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Pictures | Tue Jan 21, 2020 | 1:37pm EST

China's 'mermaid descendants' craft garments from fish skin

You Wenfeng, 68, poses with her fishskin clothes at her studio in Tongjiang, Heilongjiang province, China December 31, 2019. You, who belongs to China's tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing from the skin of fish.

REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng, 68, poses with her fishskin clothes at her studio in Tongjiang, Heilongjiang province, China December 31, 2019. You, who belongs to China's tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing...more

You Wenfeng, 68, poses with her fishskin clothes at her studio in Tongjiang, Heilongjiang province, China December 31, 2019. You, who belongs to China's tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing from the skin of fish. REUTERS/Aly Song
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You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. She was not yet born when her kinsmen were thrown into labor camps during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. "Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother survived to pass on her fish-skin knowledge to me," said You.

REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. She was not yet born when her kinsmen were thrown into labor camps during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. "Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother...more

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. She was not yet born when her kinsmen were thrown into labor camps during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. "Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother survived to pass on her fish-skin knowledge to me," said You. REUTERS/Aly Song
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You Wenfeng plays with a fisherman's dog at a frozen river in Tongjiang. A Tungusic people native to Siberia and on the Black Dragon river, as the Amur is known in China, the Hezhen rebuilt its population to 5,000 from 300 after World War II. But that hasn't stopped the decline of Hezhen culture, including the tradition of making garments from the skin of carp, pike and salmon.

REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng plays with a fisherman's dog at a frozen river in Tongjiang. A Tungusic people native to Siberia and on the Black Dragon river, as the Amur is known in China, the Hezhen rebuilt its population to 5,000 from 300 after World War II. But...more

You Wenfeng plays with a fisherman's dog at a frozen river in Tongjiang. A Tungusic people native to Siberia and on the Black Dragon river, as the Amur is known in China, the Hezhen rebuilt its population to 5,000 from 300 after World War II. But that hasn't stopped the decline of Hezhen culture, including the tradition of making garments from the skin of carp, pike and salmon. REUTERS/Aly Song
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Few in the current generation are interested in learning the craft. Fish-skin clothing is also no longer a regular part of daily Hezhen attire.

REUTERS/Aly Song

Few in the current generation are interested in learning the craft. Fish-skin clothing is also no longer a regular part of daily Hezhen attire. REUTERS/Aly Song

Few in the current generation are interested in learning the craft. Fish-skin clothing is also no longer a regular part of daily Hezhen attire. REUTERS/Aly Song
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Sensing the end, You started to impart her knowledge to some local Han Chinese women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives. Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches between speech and song in the Hezhen language.

REUTERS/Aly Song

Sensing the end, You started to impart her knowledge to some local Han Chinese women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives. Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches...more

Sensing the end, You started to impart her knowledge to some local Han Chinese women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives. Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches between speech and song in the Hezhen language. REUTERS/Aly Song
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You Wenfeng's Chinese Han students learn how to make clothes from fish skin at You's studio. The education is arduous, with You's acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone. With little prompting, You burst into song in her studio apartment during a visit by Reuters, singing of a woman's wish to bear a son for her hunter-husband.

REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng's Chinese Han students learn how to make clothes from fish skin at You's studio. The education is arduous, with You's acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone. With...more

You Wenfeng's Chinese Han students learn how to make clothes from fish skin at You's studio. The education is arduous, with You's acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone. With little prompting, You burst into song in her studio apartment during a visit by Reuters, singing of a woman's wish to bear a son for her hunter-husband. REUTERS/Aly Song
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The sun sets over snow-covered river in Tongjiang. Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or "swift horses", You said, smiling. 

REUTERS/Aly Song

The sun sets over snow-covered river in Tongjiang. Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or "swift horses", You said, smiling. REUTERS/Aly Song

The sun sets over snow-covered river in Tongjiang. Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or "swift horses", You said, smiling. REUTERS/Aly Song
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Such is their skill on water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids. "When the forests flooded to the treetops, there'd be fish everywhere," she said. "Just throw your spear into the water and there'd be fish."

REUTERS/Aly Song

Such is their skill on water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids. "When the forests flooded to the treetops, there'd be fish everywhere," she said. "Just throw your spear into the water and there'd be fish." REUTERS/Aly Song

Such is their skill on water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids. "When the forests flooded to the treetops, there'd be fish everywhere," she said. "Just throw your spear into the water and there'd be fish." REUTERS/Aly Song
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These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used. A top and a pair of trousers for a woman require 50 fish, and for a man, 56, You said.

REUTERS/Aly Song

These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used. A top and a pair of trousers for a woman require 50 fish, and for a man, 56, You said. REUTERS/Aly Song

These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used. A top and a pair of trousers for a woman require 50 fish, and for a man, 56, You said. REUTERS/Aly Song
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She would de-skin the fish and dry the skin. It is then repeatedly passed through the wooden jaws of a rudimentary press to soften it. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days.

REUTERS/Aly Song

She would de-skin the fish and dry the skin. It is then repeatedly passed through the wooden jaws of a rudimentary press to soften it. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days. REUTERS/Aly Song

She would de-skin the fish and dry the skin. It is then repeatedly passed through the wooden jaws of a rudimentary press to soften it. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days. REUTERS/Aly Song
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You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. Finding commercial functions for fish-skin might save the craft. Fish-leather has inspired some luxury fashion houses such as Dior and Prada to occasionally include it in their garments and accessories, but the fabric is still largely a curiosity. "Look at the criss-cross pattern on the skin," You said. "It's stronger than most skins."

REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. Finding commercial functions for fish-skin might save the craft. Fish-leather has inspired some luxury fashion houses such as Dior and Prada to occasionally include it in...more

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. Finding commercial functions for fish-skin might save the craft. Fish-leather has inspired some luxury fashion houses such as Dior and Prada to occasionally include it in their garments and accessories, but the fabric is still largely a curiosity. "Look at the criss-cross pattern on the skin," You said. "It's stronger than most skins." REUTERS/Aly Song
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You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
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A Hezhen village is seen in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

A Hezhen village is seen in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

A Hezhen village is seen in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
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People walk across a snow-covered riverbank in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

People walk across a snow-covered riverbank in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song

People walk across a snow-covered riverbank in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
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