A couple turns fish bones into works of art

By Zhang Peijian and Li Jingrong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 23, 2018

Liu Yunliang and his wife Qiu Yasu study a piece of dragon-shaped fishbone artwork they have made. [Photo by Zhang Peijian/China.org.cn]

A couple from a fishing port in Xiangshan County of eastern China’s Zhejiang Province is keeping alive a unique skill handed down from their forefathers that involves making fish bones into exquisite works of art.

The middle-aged couple, Liu Yunliang and Qiu Yasu, operates a 10-square-meter workshop in Shipu Port, piled with fish bones and scales of various kinds and sizes.

In the couple’s hands, these ordinary fish bones can become lifelike little birds and beasts, any of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, as well as trees and flowers.

Liu was born and brought up in a fisherman's family. When he was a little boy, his father and grandfather made him toy birds with leftover fish bones, adding much to the joys of childhood. Under this influence, he became passionately fond of this craft.

In the eyes of local fishermen, fish bones have meaning of happiness and safety. Liu tells a story from the old folklore very popular among local people in Shipu since ancient times.

"A young fisherman caught the Little Dragon Girl-incarnated fish and set her free. The Little Dragon Girl was very grateful and fell in love with the young fisherman. However, her father, the Dragon King, intervened between the loving couple and locked the girl at home. Later, the guard, Old Herring, out of deep sympathy for the couple, sacrificed himself by turning his head into a fish bird and carried the Little Dragon Girl to the young fisherman for reunion and their happy marriage. In memory of Old Herring, the couple hung the fishbone bird on the window of their house."

Both Liu Yunliang and his wife are good at handcrafts, such as knitting, weaving and embroidery. Through their diligence and future-oriented business philosophy, the couple has gained a considerable amount of wealth and built a beautiful house at a cost of nearly one million yuan (about US$153,000).

After their son was born, the couple often made toy fishbone birds for him, which he greatly enjoyed. Gradually, the couple turned fishbone toy-making into an artworks business, with new ideas and products coming out one after another. Among the handicrafts are birds, sailing boats, animals and plants - all lifelike and eye-catching.

"The creation of a new piece of works needs inspiration. When I cannot find inspiration, I just sit there silently and even painfully. Every time I complete a new piece, I feel very excited. It takes time and patience to complete a fine fishbone artwork," Liu said.

Liu explained that his fishbone artworks are neither dyed nor trimmed, instead showing their natural appearance. "There are more than 400 kinds of fish bones and scales in the East China Sea which are all precious in our eyes. All of them can be crafted into artworks."

In order to find desirable fish bones, Liu often goes to local markets to buy all kinds of fish. Even if a fish costs 300 yuan, Liu never hesitates to buy it. He used to be a fish seller, so he knows very well about fish structures and its market.

After picking out fish bones, Liu often gives fish meat to his neighbors. The latter, meanwhile, know about Liu's unique skill and also leave fish bones and scales for him in return.

The careful craftsman has registered copyright protection for more than 40 pieces of his fishbone artworks. When participating in local or national exhibitions of intangible cultural heritage, some people offered fabulous prices to buy his exhibits, but he has never sold any. In his opinion, he needs "more accumulation in his career."

Liu has his own vision of the future. "Some people said that we have no special tourism products here in Shipu. I just want to make fishbone artworks a typical part of Shipu fishing culture, which I hope to be carried forward and help local people become rich," he said.

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