Inside China’s ‘falcon’ village: A living slice of Manchu history

Story highlights

In Jilin province, a small village keeps alive Manchu tradition of falcon training

Area is growing popular among tourists

Falcon trainers spend several days in isolation taming captured birds of prey

Mingzhe Zhao, 55, is known as the "falcon king" of Ying Tun

CNN  — 

A tiny black spot approaches from the distance in the gray dawn sky, growing larger as it glides through the icy wind against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

Drawn to the shrill blast of a whistle, the majestic bird of prey soars in for a perfect landing onto the arm of Mingzhe Zhao, the “falcon king” of Ying Tun.

In China’s Jilin province, the tiny rural community of Ying Tun – known here as the “Falcon Village” – the 55-year-old Zhao has, like many of his ancestors, dedicated his entire life to training the fierce feathered creatures.

Jilin is one of China’s most isolated provinces.

Deep in the northeast, Jilin borders North Korea and Russia. It’s the home of China’s ethnic Manchu, who continue to practice ancient traditions in an effort to preserve their culture.

This includes falcon training, which dates to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), an era when the Manchu ruled the entire country.

Like hunting and horse racing, raising falcons – once a form of leisure and entertainment for royals – remains an admired practice in the region, considered a show of bravery and man’s conquest over nature.

It’s practiced in some form or another by most of the men in Ying Tun, which has about 300 households.

Chuanxin Jia, photographer and editor for Chinese magazine “Jilin Pictorial,” has visited the Falcon Village on multiple occasions, where he captured some of the images in the gallery above.

“Trained falcons can hunt 10 to 20 pheasants per day, which can be sold for up to RMB 150 ($24) each at the local market,” says Jia.

“This money can be used as extra income by local village families.”

Falconeering isn’t just about making money.

Ying Tun’s falcon trainers – locals call them “Yingbashi” (falcon masters) – are emotionally attached to their birds.

How to train a falcon

Falcons are known for being unruly, says Jia, which makes for an incredibly punishing training process.

Most of the men in the tiny village of Ying Tun are trained falcon masters.

After capturing a wild falcon from a mountain forest, a master must spend several days in isolation taming it.

“It’s a real battle of willpower,” says Jia. “But the relationship between a master and his falcon will be unbreakable when it’s all over.”

Surviving on minimal sleep, masters spend the bulk of their days staring into the falcons’ eyes.

Eventually, the bird will tire and grow docile.

Next the bird will be taught to circle the skies, understand its new master’s orders and bring back prey.

Hunting season lasts primarily during winter months, when masters aren’t busy tending to their farms.

In the off-season, masters enjoy the company of their falcons, regarding them as regular pets.

Once relatively isolated to outside visitors, Ying Tun has grown famous in recent years as more and more photographers and visitors come for the chance to see masters and birds in action.

Held annually the first week of January, the area’s Falcon Culture Festival is particularly popular.

More than 80 masters perform; trained falcons demonstrate incredible hunting skills on open snowfields.

A typical Jilin meal includes lots of game, such as pheasant, and preserved vegetables. Pickled cabbage with pork is one of the area's most popular dishes.

Traditional Manchu music and dance performances take place during the opening ceremony.

Visitors also eat local cuisine, chat with masters and get close to the falcons.

As Ying Tun is a fairly small village, visitors are recommended to stay in the nearby city of Jilin, an hour away from Ying Tun by car.

Yulou village, Tuchengzi Manchu township, Changyi district, Jilin, China

Photos courtesy of Naihua Zhu, Chengzhi Yang and Chuanxin Jia, photographer and editor of Jilin Pictorial.