Boom and doom: the Yellow River corpse merchant

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'500 bodies' lie unclaimed below the water

Wei lights up a new cigarette as he observes the corpse, and goes into his cabin beneath the bridge. He will return to search the young girl at midday, in the hope of finding an identity card, or a mobile phone, the SIM card of which, waterproof, will reveal the parents' number. If not, he will place an ad in the local newspaper, with his mobile phone number and a detailed description of the body.

This is the same phone number you see painted in giant yellow and red figures on the mountainside as you approach the village of Chang Po on the 115 bus.

At 55 years old, Mr Wei is what is known as a corpse fisherman - a trade that appeared with the construction of the new hydro-electric dams on the Yellow River. The Lanzhou Dam was inaugurated ten years ago and supplies the big factories in the city twenty 20 kilometres away. Seeing the bodies pile up against the dam, two families settled down nearby to share what the river brings.

IN PICTURES: Click here to see photo file. WARNING: Some people may find the contents upsetting.

Once the corpses have been identified, they can be sold to the grief-stricken families. "The other fisherman is a guy from the mountains who doesn't even know how to swim. He's a lout who asks the families for crazy sums of money. And he doesn't take care of the bodies. He damages them with his hook. Don't go to see him. You don't want to get into trouble," Wei warns. He also sells the bodies to the families, but his prices, he claims, are adapted to the clients' means. "I bill a peasant 500 yuans [62 euros], a mingong [immigrant worker] family 2,000, a family from Lanzhou 3,000, and a boss 5,000."

Wei Jin Peng does not like bosses. "Often they refuse to pay, or haggle for hours... in front of the families. It's pathetic," he says. In the end, only a third of the corpses can be reclaimed by the families. All the others sink into oblivion in the depths of the Yellow River. "There are at least 500 of them down there. What a waste."

But where do all these bodies come from, piling up in Wei's net? Mainly from Lanzhou, the economic lung of north-east China, up-river. "Among the 200 bodies picked up over the year, I get two types: old age pensioners and migrant workers. Nearly all of them are women. No doubt they can't stand life in the city, or get mixed up with thugs, who get away with anything there."

Piled up on the chest of drawers of his tidy house in the village centre are dozens of documents with photos and phone numbers. These are the numerous missing persons notices sent out by families in search of loved ones. Among them is that of Jing Bei, a beautiful young woman aged 25, who was a waitress in a chic Lanzhou restaurant. She disappeared without trace one evening in September. Contacted by phone, her husband, a car-washer, appears desperate: "I've been to see the police several times, but they don't even want to investigate," he says. "They say there's no indication that this is a murder or a suicide. They say she may have left the city of her own free will... but to go where? And leaving her kid behind?" As for Mr Wei, he swears she is not to be found in the river.

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Jordan Pouille is based in Beijing and runs a blog, in French, on Mediapart's 'Le Club' section.