The Chinese Fishing Nets at Kochi

Now and then a question comes up – about the origins of the Cheena Vala or the Chinese fishing net in Cochin. Some opine firmly that they are of ancient Chinese origin, dating to Kublai Khan’s times (mid 13th century); some others say it arrived even before that and others grandly announce they actually date to Zheng He’s arrival (early 15th century). To get to a factual answer, one has to try & search hard and long, possibly fruitlessly, even though the very name of the net signifies that the connection had to be Chinese. My own introduction to the Cheena Vala came by a (non detail) textbook which we studied in school titled so and written by our lecturer CKC Nair (I did not see one though until much later). A wonderful collection of short stories, this specific story detailed the life of a Cheena vala operator in Cochin and I still remember the laborious attempts of his in placing a Petromax gas lamp into position before he retired for the night, near the net, for fishes to get drawn to. Though I had forgotten the story, the net remained in my mind, a majestic but forlorn contraption, which remains operational to this day even after so many hundred years (I am not saying the wooden poles or nets date that long back and I do not know if at all that is the case anyway), now an object of intense tourist scrutiny. These nets can be found only around Cochin and people look at them with much curiosity and awe and walk away consigning them into their notes and diaries written about their fascinating trip to the backwaters, penning in memories of the ‘karimeen’ fish fry, the local ‘kallu’ coconut liquor and the boatmen in the covered house boats as they traversed the backwaters. All this time, these Chinese cantilever fishing nets, suspended like giant webs along the tip of Fort Cochin, silently watched millions pass by.

What are they, where did they come from? We will find out. Are they indeed centuries old? Possibly the only surviving 800 year old machinery, man made? Are they found in China? We had never seen a picture of an installation in china in recent times, mind you - said a friend. Unable to resist the challenge, I donned my research cap (like an ancient Viking with his helmet) and set about into the not so dusty digital annals of history with my trusty weapons, the PC and the mouse, right hand clad in a special glove making it look like a medieval gladiators hand (though it is actually meant to tackle telltale signs of a carpal tunnel issue cropping up) holding a trusty sword. Ah, you can see that I am losing it, must be age catching up..

These shore operated lift nets at Kumbalangi - Fort Kochi are cantilever nets, not seen these days in the southern mainland China where they are supposedly from. As Wiki explains These huge mechanical contrivances hold out horizontal nets of 20 m or more across. Each structure is at least 10m high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. The installation is operated by a team of up to six or so fishermen. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans — these may be sold to passers by within minutes. The system of counterweights is most ingenious. Rocks, each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different lengths. As the net is raised, some of the rocks one-by-one come to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance. Each installation has a limited operating depth. Consequently, an individual net cannot be continually operated in tidal waters. Different installations will be operated depending on the state of the tide. Thus installed, the nets satiated the hunger of those who ate the catch since those ancient times, possibly the Jews, Christians, Moplahs, Arabs and some the aborigines of Cochin. For one to get a good catch there is a need for backwaters, slow moving water, lots of algae & of course plenty of fish.

Curiously these are seen only in the Cochin area, straddling the backwaters. Considering that Cochin or Perumbadappu Nadu itself rose to fame after the 14th century floods at the Periyar delta which moved power and people from Muziris or Kulashekara Perumal’s seat of power at Mahodayapuram to modern Cochin, one could also question if the very backwaters were formed as a result of the floods? Though places north and south of Kochi are mentioned in quite some detail in many accounts by ancient travelers, mentions of Kochi are absent prior to the arrival of Zheng He and the Portuguese. Kochi's prominence as a trading port grew after the collapse of the Muziris port around 1341 AD. No traveler before the medieval had noticed these nets or reported on extensive fishing though many including the Chinese have documented the Kochi area. So considering that they are found in Cochin and the fact that Cochin itself rose to fame in the 1350 period, the nets were presumably laid into position between the 13th and 14th century at the earliest. This was a period of intense trade with China concentrated at Quilon, Cochin and Calicut. The conclusion seems very satisfactory, but for the fact that no traveler of that period reported it.

Ibn wahab was around in 9th Century, Benjamin of Tuleda in 1167 but Marco Polo did not mention it. As the Cochin brochure documents it, neither in the earlier notices of Malabar nor in the accounts of Pliny (AD 23-79), Ptolemy, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, Marco Polo (AD 1290-93) nor Ibn Batuta do we find any mention of a place named Cochin.

Since the visitors of that period never reported them, where was Cochin mentioned? The first mention of Cochin is made sixty years after the formation of the harbor by Ma Huan, a Chinese scribe in Zheng He’s fleet, and later by the Italian traveler Nicolo Conti (AD 1440). These writers, as well as those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, variously called the town Cocym, Cochym, Cochin, Cochi etc. However they do not mention the nets. Were writers like Edna Fernandez and many others right in concluding that they existed since the time of Kublai Khan? Writers of the later medieval also failed to mention it, like Barbosa & Varthema. Barbosa 1503-1517 writes about fishing in other places, but no mention about it in Cochin. Varthema writing about Cochin 1508 also fails to mention these nets. Did they not find it worthy or curious enough?

