Gansu Province, China (CNN) — Snaking through the majestic mountains of western China, the Yellow River was once considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Today, 24-year-old Lun Lun combs the very same waters searching not for fish, but for the remains of humans.
He sets out from the shores of his home in Shangping village in far-flung Gansu Province on his rusty, hand-made canoe hunting for corpses, a practice that has become a lucrative, though grisly, industry.
Lun Lun and his fellow fishermen have dragged more than one hundred bodies out of the river this year alone as they float downstream from the bustling metropolis. Body fishermen claim the dead are typically victims of suicide or murder from the bustling western provincial capital city of Lanzhou, just 20 kilometers to the west. Authorities say other victims have drowned or died in accidents.
Meanwhile, Wei Jinpeng and Wei Yinquan publicly advertise their services by spray-painting their mobile phone numbers and the words “body fishing up ahead” on the sides of mountains and buildings along the river and roads between Lanzhou and Shangping.
China’s ‘River of Death’
Fishing for bodies in China
Last month, Lun Lun showed CNN two bodies he had collected. Floating facedown in the Yellow River, the corpses are bloated, wrapped in cloth, tethered to the shore, their limbs and heads bobbing with the rising tide. Found earlier in this fall, Lun Lun is waiting for families to identify them. One is badly decomposed while the other’s form remains clearly visible.
According to Lun Lun and other local body fishermen, corpses usually drift to this particular section of the river because of a change in the Yellow River’s current caused by the position of a hydroelectric dam just two kilometers upstream. A subsequent bend in the river just downstream creates a calm spot within the otherwise strong current.
Lun Lun charges families up to 3000 yuan (around $450) just to turn the corpses over for identification. To take a body home, he charges even more.
“I have worked on this section of the river for several years,” said Lun Lun. “I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one. I’d like to say I’m a boat operator but really, I search for the dead.”
I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one.
Wei Jinpeng has retrieved nearly 100 bodies per year since he started in 2003. The former pear farmer and his two sons dragged bodies ashore in their modest boat until recently, when the government put a stop to their work. Spooked by media attention, the fishermen have been warned to dock their boats and stop fishing for bodies.
“I can’t go out on the water anymore,” Wei told CNN at his home. “The police have already fined me several times. They don’t like what we’re doing. As for the money I used to make, I just don’t make it anymore.”
But Lun Lun takes his chances. He says there is still potentially big money to be made.
“If I turned the body over to the local authorities, I got less money,” he said. “If I contact families directly, I can be paid about 3000 yuan, much more than the government would offer.”
The local police and provincial government and coroners office declined to comment. Reactions from village residents were largely positive.
“They are working a job like anyone else,” said Ms. Wei of nearby Shangping village, who is not related to Wei Jinpeng. “And somebody has to do it, right? Otherwise our river might get too full with bodies.”
Another villager who commutes to his factory, Mr. Wei (also unrelated to Wei Jinpeng) told CNN, “I admire what they do out there. No amount of money could convince me to do that.”
In China, the industry is the subject of the documentary The Other Shore. Independent director Zhou Yu follows a family of body fishermen who drag the dead out of the Yellow River near Wei and Lun Lun’s village. The state-run Global Times and China Daily have also profiled body fishermen throughout China this year.
Despite the risk, the Lun Lun says he will continue to trawl the waters for the dead.
“I dropped out of school at an early age,” he said, as he approached his fishing boat on a cold November morning. “This has become a good way for me make a living. I would like to think I am helping the families, even though what we see is very sad and sometimes just heart breaking.”
Meanwhile, the two corpses Lun Lun has dragged from the Yellow River bob up and down face-down in the water, preserved by the cold of winter. Lun Lun takes one last look, wondering aloud if anyone will come to collect them before year’s end. He then turns his boat around, leaving behind the bodies, searching for more.