Fishing for tourists, and the changing face of rural China

While China undergoes one seismic change after another, the country's rural areas are trying hard to hold on their traditions.

The world's most populous country is struggling to balance tradition and change

See how fishermen use cormorants to help catch fish in rural China 0:47

It is no exaggeration to say that China is experiencing seismic shifts. You can see this most clearly in the divide between the cities and rural areas. Urbanization rates have skyrocketed, with the urban population in China jumping from 17.9 per cent in 1978 to 51.3 per cent in 2011.

With this trend comes the diminishing of traditional, resource-based living that used to be the lifeblood of small communities. So how are those rural communities that remain sustained? It's a question that obviously resonates here in Newfoundland and Labrador, too. 


As China speeds towards urbanization with its own brand of communism and capitalism, tourism has become big business, in part as a way to maintain some semblance of traditional rural lifestyles.

But who are the tourists? China is far and expensive for many Westerners. What we discovered is that Chinese tourism benefits largely from the money - the yuan - of many of the 1.4 billion Chinese nationals who love to travel within their home country. 

Fishing like you've never seen it

This was on full display on a hot summer morning in the southern Chinese village of Xiatang in Yangshuo County.

As we pull our bikes to the riverbank, we are swarmed with people shouting offers at us. "Hello, bamboo rafting?"

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=4949 size=small]

We shake our heads, trying to figure out how we will find the stranger who is our contact at the Yulong River. He finds us first, walks up to us, and wordlessly hands us a cellphone. On the other end, we hear the voice of Amy, our hotel's manager. "Leave your bicycles with him. They will be waiting for you at the other end."

We do as she asks, follow the man, and board our bamboo raft, traditionally used both by fishermen and farmers as a means of transporting their goods in this fertile river valley.

We glide past the breathtaking scenery: rice paddies, blue skies, towering limestone karst peaks that dominate every viewpoint. There are moments when we are the only ones in sight.

But during our two-hour trip, we are occasionally overwhelmed with the abundance of raft after raft after raft. Floating markets drift by, selling everything from beer and water to full meals. Armed with camera, computer and printer, nearby tents offer instant photo opportunities to dress up in traditional clothing and pose with cormorants, birds used to catch fish in the region.

Later that same evening, we make our way to the larger Li River, into which the Yulong empties, to actually watch a fishermen use these cormorants to fish.

Tomorrow: Power, paranoia and a walking tour of Beijing

This tradition is more than 1,000 years old and was once a staple of sustenance living.  Local fishermen harness a half-dozen trained cormorants to their rafts just after dusk. 

They use an archaic-looking lantern to draw fish near the surface of the river. The birds, whose snared throats prevent them from swallowing large fish, will dive on command, catch and hold onto the fish. 

In one hour, our fisherman catches 20 large fish. We watch in awe at his expertise and ingenuity. Mixed with the awe, however, is a little sadness as this man goes about his business now more so for spectacle than for any kind of sustenance.

The bedfellows of modern tourism

We are repeatedly struck by how tradition and modernity have become necessary bedfellows, and wonder if what was once rural China has been bastardized for the tourist dollar (or yuan). This is a question we have often asked ourselves, both home and abroad.

We pose this same question to Jack Zhuo, a local guide who took us hiking into the Longji rice terraces in what are termed the "minority villages" a few hours away in Longsheng County.

As a government-certified tour guide, he sees the changes in rural China as he takes Chinese nationals and foreigners alike through the countryside.

They visit the terraced rice paddies, shop local markets, or view a "long haired" show that features the women of the Yao tribe and their elaborate hairstyles, fashioned from tradition that forbids women to cut their hair except once on their 18th birthday.

The terraced rice paddies in rural China must be tended to almost exclusively by hand. (Kristin Harris Walsh)

As we gazed at the hilly rice fields that must be tended largely by hand, Jack told us that government subsidies help encourage people to stay in the countryside and continue traditional modes of living, which are a huge tourist attraction.

He says this is to counteract the fact that most younger Chinese, by virtue of external influences such as the internet, would rather flee to the cities and live what they think will be an easier lifestyle than that of a farmer.

The challenge of being authentic

Many tourists are looking for "authentic experiences" as a way to mark their journeys, us included.

The more we travel, the less money we tend to spend on trinkets and souvenirs, putting our dollars towards more intangible experiences.

And while we are well aware that our Canadian privilege means we will never truly live like a local, we feel that experiencing traditional and rural culture often brings us that little bit closer to an understanding of a country and its people.

And if that glimpse of insight comes on a sunny morning drifting along a river in a bamboo raft, it can remain a powerful and evocative image of a country's past, present and future, and the complicated connections between them.