the Chinese capital: Goat meat, goat meat!..Eggs, rice, eggs, rice!...Scrap, household scrap!” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 12, 2009]

“With more emphasis on song than lyric, they are the marketing jingles of itinerant fruit vendors, sellers of roasted duck and stooped men who have mastered the art of resuscitating blunt kitchen knives. Like the familiar whine of cicadas in August, their garbled calls are the soundtrack of the Beijing summer, and many residents look forward to the return of the hawkers’ glutinous rice cakes, mismatched crockery and pet crickets that sing.”

“Even more numerous than the hawkers are the recyclers, sun-scorched migrants from the countryside who survive by collecting yesterday’s newspapers, spent computers or tattered cotton blankets that will be spun into next winter’s comforters. If you can’t yell loudly, you’ ll starve, said Chen Lin, 37, a bony, animated man who earns about $5 a day salvaging dead appliances and anything else containing metal. No one really knows what I’ m yelling, he said, but they remember my song and this brings them out of their house.”

“A good place to get a taste of old Beijing is Qianmen, a poor but colorful quarter south of Tiananmen Square that is a jumble of twisting hutongs and ramshackle houses. On most days, one can find peddlers selling meticulously skinned pineapples, a man selling two kinds of honey — plain and medicinal — and an ornery cobbler who can resole a pair of shoes in as much time as it takes to down a steaming bowl of hand-shaved noodles.”

Beijing's Alley Vendors and the Old Way of Life

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Ragpickers in the 1920s
“The singing hawkers and recyclers are reminders of the days when Beijing was a thickly populated maze of hutongs, or alleys, that crept outward from the grandiose imperial quarters occupied by China’s emperors and the officials and artisans who served them.”[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 12, 2009]

“Cao Huiping, 45, a taxi driver whose childhood compound was stuffed with 17 unrelated families, recalls when vendors filled the air with a cacophonous racket of competing tunes. One minute it would be someone selling sugar, then as soon as their song faded it would be the flour dealer, then the fabric salesman, said Cao, whose home has since been replaced by an upscale mall. Now I live in a building where people don’t even know each other and everyone shops at the supermarket.”

“Gated apartment complexes are the hawker’s enemy. So, too, are the air-conditioners that drown out sales calls and keep residents inside. The city authorities are no friend of the street vendors, either. Stringent laws and urban management officials, known as chengguan, keep them on the run with fines and harassment. The best time to be out is lunch time, when the chengguan are on break, said Meng Xiandong, 54, a vendor of dried sweet potatoes, as he nervously scanned the crowds.”

“Cradling a brass teapot and babysitting three pairs of caged lovebirds, Wu Xiulong, 76, sat in front of the doorway of his courtyard and reminisced about the vendors whose arrival he used to await as a child: the bean-cake man, the corn-cob seller, the baker who produced the flakiest flatbread. Oh, back then they were baked on both sides, so crunchy, with sesame seeds, he said. It was so delicious. Now they’ re all gone.”

Chinese Knife Sharpener

“Zhao Cai, a 66-year-old knife sharpener, is one of the old-timers who can still be found wandering around with a beaten-up toolbox that doubles as a bench,” Jacobs wrote. “His call is bracing but melodious, although once he sets to work on a blade, the noise of grindstone on metal brings out the old women with their beloved worn-out cleavers. I hate stainless steel, he said with a harrumph as he pedaled the grindstone. No one makes knives like they used to.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 12, 2009]

“Unsentimental and gruff, his accent betraying his hometown in China’s far northeast, Zhao has been plying his trade for more than 30 years. When you’ re good at sharpening knives, you get to know everyone, he said. How good is he? Customers sometimes foolishly test his handiwork by touching the sharpened edge. I’ ve had ladies draw blood and swear they didn’t feel a thing, he said.”

Chinese Grasshopper Salesman

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Sail- assisted wheelbarrows
“One man who needs no vocal announcement is Li Hailun, a grasshopper salesman whose wares, hundreds of wingless insects imprisoned in round, woven enclosures, produce a deafening high-pitched symphony.” Jacobs wrote. “From July to October, Li, 28, bikes around the city with his chirping quarry, each of which sells for 50 cents to a dollar, depending on the quality of the song and the gullibility of the buyer. Add a dollar if the critter comes in a graceful wooden cage.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 12, 2009]

“Much of Li’s village, about two-hour’s drive from the capital, is engaged in the grasshopper trade: women weave the cages, boys catch the insects and the men pedal them to nostalgic city dwellers. When sales lag, he heads to the gates of the nearest children’s hospital. Subtracting the occasional fine, Li pockets $200 a week, a tidy sum for a sorghum farmer biding his time between planting and harvest.”

