Profitable business: salvaging floating corpses from Yellow River; the story of a body fisher who collects tens of human cadavers annually in a hydropower dam in Lanzhou


Chinese Society  Updated:Thu, Apr 4, 2013 20:52 PM   By Bernd Chang


Investigation finds thousands of human corpses were floating within an 80km-stretch of Yellow River’ Lanzhou section; We present the story of the Wei family who get rich by fishing dead bodies from the Yellow River.

We have reported the new job opportunity China has recently created for fishermen to fish dead pigs, instead of fish from polluted rivers. Actually there has been a much more profitable business for years along China’s second longest river – fishing floating corpses of humans.

The Shanghai based Oriental Morning Post reported last October reported that since the 1960s at least 10,000 human corpses were found in an 80-kilometer stretch of the Yellow River in and near Lanzhou, the capital of inland Gansu province.

And according to the report, just one “body fisher,” Wei Jinpeng, collects about 80 to 100 corpses each year from his spot 18 miles downriver from Lanzhou, and he is just one of many involved in this profitable, but gruesome, trade.

Between the 17 years from 1980 to 1997, just the Water police station of Lanzhou had collected 6500 human cadavers. Although the exact number of floating corpses is unknown, it is sure that at least 10000 dead bodies were floating along the Yellow River in and through the city of Lanzhou.

Most of the dead found in the Yellow River are suicide victims, claims a Globaltimes report.

Suicide is the cause of death for 85 percent of bodies found, with around 10 percent victims of accidental deaths and 5 percent representing dumped murder victims.

There are no statistics showing exactly how many corpses flow in the river at any one time. The Lanzhou Morning Post reported in 2009 that nearly 300 suicide victims were recovered from the river, with 30 percent of them unable to be identified.

The story of the body fishers: Wei Zhijun and his father

Following is the full story we translated from the Chinese forum for your information.

At five o’clock in the early morning, when the sun had not rosen and all other villagers were still asleep, 37 years old Wei Zhijun from Xiaheping village, Shichuan town, Gaolan county, Lanzhou city, Gansu province, started off to work.

Wei Zhijun drove his motor speedboat that he said was worth 40,000 RMB on the Yellow River to the watery spot six kilometers downstream to collect recyclable plastic bottles, timbers, iron sheets, and human cadavers in the one meter high sea of rubbishes accumulating there.

The place where Wei Zhijun works is called „Ghost Valley of the Yellow River (Huanghe River, the second longest river of China)“. When he got there it was still before day dawn. The river surface under the moon light was covered with dense rubbishes, among which human corpses might be floating.

The wharf where Mr. Wei docked his boat was at a turning point of the Yellow River called Dakuchaziwan (literarily meaning: Big Underpants Gulf), which is only 10-minute walk from his home in Xiaheping village. Mr. Wei remembers that when he was a child this wharf did not exist. The establishment of Huanghe Xiaoxia Hydropower Station in 2000, which is only 6 kilometers downstream from his home, proves to be a turning point for the life of Mr. Wei: the hydroelectric power station not only slows the water flow in Huanghe, but also intercepts garbage and human corpses drifting down from upstream. It is right the accumulated garbage that brings fortune to Wei Zhijun. He starts to engage in the profitable business of retrieving plastic bottles and human cadavers from the piles of garbage.

Actually there was another Lao Wei (older Mr. Wei): Wei Zhiqian that had been engaging in salvaging floating corpses before 2000. Different from the younger Wei, Lao Wei did not charge people for that. During the last decades, numerous human corpses had been salvaged by the older Wei. But the establishment of the Xiaoxia Hydropower Dam in 2000 ended his career because it keeps all the garbage and floating corpses upstream, while providing the opportunity for the younger Wei and his father who live more upstream to take the job of salvaging corpses.

On a routine morning when Wei Zhijun reached his working place on Huanghe River, he was happy to see a floating corpse among the piles of garbage. Pulling the corpse with a fishgig closer to his boat, he bent down and frisked the body but found nothing valuable.

Then he drew one hand of the dead body out of the water, only noting there was not a little flesh on the skeleton. “It is useless”, said Wei Zhijun. According to his experience, the cadaver that had been decomposed after soaking too long in the water would not be identified and claimed by any one. Wei Zhijun decided to give up salvaging it. Then the decomposed cadaver would flow further eastward along the Huanghe River.

According to Oriental Morning Post, at least 10,000 bodies have been recovered along an 80-kilometer stretch of the Yellow River's Lanzhou section in Northwest China's Gansu Province since the 1960s. Around 300 bodies are pulled from the river annually, according to local authorities and corpse collectors who work on the river.

Some of the bodies are returned to relatives, while others are retrieved and cremated by the local civil affairs department. However, many are left flowing along the Yellow River.

Wei Zhijun had a simple brick house built as his temperary working station on the riverside of the Big Underpants Gulf. His three motor speedboats docked on the river below the working station.