Francis day in his 1862 book Perumals of Kerala states thus about the nets of Cochin– A species of Chinese nets, are used along the river's banks, they are about 16 feet square, suspended by bamboos from each corner, and let down like buckets into the water, and then after a few minutes drawn up again ; a piece of string to which is attached portions of the white leaves of the cocoanut trees, is tied at short intervals along the ebb side of the net, which effectually prevents fish from going that way. As this mode of fishing is continued all through the monsoon, (excepting on very stormy days,) it affords an excellent criterion, of the tribes and species to be found in the rainy months, and renders Cochin the best place along the Western Coast, for making observations on this subject: owing to this, the Icthyologist can continue his enquiries, (with occasional intervals,) during the boisterous, as well as the quiet months of the year, although the sea netting may be quite suspended. Fish thus caught, are sold at the nets.

That the nets have a Chinese origin were always definite. What were the Chinese connections in the Malabar region? When did the trading start? To get to these answers, we must refer two major sources, they being the records of Zhao Rugua or Chau Jhu Kua and the Ying Yai Sheng Lan. The first dates to the 12th century and the second to the 15th century. Both books mention the trade with Malabar but there are no specific comments about fishing in Cochin or the Chinese there. The former has been covered in my article referred here.

So we believe that these nets originated from South mainland China, and we have also read and seen pictures of similar nets in Vietnam and Cambodia – locations in Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam otherwise known to the Chinese as Giao Chi – Guchi – Kochi. The term was changed to Cochin China in order to distinguish it from Cochin in later days.

John Crawfurd confirms their existence in Siam & Cochin China in his book written during 1830 stating - Another mode of fishing was practiced here, and is frequent in all parts of the coast of Cochin China. It consisted of a net affixed to a long crane and lever, from the bow of a boat, which, by being well-balanced, was sunk and raised without difficulty. With this machine prawns and other small fish only were caught, its use being confined to shallow water. In other situations there were ponds on the banks of the creek for feeding and preserving fish, such as are common in some parts of Java, and in that country extremely productive.

Chinese butterfly fishing net

Mara Louise Pratt-Chadwick in her book People and Places Here and There, Volume IV China 1892 provides an interesting aside with the whole practice – She adds a sketch as well, which will be familiar to those who have seen the Cheena Vala.

Did you ever hear how the Chinese catch fish? In some peculiar way, you may be sure. It isn't Chinese to do anything as other people do, and their fishing methods are no exception. On the river they fish with nets fastened to a round hoop, which makes a sort of bag, very like the nets with which we catch butterflies. To this netted bag is fastened a long pole. The fisherman very slowly sinks this bag in the water and watches. If he is a skilled fisherman, he can feel the slightest movement of a fish across the hoop of the bag. Then he raises it quickly, very quickly, and if any fish did chance just then to be swimming along in the water over the net, he gets caught in it, and is brought to the surface. This is a very slow way of fishing, for it is only now and then that a fish " happens " to be just over the net; but then, as you have already learned, the Chinese are not the people to mind slow waiting; so the native fisherman is perfectly contented to sit, half asleep, all day long, on his raft, waiting for the possible fish that may happen to cross the net.

Now do you recall my mention of another interesting technique - that of using torch lights to catch fish as popularized by the Chinese. They had used lamps to draw flying fish into scoop nets held by fishermen. The same technique is adopted in the butterfly nets of Cochin (as I alluded to in the first paragraph with a Petromax or gaslight). It appears that the ‘Chinese’ even used otters in Cochin to catch fish (pg 33 - Fish catching methods of the world - Otto Gabriel, Andres von Brandt). Note here the mention ‘Chinese’, not native mukkuvars.

So the mystery was clearing up – This type of fishing technique and fishing net were indeed from China. But how can we be sure? We need a picture, a location in China to be definite. I searched hard and long and finally hit jackpot at the THE WIDE WORLD MAGAZINE APRIL, 1898, TO SEPTEMBER, 1898 Page 496, thanks to Google books, an article titled ‘Peculiar fishermen’ by Louis G Mulhouse. He explains

The last photograph reproduced shows an immense Chinese fishing net and typical joss outside the walls of Wen Chow city. When the fish are to be caught the bamboo poles are gradually lowered until the net is quite beneath the water. It is allowed to remain there from morning until night, when it is again drawn up, with a curious absence of ceremony or excitement, and the miscellaneous catch of fish carefully and methodically removed. The Chinese, who are most superstitious, have the strongest possible objection to drawing up these big fishing nets in the presence of foreigners. Will they, one wonders, ever conquer their hatred and distrust of the European, whose influence is swiftly extending among them? They always maintain that the eye of the “foreign devil” bewitches and even poisons the fish, and brings ill-luck to the hard-working fishermen. Through the round hole in the city wall which is seen from the end, a European narrowly escaped with his life during the fearful riots of 1884, solely because he had innocently looked on while these very nets were dragged up and emptied of their catch of fish.

