Qin Yusheng steering his mule drawn cart across the beach in Xianrendao. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele
Qin Yusheng steering his mule drawn cart across the beach in Xianrendao. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

With a crack of his whip, Qin Yusheng drives his mules through the ocean surf off the Chinese coast, laboring to bring in the day’s catch.

For decades, equine-powered carts have trundled through the shallow waters off the peninsula near Xianrendao to meet shallow-keeled trawlers piled high with jellyfish, which teem in the waters of the Yellow Sea.

Now Qin, 55, and his last two mules are ready to retire, as the area’s traditional way of life slides into history.

Not long ago, Qin and his team of horses and mules spent 12 hours a day shuttling back and forth between the fishing boats and the shore.

Boats unloading their jellyfish harvest on to trucks in Xianrendao. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

Fishermen emptied their slippery catch into dozens of horse carts, which hauled them through the knee deep waters to processing sheds.

Now, the vessels pull up to a new concrete pier, where they offload their product directly into waiting lorries.

There is “not much need” for the animal-drawn carts any more, said Qin, who now helps shift haul smaller catches, like crabs caught in the shallows. “I have no choice but to retire.”

Wang Fenghu, also 55, who used to have a team of horses until he quit to open a small grocery store, explained: “A couple of trucks can carry between 2,000 and 2,500 kilos.

“There used to be 40 or 50 horses grazing on the lawn here,” he said with a wave to the village green.

Wang sold his four horses a little over a decade ago to farmers in the nearby hills.

“I haven’t sold my cart, yet,” he added. But “now it’s only good for firewood.”

Jellyfish is a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, and the largest plant in Xianrendao, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, processes around 5 million kilograms a year.

During the high season, migrant workers spend 13 hours a day in the factories, large open sheds with corrugated roofs, separating jellyfish heads from their bodies.

Men and women in tall rubber boots and gloves shovel a mixture of salt and alum into giant concrete tanks, where the jellyfish soak for a week. The process makes their skin thin and easy to slice.

Women sorting jellyfish into plastic boxes at a pickle factory in Xianrendao. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

The finished product is exported to Japan, Korea and cities across China, where it is often mixed with oil and coriander to make a cold, crunchy salad.

Business is good, according to locals, but the catches have become smaller and smaller every year.

“There are fewer jellyfish, but the price is higher,” Qin said.

Locals blame a chemical plant near the village. “When the wind blows, you can smell the odour,” Qin said. “It also dumps waste water into the ocean. That’s bad for sea creatures.”

Qin is one of only a handful of villagers who still rely on their animals to make a living.

“I try do as many runs as I can, but I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said, adding that if his mules were not docile, he was “completely exhausted by the end of the day.”

“We’re going to sell them next year,” Qin said, either to farmers or a slaughterhouse. We’re sorry to let them go, but we have no choice.”

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