Their first task after drawing a human cadaver out of the water is to check for items that can help to identify the deceased person, such as a cellphone or wallet with ID or bank cards, so family members can be contacted. “It is also possible that relatives of the missing take the initiative in contacting me but rarely”, said Wei Zhijun.

Wei Zhijun will pull all the salvaged human cadavers to water’s edge and tie them on a tree on the bank to prevent them from drifting away.

For those corpses that have remained unclaimed for long time and lose its value for body fishers as Wei, he will loose the rope, release the corpses and let them drift down the stream.

When the discarded human corpses pass through the hydropower station they will be smashed to pieces, then get decomposed and finally dissolved in the Yellow River. It is this reason that local farmers call the water in the hydropower dam as “human broth”.

„September 10, 2011, male, 75 years old“, the information of a missing people is written on a notebook he placed in a refrigerator. Wei Zhijun said the corpse of the old man was still not found and he hoped he was still alive.

“I salvage averagely 50 corpses every year, and most of the corpses are male and are retrieved in summer”, Wei Zhijun summarized his work of the last ten years.

He added that only one tenth of the salvaged bodies were claimed by their beloved relatives for the past years, but this year 20 bodies, or half of the total number of corpses he salvaged, had been claimed.

After years of engaging in the business, Wei Zhijun rises to fame. When a family in nearby villages and towns find a member is missing they will inform him and ask him to take more notice of their missing beloved. And even local police resort to him for help. During the last several years, people searching for relatives were coming one after another to his home in Xiaheba village for help. And accordingly the price for identifying and retrieving floating corpses has risen sharply.

Posters for missing people are everywhere to see on banks of the Yellow River.

On September 7th, 2012, Wei Zhijun was happy to receive a call that someone was coming to claim a missing relative. He summoned his colleagues together and waited at home for the man.

When an old man arrived they started off by boat to the place where salvaged corpses were placed.

Recognizing the corpse as just his missing wife, the old man burst into cry. Although the living conditions are improved the number of corpses has increased, mostly due to suicide as a result from working pressure, quarrel between couple, etc, according to Wei Zhijun.

After the corpse was identified, the two sides negotiated the price of returning the corpse. The ideal price for one corpse is 15,000 RMB in Wei’s mind, but actually he is often flexible and if the corpse is from a poor family, he can return the corpse at the price of only 500 to1000 RMB. And according to Wei Zhijun’s father, those come to claim human body should pay 500 to 1000 for the fuel cost no matter whether they find the right body.

The old man gave Wei Zhijun a bunch of bills of about 1000 RMB as the fuel cost. And after the two sides agreed on price of returning the corpse, Wei Zhijun and his colleagues started to retrieve the corpse out of water with tools such as fishgigs.

The years of professional life as a human body fisher have turned Wei Zhijun. He said he had no sense of fear in doing the job since long time ago and now he could pull a corpse with one hand, at the same time taking some to eat with another hand.

Wei Zhijun gets up early for his job and finishes the work also early. He was ready to return at 8:30, right before 9:00 when the hydroelectric power station workers start to work and drive him away.

Actually salvaging human cadavers is only small part of his business. Routinely he makes a living by collecting recyclable plastic bottles. He can collect a boat of such bottles every day and then sells them at a price of three to four yuan per kilogram.

Wei Zhijun said the earnings he makes on the plastic bottles are similar to those by salvaging human corpses, but few people believe him based on the simple calculation: the price of plastic bottles is only 3-4 yuan per kilogram while he charges a corpse for 15000 yuan. Local media reports in 2006 claimed the Wei family can make more than 100,000 yuan ($15,924) annually from fishing human bodies. However, their grim job and culturally superstitious omens associated with their line of work has led to some villagers being wary or even scared of the family. But Wei Zhijun and his father do not care, thinking villagers are red-eyed (jealous) of their profitable business of fishing human cadavers.

Every early morning Wei Zhijun stands in front of and searches recyclable things through the seemingly unlimited garbage. For his occupation associated with engaging with floating corpses, Wei Zhijun thinks it is nothing special and is similar to “going to work in cities”.

When finishing his work, Wei Zhijun will play with his pet dog on the river bank for a while. The dog is very loyal to him. Four years ago, Wei Zhijun found it at the brink of death in middle of the river and saved it and raised it until today.

Wei Yingquan, the father of Wei Zhijun, has lived his life on the Yellow River. At the age of 70, he does not go out to collect human bodies any more, but he has got used to sitting on the riverside, looking at it for long time. The old Wei is also a famous local figure. In a documentary featuring the story of his family recorded several years ago, Wei Yingquan once said to the camera: “Some relatives of a dead person are difficult to get along. If I charge a little higher, they rebuke me, saying my conscience was eaten by dogs. Where is conscience? If you search for the dead body elsewhere, you still have to pay. If you rent a truck you also have to give money to the driver for the fuel. Even if I charge them 1000 yuan for salvaging a corpse, it is because I have to buy some equipments for doing so. You give 1000 yuan to others, who may dare not to do it”!

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