The Tanka People: Fish out of Water

A Tanka community

A Tanka community

Imagine living a life at sea. Not in the romantic way of cruising from island to island in the Caribbean aboard a gleaming vessel, but living aboard a homemade raft, constructed of materials found floating in the water. Imagine being born on such a raft, growing up on it, spending years fishing from it to survive, watching your children be born on it, and then eventually dying on it, all without ever setting foot on dry land. In the cold seas of Southeastern China, a people called the “Tanka,” or “Sea Gypsies,” have lived like this for generations.

The Tanka are unique for a number of reasons. They have their own cultural norms, their own economy, their own floating villages, and even their own language, which, while it originated from mandarin, sounds and reads completely differently. Many of the people living on the neighboring land describe the Tanka as sounding like Americans. As a result of this and other superstitions, the Chinese land folk mostly refuse to acknowledge the Tanka as Chinese. Some don’t even consider them human beings. Despite all this, the Tanka still consider themselves proud Han Chinese, even refusing at one point in the 1950s to consider themselves an independent ethnic minority group.

The Tanka are believed to have come from one of two places, though nobody actually knows that either of the main beliefs about their origin is true. The first theory stems from an old legend which many of the Chinese landlubbers believe. The legend says that thousands of years ago, the Tanka were born from a great sea serpent. The second and more likely theory bases itself on some iffy old documents claiming that the Tanka were once a farming village that raised chickens and other animals. They paid their taxes to the emperor in the form of eggs, and they were quite prosperous. But one day when the tax collectors came to get eggs, the whole village was out at sea fishing. Angered by this, the emperor’s men moved other people into the village, leaving the future Tanka with no home. The emperor then forbid the villagers who had lost their home from ever setting foot on land again. Thus, the Sea Gypsies came into existence. If this tradition is true, then the Tanka have been living their waterlogged lifestyle for 1,600 years.

A Tanka man living the tradition

A Tanka man living the tradition

All this mysterious history gives the Tanka quite a reputation among the Chinese landlubbers. They consider the Tanka anything from “odd people” to flat out “sea demon monsters.” Until recently, it was actually illegal for a landlubber to wed with a Tanka. To this day, the family of the couple will most likely disown them. Nevertheless, despite this grand tradition, today, many Tanka are starting to move onto land and into various “non-fishing” careers. Is this migration granting the Tanka freedom? Or is it destroying the remains of a rich and unique cultural phenomenon? With all this hatred for them among the land-living Chinese, why would the Tanka want to move onto land?

There are two main reasons. The first and probably most obvious one is the brutal way of life the Tanka endure by living on the waves. Young children suffer slave-like conditions in the Tanka colonies. They are made to move loads of fish and supplies around on their backs that are larger and heavier than they are themselves. Women and girls are forced to allow themselves to be used and even beaten by Chinese and foreign visitors in the colony brothels, while the men work the nets continuously day and night for barely enough money to eat. Regardless of gender, age, or any other quality one may possess, those who continue to follow the Tanka way of life are damned to an aquatic life of misery.

A Tanka woman

A Tanka woman

The second reason so many Tanka are moving on shore is so they can better their income in some way; on land, they have the freedom to do something other than fish or sell their bodies. Women can get out of the brothels and into other workplaces like textile factories and restaurants, or they can choose to become normal housewives. Even those Tanka who decide to move on shore and continue working the nets can raise their prices and gain a higher volume of sales due to the higher level of accessibility to the masses.

As fascinating an anthropological study as it is, Tanka culture binds and ruins the lives of thousands upon thousands of people every day. The movement of young Tankans to land is a step in the right direction, but this still isn’t enough. Those remaining in the colonies continue to wallow in their misery with no hope of bettering themselves, which means their children might be damned to the same horrors without even knowing of any other way of living. This suffering at the hands of tradition and foolish superstitions should end as soon as possible.