Talk presented at the Textile Museum of Canada (2007)
Copyright and all photographs by Ruth Lor Malloy. All rights reserved
How did I get involved in fish skin clothing? It started in Beijing, China, where a museum curator told me that a Hezhen woman still made traditional fish-skin clothing in Heilongjiang province. This is where the Hezhen language originated from probably a couple of thousand years ago. Today, the Hezhen people live in the eastern part of Asia in China and Siberia.
Heilongjiang – Harbin – Jiamusi – Tongjiang. This is the area where our suit comes from, specifically from the Hezhen village of Jiejinkou. You can see how close this area is to Siberia.
It takes at least a month to make a suit of fish skin clothing. In spite of the risk of ordering something sight unseen, I took the chance, ordered two sets of clothing, paid in advance as required, and booked a trip there to pick them up. I don’t know what I would have done if both museums had said the results weren’t good enough and they didn’t want them. I would have been out several thousands of dollars.
On the way to China, I stopped in St. Petersburg, Russia, where in the Museum of Ethnology, we found an old fish-skin door cover from Sakhalin Island in Siberia. It looked patched with what is probably cotton thread, but you can see the darker, older traditional thread—probably animal sinew.
The Russians have been doing ethnic cultural research and collecting since Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. This museum is one of the best in the world. They are a long way ahead of China in this regard. This fish-skin fabric, if you can call it fabric, is supposed to be waterproof. And you can expect that our clothes might turn this dark some day too.
The Russian museum had a photo of a Nanai Cottage. The Nanai and the Hezhen are the same people, with different names in Russia and in China. Take a good look at this Nanai cottage. You will see a similar style later in northeast China in a Hezhen village.
You can guess that this Nanai fish skin garment is recent because it is much lighter in colour. You’ve probably noticed that the Chinese fish skin garments are more fitted, more influenced by nineteenth and twentieth-century Chinese styles. This one has probably been influenced more by Russian styles, by other ethnic groups in that country.
The back side looks patched. The birch bark hat is also typical of people living in China. A mention of people wearing fish skin can be found in 2,000-year-old Chinese records.
I went through Harbin in China. This is a city that was home to Russian garrisons and over 20 other foreign nationalities in the early 1900s. The Russians built a railway here. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province. This Russian Orthodox Church still stands there, a museum of that period.
Harbin also has a Confucian Temple that now houses the province’s ethnic museum.
Statistics on display are of minority populations in Heilongjiang. Here you can see that they grew between 1982 and 1990. The Hezhen people were badly abused during the Japanese occupation of China. When the Japanese left, only about 300 Hezhen people remained. The census of the year 2000 counted 4,640 individuals—not a large base to maintain a culture.
The museum displays some of their fishing gear. Ms. You Wenfeng said she used to spear fish as a child. Today, she prefers to make clothes with fish caught by net so their skins are not damaged.
The museum had on exhibit some old style paintings that looked much too idyllic to be true. Ms. You said the men wore fish skin in summer and hides in the winter. It’s true that in the old days, the Hezhen people used dog sleds but these tiny guys look too scrawny to have the strength to pull a sled with two men. The men here are probably wearing deer fur, which is traditional, but I wonder if the artists actually saw any Hezhen people. Each family used to have as many as ten dogs but they no longer use dogs for work.
Woman’s jackets were opened on the side, like they are today. They decorated their clothes with appliqués of stylized clouds, animals, flowers and good luck or religious symbols. Buttons were cloth, fish skin or fish bone. The man’s jacket, which looks like fish skin, is open in front. Mrs. You said both men and women wore trousers.
The museum has some old shoes, similar to the pair we have here. You might notice the similarity to the moccasin—flat on the top of the foot and gathered to fit the foot. The Bata Shoe Museum has loaned some of its fish skin boots to augment our exhibit. They are from Siberia and much fancier.
We took a train about 400 kilometres northeast from Harbin to Jiamusi, which is at the northern end of a superhighway that runs from the Heilongjiang River and the border all the way to the south of China. This statue marks the beginning of this highway, another factor that will probably destroy the Hezhen culture.
The nearby Heilongjiang River has lots of room for big fish to grow. It is called the Amur River in Siberia.
This looks like this woman in costume is receiving help. It’s hard to image that these are among the people that the Great Wall was meant to keep out.
Here is a fur boot, trimmed with black fur, and probably of deer skin. In the winter, the Hezhen wore deer skin.
Like many of the other people in this northeast region in the old days, the Hezhen people relied on shamans instead of doctors. Ms. You said her own religion was shamanistic.
Generally, they stopped wearing fish skin generally after the Communist government took over China in 1949. Those who could afford it, started using silk and synthetics in old Chinese styles. With the end to civil war and the Japanese invasion, the government started a program to help raise the living standards of its ethnic minorities, many of whom live in border areas. They needed these people to help secure their borders.
Government leaders visited the area. While most of China had a one-child family planning policy, minorities like the Hezhen were encouraged to have more than one child. The government opened minority universities to encourage the 55 different documented minority cultures to improve their self image and their economic condition.
I love this picture of Hezhen people meeting government officials. The woman is obviously shy and feeling uncomfortable with the visiting dignitaries. In the past, the governments and most Chinese people, the Han majority, looked down on the minorities as uncivilized barbarians. No one bothered to do any research.