“The bugs draw a crowd wherever Li goes. On a recent day, passers-by debated whether to feed them carrots, scallions or rice. A woman said that toddlers raised alongside a trilling insect were not easily startled by noise...When the grasshopper guy comes out, you know summer has arrived, said a man who was seeking to replace the one, tethered to his rear-view mirror, that was on its last legs... Li, ever the salesman, added his own poetic pitch. He declared that the Chinese have been raising grasshoppers for hundreds of years. Even Qianglong, a Qing dynasty emperor, was a connoisseur of the fighting variety. Everyone loves grasshoppers, he said. When they sing, you can’t help but feel happy.

Unusual Jobs in China

Unusual occupations found in China include street foot-callus removers, joss-stick vendors, blind fortune-tellers with bamboo splint, sidewalk dentists and barbers, ankle masseuses and porters that haul tourist up and down mountains in sedan chairs.

Describing an eel skinner in Shanghai, journalist William Ellis wrote: "He squats curbside at a street market on Wenan Road, and beside him is a pail of black and shiny slithering eels. His hand movements are a blur as he hangs an eel on a nail on a board, pulls his fish taut, and then, with deftness of a surgeon, exorcizes its skin and bone. He does that, one after another, until his bare arms and legs are streaked with the splattered blood." [Source: "Shanghai" by William Ellis, National Geographic, March 1994]

Some restaurants and markets hire professional fly catchers — men who use long handled swatters to direct the flies into nets. Outstanding flycatchers are sometimes written up in the local newspapers. In rural areas you can find vendors who advertise the effectiveness of rat poison by displaying huge piles of dead rats.

A mender is a craftsman who mends broken bowls and dishes with a bow drill, wire and glue made from lime and egg white. The bow is spin a drill that makes small holes that are used to wire the broken pieces together so the repair job is permanent. The mender often sits on the ground and uses his feet as a clamp to hold the bowl while he is working. People are so poor that even the smallest tea cup is repaired rather than thrown out. A replacement may cost more than ten times a mending job.

There are people who collect hair cuttings off the floors of beauty parlors and barber shops, bund into burlap bags and sell it to wig makers, Sidewalk and street barbers operate much as they did a century ago. They sit their customers on folding chairs and transport their gear in a pedal carts.

Trackers in China


Chinese junks are outfit with ropes and harnesses so that people on board the boat can pull it when the junk is traveling upstream or into a headwind. Children often perform this task as if they were mules. If a tailwind doesn't kick up they may have to do this for hours or even days. Up until the 8th century A.D. paddle wheel river boats were powered by human-powered cage wheels

Large boats used be pulled upstream on the Yangtze by teams of hundred of laborers known as trackers, who strapped to the boats with long ropes. In the Three Gorges you can still see footpaths used by trackers — until the 1950s, when engineers blasted treacherous rocks out of the river — to get through areas where the river is sided by steep cliffs

Trackers still pull vessels up tributaries of the Yangtze. They often haul ropes far ahead of the boats and are given instructions by drum beats of varying rhythms. Large junks were are sometimes movers forward by 400 or more trackers, assisted by strong swimmers who loosen the ropes if they get caught on rocks.

The trackers were often whipped. "Often our men have to climb like monkeys," a Yangtze River traveler wrote, "and their backs are lashed by two chiefs to urge them to work at critical moments." Little wrote the one saw a tracker chief leap in the water and roll in the sand until a monstrous creature and then did a dance, howled and whipped his trackers.”

Descriptions of Trackers in China

In his book Through The Yoon Toon Gorge. English trader Archibald Little wrote: "The trackers mark time with their cry, swinging their arms to and fro at each short step, their bodies bent forward, so their finger almost touch the ground...Eighty or a hundred men make a tremendous noise at this work, almost drowning out the sound of the rapids, and so often a half a dozen junks' crews are towing like this, one behind the other. from this solemn stillness of the gorge to the lively commotion of a rapid, the contrast is most startling."

