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Life of Cormorants and with Cormorants (Yuqing Yang)

October 19, 2009

I spent my childhood in a place called Dali in the Yunnan province of China’s southwest, a province bordering Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Dali, located in north-western Yunnan, is home to the Bai people, one of China’s ethnic minorities, who make up more than 30% of the local population. Now far away from my hometown, I always feel nostalgic for Lake Erhai, an ear-shaped highland lake we call the Sea of Ear; for the fresh view over the lake to the snowy mountains; and for the cormorants in the fishing boat diving for fish.

Cormorant photograph

This is a story of birds different from those in Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, in which the coming and going of migratory birds weave into a psychological refuge for Williams to contemplate on the meanings of life. The Bai fishermen consider the cormorant fishery a traditional way of living. Here is a boat bathed in dawn’s light that has a dozen cormorants on the edge. A sudden whistle of the fisherman drives the cormorants to jump into the water of Lake Erhai. Swimmers endowed with high speed and acute sight, they could catch fish effortlessly. The birds, at another signal of their master, return back to the deck to spit the fish up from their elastic esophagus. We might be curious about their domestic and docile manner in delivering their prey to their master? Answer—a piece of string is tied around the water birds’ throat, whose function is to prevent them from swallowing fish of big size. Thus their diet is relying on the smaller fish they are able to swallow and the rewards from the fisherman.


Greg Garrard notes in Ecocriticism (2004: 137) that “cruelty to animals was analogous to slavery.” It is undeniable that to tie the bird’s neck with a snare is approaching or tantamount to “cruelty,” which may arouse harsh criticisms from animal lovers. Yet the working relationship between fisherman and cormorants in Lake Erhai, at least the scene, is somehow conveying a sense of “harmony.” The birds are members of the fisherman’s family. They would perch on the pole shouldered by their master to go back home together everyday off work. Even though the cormorant fishing is nowadays in danger of degrading into some sort of entertaining show for tourists, it would remain to be a much valued tradition in the history of the Bai people. Then how would you read the life of those working birds and their life with humans?

Cormorants over water

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