For those interested, Wen Chow is Wenzhou is a port South of Shanghai.

Many a writer mentions that the nets were introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. He was the great Khan of the Mongol empire between 1260-1294. The writer who covered him for the west was Marco Polo. Some say thus - The unique design of the fishing nets still in use today in Cochin, on India's Malabar Coast, was brought from China during the Yuan dynasty and perhaps even on the very same cargo vessels on which Polo sailed. Marco however mentions Malabar, though not Cochin. Then again some modern historians even question if Marco Polo ever went to China (More on that another day).

But the Mongols subdued Cochin China around the end of the twelfth century that was perhaps the reason for the confusion to some researchers. Chinese had already been trading with Coastal Malabar even before the Khan, though the Khan did some promotion of maritime trade.

It is my belief that the technology came to Cochin between the times the Chinese left Quilon and before they settled in Calicut, perhaps the 12th or 13th century as detailed by the trade relations from the Chau Ju Kua. Considering that it was during the time of the Khan, one could say perhaps promoted by him. On the other hand, it may have come with Cheng Ho in the 15th century as Marco Polo failed to mention it, though that is also unlikely as Zhneg He or Cheng Ho was bound for Calicut and Ma Huan did not mention the fact.

But now we come to another angle – Did they come much later as explained by Deepa Leslie? Calicut Heritage forum focuses on the question - Why There are no Chinese Nets in Calicut? Deepa states in her articleOur recent studies show that these Chinese nets were introduced by the later Casado settlers of Cochin from Macau. The names of the different parts of these Chinese nets used even today are in Portuguese language, which is a definite indication of its Portuguese Origin. The net used for catching the fish is called rede, its edge is borda, the arms of wooden parts which hold the extensive net together is brasao, while the flexible ring on the top on which the entire brasao moves is argola. In addition there are Corda and Pedra for balancing the movement of the net. There isCaluada on which the fishermen move up and down and the posts which support the entire structure from the river bottom are called Odora.

That could of course be right. The Portuguese had recently converted the Paravas and many had settled down in Cochin (See my article on this subject). They demanded a better life after conversion and ascendancy up the social caste ladder, compared to their old lifestyle in Kayalpatanam. After Portuguese Macau was established in 1557, the Portuguese traders perhaps brought in the technology from Macau to Cochin. It could also have been that the fishermen being Portuguese converted Paravas were using Portuguese terms, for they themselves had not seen these nets in Kayal – Tuticorin. A very satisfactory explanation, but well, every good story has a twist is it not?

Thus the Portuguese brought in the Chinese nets, like the cashew nuts and tobacco and so on…Now is that right? I left it till a curious report caught my eye. John Latham wrote his book ‘A general history of birds in 1824’. He covered the Cochin Tharavu or duck in Volume 10 - The footnote in Page 291 provided an intriguing bit of text.

In India, about Cochin, the bird is called Tarava and when first caught is almost unfit for food, living chiefly on pilchards; therefore on board a ship, the Ducks are kept for a long time on different food before they are killed. An immense trade is carried on with them in the maritime towns of India, giving employment in particular to the Christians, Mahometans, and black Jews.— Osbeck mentions two sorts of Ducks, one called Hina-a; the other, Kongo-a. He had not seen the latter, but says, that certain Wild Ducks were in such plenty as to greatly disturb the fishermen, by taking the fish out of their nets.

We were (says Osbeck) astonished to see the Chinese, who had put their nets into the water, shoot constantly without aim ; but found, they were forced to watch their fisheries, and to frighten away the Ducks, as they would else empty the nets sooner than the men could ;never were such fearless, and numerous flights of Ducks as here, one flight after another came, notwithstanding the noise made on all sides, and endeavoured to settle near the nets; but were always hindered in the above manner.

So can one conclude that until 1824, these Chinese fishing nets in Cochin were operated by Chinese settlers!! Why not? Well, no wonder the name stuck. One could still, as a typical Malayali would, state that the Portuguese brought Chinese fishermen from Macau to Cochin. Yes, that could also be so. But why use Portuguese terms instead of Chinese? Well, Of that I am not sure, but I can say that we have hardly had any Chinese terms creeping into our lingo, though it is peppered with words from the languages of the people who ruled over those areas…

And so that was my bit on the Chinese fishing nets for a rainy day reading. It is raining here today and I am sure it is raining in Cochin & Calicut. So whether you are aimlessly browsing and reached this page or reading with intent, I can hope I have satiated those urges to read something new….

