December 4, 2015, by Tony Hong

Saturday Afternoon Snail Fishing

By Alice Richards,

University of Nottingham UK exchange student studying MSci Hons Contemporary Chinese Studies.

On Saturday 17th October between midday and 1 o’clock, I observed two groups of people fishing for snails in the XiaoPutuo area of Dongqian lake in Ningbo. These field notes will describe the behaviours of the two groups, analysing how snail fishing is related to family ties and the re-emergence of recreational activities in China, as well as the current lack of trust in food provided by the market place. It will come to the conclusion that the snail fishing was motivated by the desire for a family activity, instead of being financially motivated, However, there is still the possibility that a lack of trust in the snails available for sale in the market, led to snail fishing.

In the XiaoPutao, scenic area on the edge of Dongqian lake, on Saturday 17th October around midday, people were fishing for snails. To enter the area you must buy a 30 RMB ticket. There were two groups, one with three generations; two sets of grandparents, parents and a teenage daughter, around 14 years old. The other was a woman around fifty to sixty years old. They were fishing at the far end of the area, under a bridge, past the main attractions and food stalls.

They were not attired for fishing. In the first group the men were wearing chinos and shirts, whilst the women were wearing smart tops, one with ruffled sleeves, and skirts as it was a hot day. The women also wore mid-height, spindly heels, whilst crouching on slippery rocks. Even the teenager daughter was wearing a skirt and top, not a tracksuit, as many Chinese children outside of school do. They were all well-groomed, and the men were clean shaven. One of the women was carrying a fake Louis Vuitton handbag. The lady fishing by herself was wearing a tight pink dress that seemed inappropriate for fishing on such a hot day.

The first group had brought a fishing net, not dissimilar to one you would see a child using at the seaside. The men were gathered around the net taking turns whilst chatting and smoking, meanwhile the women were crouching on the rocks dredging up snails and the lake bed with their hands. The teenage girl was sitting against the bridge doing homework. The solo lady had brought with her a foot wedge to stabilise herself as she leaned right out into the water, and scooped her arm into the bank underneath the rocks. Her arm would be submerged above the elbow.

After dredging up snails, they would be delicately sorted on the rocks. Both groups used deft and swift movements, flicking their wrist when they found detritus or substandard snails to send them spinning back out into the water. After twenty minutes the larger group left, carrying three large plastic bags full of snails away with them. On the way past the lady on her own, they gathered around her and seemed to discuss her technique and the size of her catch, however they never engaged her directly. For fifteen minutes longer the lady carried on fishing, systematically moving along the rocks. When she had two large bags of snails, she gathered up her stool and bag and left.

The family group was spending time together on a Saturday afternoon, this could be a means of consolidating intergenerational relationships. As a consequence of the rapid increase in wealth and free time over the last 40 years, the elder generation have taken survival skills and have turned them into recreation activities and are using them as a method of ‘cultural continuity’ (Chen et al, 2011: 588). The members of this group are a typical representation of a three generation household, which made up 16.5% of households in China in the 2010 census (Hu and Peng, 2015: 5), this is ‘the most stable type of household’ (Hu and Peng, 2015: 13) in Chinese society. Due to the lack of social support system in China the family is a source of ‘order, education and welfare’ (Hu and Peng, 2015: 18). Grandparents are especially important in this dynamic as in China ‘households rather than individuals ought to be considered the operative economic unit’ (Chen et al, 2011: 576); and Grandparents are often in charge of the majority of child care and household responsibilities.

The snail catchers are not saving money by sourcing their own food here, as entrance to the area is 30RMB per person; nor did they have a need to, as is shown by their high quality clothes and well-groomed appearance. So this behaviour may be due to a lack of trust in the quality of snails for sale in more conventional locations. The use of their own tools also highlights that the decision to fish was not made on a whim. Food safety is a big issue in China, there have been numerous food scares in recent years and they have been ingrained into society’s consciousness by media attention. In China food safety is especially seen as ‘a social risk associated with human factors’ (Wu et al., 2013: 90), and as ‘China is a low trust society’ (Chen, 2013: 44), this leads to a low level of trust in the quality of products available to purchase.

As these analyses are based on an initial observation they would require further research, one of the limitations is the absence of interviews. Without interviews it is hard to ascertain exactly why the two groups were fishing in the lake. Even though absolute conclusions cannot be drawn, these fieldnotes show that the snail fishing was probably not financially motivated. It may have been a means to spend time together as a family, or due to a lack of trust in the goods provided by the market.


Chen, F, Liu, G, Mair, C (2011) ‘Intergenerational Ties in Context: Grandparents Caring for Grandchildren in China’, Social Forces, 90, 2: pp. 571-594

Chen, W. (2013) ‘The effects of different types of trust on consumer perceptions of food safety.’ China Agricultural Economic Review, 5,1: pp 43-65

Hu, Z., Peng, X. (2015) ‘Household changes in contemporary China: an analysis based on the four recent censuses.’, The Journal of Chinese Sociology, 2, 1

Wu, L., Zhong, Y., Shan, L., Qin, W. (2013) ‘Public risk perception of food additives and food scares. The case in Suzhou, China.’ Appetite, 70: pp 90–98

Posted in Uncategorized