In his book A Single Pebble, John Hersey wrote: "I turned to watch the trackers...making many tons of cypress go uphill on a fiercely resisting roadway of water. It was a moving sight — horribly depressing to see more than 300 human beings reduced to the level of work animals, blind-folded asses and oxen; yet thrilling too, to see the inestimable force of their cooperation for the 350 cloth shoes of their each step up the slope were planted in the same moment, and the great sad trackers's cries 'Ayah!' were sung in great unison of agony and joy and the junks did move."

Describing barefoot trackers in the 1970s, Paul Theroux wrote, I saw "five men leaping onto the shore with tow lines around their waists. They ran ahead, then jerked like dogs on a leash, and immediately began towing the junk against the current...They strained, leaning forward, and almost imperceptively the sixty-foot junk begins to move upstream. There is no level footpath. The trackers are rock climbers; they scamper from boulder to boulder, moving higher until the boulders give out, and then dropping down, pulling and climbing until there is a stretch where the junk can sail. The only difference ...between trackers long ago and trackers today is that they are no longer whipped."

Corpse Fishers in China

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bodies in the Yellow River
Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, “Of all those around the world whose trades and professions are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, surely China's corpse fishers rank near the top. Since ancient times, these villagers have taken on the macabre task of salvaging human cadavers - victims of drowning, suicide and murder - from China's rivers and returning them to their families. For this lurid public service, they were traditionally thanked and appreciated.” [Source: Kent Ewing, Asia Times, September, 24 2010 Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@netvigator.com. Original story on Wei Jinpeng was found McClatchy-Tribune News Service]

Describing a man named Wei Jinpeng who kept of bloated corpses he found floating in the Yellow River tethered to the shoreline, Ewing wrote: “Wei had run a pear orchard until 2003, when he realized that fishing dead bodies out of the river could provide a big boost to his income. Now Wei finds 80 to 100 bodies a year. His favorite hunting spot on the river is located about 30 kilometers from the city of Lanzhou, capital of northwestern Gansu province, because that is where a combination of a hydroelectric dam and a bend in the river causes bodies to surface. These bodies are young and old, male and female; some are bound; some are gagged; some, especially those of young women - probably migrant workers who had worked in Lanzhou - are never claimed and thus released back into the river.”

For bodies that are claimed, Wei has a price system that is sensitive to the income level of his customers. He charges the equivalent of US$75 to a farmer who claims a body, $300 to someone holding a job and $450 when a company is the payee. Other corpse snatchers are reported to charge $45 just to view a body (according to practice, bodies are kept face down in the river to preserve their features so that they will be recognizable to relatives) and nearly $900 for a claim.

This may have reminded readers of Zhang Yi's award-winning photograph, “Holding a Body for Ransom,” which quickly went viral on the Internet after it was taken last October. The photo appears to show a corpse fisher refusing to hand over the body of one of three university students who lost their lives while helping to rescue drowning children in the Yangtze River in Hubei province. The fisherman reportedly collected more than $5,000 - and heaps of media abuse - before finally turning over the bodies of the students.

The villain of this bigger piece is not Wei or any of his fellow body fishers, whose services are still very much required on the country's rivers. After all, if they don't pull the dead out of the national current, who will? Forget the local police, who want nothing to do with water-logged casualties of 21st-century China. Provincial authorities are even more averse to the stench of death. And the central government would only choose to act if a river became choked and toxic with human cadavers.

Although it is virtually unknown in the West, a recently released Chinese-made documentary presents a thoughtful portrait of those who make a living harvesting corpses along China's rivers. Director Zhou Yu's 52-minute film, called The Other Shore, shows how the ancient practice of body fishing has transformed from a public service into a private, profit-making business. Salvaging bodies out the river used to be a voluntary act of boatmen in olden times,” Zhou told the Global Times. “They returned the bodies as a favor. That time is over, and younger people have developed it into a business.”

As one member of the audience at a showing of the film in Beijing's 798 Art District was quoted as saying of corpse fishers: “I felt bad to see them fishing bodies like fishing boxes out of the water, but after all they are just simple people who try to make a living. If one day I need them to find someone from my family, I will be appreciative, even if I have to pay afterwards.”

Image Sources: 1, 7) Bucklin archives ; 2) University of Washington; 3) Cgstock http://www.cgstock.com/china ; 4,8) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 5) Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 6) Poco Pico blog . Yellow River dikes: Columbia University ; wiki commons ; Corspes, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2011

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