Pics & References

Thanks to google books
For a different angle to the nets in Cochin click here
For a picture of the Vietnam net at Mekong Delta click here
For a picture of the Cambodia nets click here
Chinese Trade at Calicut


di said…
Hi, have been following your blog since quiet sometime now and have ennjoyed reading your posts immensely. However as stated in the first paragraph of your article, Chinese fishing nets are not found only in Kochi.. they are definitely found and still very much used in Kollam (Quilon). I have seen many in and around Prakulam/Ashtamudi areas along the Ashtamudi Kayal.
Maddy said…
thanks di - I stand corrected on that count. In fact I think CKC's story is set around Quilon, now that I think of it..makes it clear that it traversed with the Chinese who left Quilon and came to Cochin. But they never took it on to Calicut!!!
Debby said…

I took this photo in March.

I was wondering about how these contraptions were set up here. The details you have gathered is very useful. Cheers! Deba
Very interesting. I have seen such nets at Kotapuram (Kodungalloor)and Azhikode (crossover to Vypin).
harimohan said…
Having lived near Fort kochi for more than two decades these nets are very familiar to me .
one can get live karimeen of the freshest order here witha little bargaining many times they have jumped out from the bags in the car !
i have wached for long hours the fascinating chinese net fishing with a setting sun in the horizone
Bernard said…
So, finally your version of the Chinese net story is published ! Good to see this. Though by a carefull evaluation of malayalam Lexicon, you might find some words of Chinese etymology, generally your arguments stays. The word Kanji - Porridge is an example. Another interesting lead is the story of koorkka! OR Chinese potaoes (Coleus parviflorus). Hope you can develop this lead.
Maddy said…
thanks Debby - hope you enjoyed your visit. now you know some history behind what you saw...
Maddy said…
thanks PNS & Hari..

i have only seen videos of how the cheena vala works, have not seen it upfront myself.
Maddy said…
thanks bernard..

cheena vala, cheena chatti, cheeni bharani, cheeni mulaku, cheeni padakam...the list goes on and then you can top it with a lot of food items as well..

Chinese potato or koorka is a fantastic root - my favorite actually!!but no story behind these things...nevertheless an article may be interesting,let me see
viv said…
Great article about chinese nets. This year I had an oppotunity to visit Fort Kochi & admire these nets at sunset. There's another chinese technique to carry goods. Two baskets are attached to a bamboo & carried on one's shoulder.Twenty years ago fish vendors of Malabar used this & were called "Kaavukaran".Read that "Idiyappam" originates from China.
Keep posting
deepdowne said…
Thanks Maddy! You've made a really valuable discovery. I too had the same curiosity about these fishing nets. And I'm from Fort Cochin.
BMP said…
Viv - I wonder and doubt if 'idiyappam' really did orginate in china coz the present day chinese i know haven't ever eaten anything close to idiyappam. They love it when i serve it to them and i tell them it's quite similar to their rice noodles but they vigoursly shake their heads in protest! Maybe they are just not really aware of their ancestors contribution to the coasts of Kerala but next time i'll just show them this article!
Sarah Stephen said…
Being from Kerala, I've often wondered about the origin of the nets. Thankyou for the exceptionally illuminating research!
Maddy said…
thanks viv , Sarahband deepdown..

and viv - I think idiyappam originated form the far east - probably Indonesia, Philippines or Thailand.
Bindhu Unny said…
Very informative article, Maddy. I thought idiyappam's home is Sri Lanka. :)

(Came here though the link given in Kerala Tourism's Facebook page)
georgiemathew said…
Hi Mr Maddy,
I was wondering if I could link this page back to my blogpost about the chinese nets.
Maddy said…
thanks georgie..
go ahead
Simon said…
What about the Italian fishing nets of the Adriatic coast? Any connection? See:
Maddy said…
Thanks Simon.
I am not sure if there is any connection, but one could speculate.
The Trabucco is possibly more recent, as it is dated to the 18th century. Such being the case, it could be the handiwork of one of the Italian adventurers who sailed out in the early Portuguese vessels to the Indies and later China. They may have replicated the Kochi idea in Italy...Just speculation...
Rajesh MH said…
always enjoyed reading your blog. today on specific purpose of ma huan on kochi i stumbled on your blog. were we both taught by late CKC of SSK? He taught me circa 86.
Maddy said…
thanks rajesh and yes that would be right ...
he taught me 70-74 at SSKZM
you can read the ma huan book on the net or peruse my history blogsite
Unknown said…
Thanks for sharing uses of Chinese Fishing Nets.You've made a really valuable discovery. I too had the same curiosity about these fishing nets.Though by a carefull evaluation of malayalam Lexicon, you might find some words of Chinese etymology, generally your arguments says.

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