Things have changed for the better. The young people go to university and get jobs in the big cities, their unique traditional cultures lost or diluted. But the minority universities are doing research into ethnic cultures and collecting costumes. There is some hope that these traditions will not be completely lost.
From Jiamusi, it is a three-hour drive to Tongjiang County, one of the three counties where the Hezhen live. Then it is a 35-minute drive to Jie Jin Kou, one of several Hezhen villages in the region. The people who stay in the remote villages, and this is a very remote village, are still struggling. Remember that house that I showed you from the museum in St. Petersburg? This one is almost the same.
It looks like about one-third of the houses in this tiny village are still like this, made of tamped earth. The Hezhen do not have a written language of their own. The average income I would guess is about US$ 100 a year—except for Ms. You.
Unlike the shy lady in the picture with the visiting dignitaries, Ms. You Wenfeng, who made our suit of fish skin clothing, is a real go-getter. She is not the least bit shy. Like the rest of her family, she fished for a living. This is the village hall. Ms. You was born in this village and has spent her life here, receiving only a primary school education. Her family of eight siblings was poor and she had to fish and take care of younger brothers when she was small.
Her husband shown here helping dress their grandson is not of the Hezhen nationality. There is a lot of intermarriage. But he helps her with her project. She says there are four women in this village who know how to make fish-skin clothing but she is the best.
Her grandmother taught her how to make the clothes when a museum in Beijing ordered a set. She was 21. She is now in her fifties. Since then, she has made about 15 suits for museums in Japan and China. She is teaching her daughter-in-law how to make them as well but I don’t think the art will last beyond this century. No one is going to wear fish skin. It’s very expensive and the museums won’t need any more.
If you notice her boots, they are almost the same style as in the museum, though not the same material. Ms. You said her fur-trimmed boots took eight pieces of fish or forty kilograms to make. Ms. You utilizes different kinds of fish for the shoes, thread, jackets, trousers and trim. In the past, the Hezhen have used yellow croaker, pike, carp, ‘big head’ and salmon. They made mittens out of salmon, and leggings and bags out of huaitou fish. Our clothes are of salmon.
This is my favourite picture—because of the cat. Ms. You said her own clothes of fish skin were chemically treated by a factory so they wouldn’t darken too much. But the clothing that she makes for museums are not treated. She also said the smell will go away in a couple of months, but there’s still an odour of fish—you can understand why such clothes are not worn very often any more.
The children are cousins. I think it’s sad that this might be the only time in their lives that they will be wearing their traditional clothing, unless Ms. You gets the children to dance with her.
Ms. You interrupted our photo shoot to dance for the tourists who visit her village. There are enough tourists who visit for her to do this and for other young people in the village to dress up to entertain in Chinese-style costumes.
I can’t see her doing this for free because she charged me an additional US$100 just to sign a photo release. We negotiated the price down to US$40. Ms. You’s own suit with its modern mini-skirt was treated with chemicals, but ours, in keeping to the original technology, has not been so treated. I don’t think we have to worry about her being impoverished. She has also built her own museum and was going to charge us a lot of money to take pictures there. We visited her home as well. She is obviously not rich in spite of the expensive prices that she charges. Her own house was not made of mud, but it was modest, two bedrooms, one of which she shares with her son and daughter-in-law. She owns a nice large television set, but that’s the only luxury. They do have electricity and they sleep on a traditional kang, a bed heated in winter from below.
When processing the fish, she separates the flesh and the skins. Then she and her husband cut off the fins, and try to leave fin holes as small as possible. They scrape off any remaining bits with a birch or bamboo knife. Ms. You plasters the skins onto an earthen wall to dry. They will dry in one day if the weather is sunny. Then she makes sure the lines of the skins are straight. They put several skins into layers separated with corn or glutinous millet flour to soak up the fish oil. They prefer fish that weigh four to seven kilograms each.
She will roll them into a cylinder and mash and soften them in a large wooden scissor-like instrument called a mu he in Chinese or a ge ji kou in the Hezhe language.
She also softens the skins by rubbing pieces of skin against each other. After that, they trim them, scrape any remaining fibre and scales away, and patch the holes from the fins with matching colored skins. She will also twist them, and knead them . . .
. . . and then scrape away what is left of the scales.
She will try to match the patterns together and . . .
. . . .using a similar pattern, she fills in the fin holes with patches.
She does not use a pattern, it is done free hand. Here she uses cotton thread, but in the old days, she says she used deer sinew. It took her 20 days to make a set of children’s clothing. Such clothing will last ten years of use and shoes only two, she says.
She glues on the appliqués, the traditional symbols of good luck. She reinforces them with stitching. Ms. You says an adult jacket and pants requires thirty pieces of skin. The decorations are of traditional Hezhen designs and are attached first with glue from the bladder of the yellow croaker and then sewn. The S shape is a cloud.
The local museum has a store where they sell fish skin souvenirs. They also have some decent-looking fish skin hand bags, and some decent looking shoes. The shoes and the bags are made in Guangdong province in the south but with fish skin from Heilongjiang. They were beyond my budget, so I didn’t bring any home.
Fish skin clothing has been made in other places besides China and Siberia. These boots are from Northern Japan and held together by rope.
You can see that the shoe maker left one of the fins on. This pair resides at the Bata Shoe Museum.
These are from Alaska.
These boots are from Siberia.