Zisiqiao in Zhejiang province has become known as China’s ‘snake village’ with a population of around 8,500 snakes for every person. Time Out pays a visit and hears tales of the serpents’ miraculous healing powers
'This one’s called a five step snake,’ says Yang Hongchang gleefully as he indicates a particularly vicious looking reptile. ‘That’s because if it bites you, you’ll only be able to walk five steps before you drop dead.’ It sounds like something out of Kill Bill, but the scenes in front of us more closely resemble an episode from a Steve Irwin TV show as a man repeatedly prods the deadly black snakes, making them sit up and hiss wildly.
As he grabs one on the end of a stick and waves it towards us, we ask if he should really be doing that. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Yang, ‘he knows what he’s doing.’ We’ve been in Zisiqiao a little over an hour, but everyone here, it seems, knows what they’re doing when it comes to snakes.
Located around an hour north of Hangzhou, Zisiqiao is a small collection of houses that barely justifies its name. When we hire a taxi driver to take us there at Jiaxing bus station, he’s never heard of our destination – and neither has his sat-nav. Even among villagers in the surrounding Zhejiang countryside who we repeatedly have to ask for directions, the name is unfamiliar, unsurprising given that Zisiqiao’s human population is just under 700. But mention the ‘snake village’ and people’s expressions change immediately, smiling and pointing you in the right direction.
An otherwise anonymous cluster of buildings either side of a dirty main road, Zisiqiao’s infamy derives from its population of over six million snakes. Pulling in off the road, the only initial indication that we’re in the right place is a sign for the seemingly abandoned Original Snake Flavour Restaurant. However, closer inspection of the neighbouring houses reveals rows of concrete bunkers in their back gardens. Resembling pig sties, the low-rise concrete walls house small patches of grass, bowls of water, rickety wooden huts and shades, and dozens and dozens of snakes.
Beyond the bunkers of one house, three villagers sit beside a huge bowl of reptiles. A young man is taking the creatures and slicing them open while two ladies twist them into coils and onto large metal kebab sticks. The coils are then placed on metal grills before being slotted into a large brick oven and baked.
The stench is overwhelming, but the villagers don’t seem to notice. ‘I’ve been doing this for years,’ says Ms Yang, who was born in Zisiqiao (but is no direct relation to Yang Hongchang). ‘People have been raising snakes here for decades.’
The serpents are sold for use in medicine and pharmaceutical products, with the dinodon species of snake that Ms Yang bakes fetching around 100RMB/ jin. Other houses nearby host similar operations, with most back yards lined with concrete bunkers and filled with sacks of snakes, but they all pale into insignificance next to Yang Hongchang’s operation further up the road. Occupying a site of 800sqm, Yang’s farm is home to four million snakes and a sign at the main entrance proudly declares his complex to be China’s Number One Snake Village.
We’ve been doing this for over 40 years,’ says Yang. ‘It started as a small business like a lot of the others in the village, but our family grew it until it became too big to just have at home. That’s when we bought this site and expanded.’ His farm boasts a huge variety of snakes in a wide range of sizes and colours, many of them deadly, and, taken together, extremely valuable – the ‘five step’ snakes for example are worth around 750-800RMB each he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how he has grown his family business from a small backyard industry into a multi-million yuan enterprise, Yang is passionate about what he does. Affable and friendly, and with a cigarette never far from his mouth, he is more than willing to show off his collection of snakes, walking us around the numerous pits and cages, taking each variety out in turn to show us and expound on their individual attributes and supposed medicinal benefits.
It is the healing power of the snakes which Yang is most keen to discuss. His modest office building on the site displays a range of plaques from government health organisations beside a cabinet filled with snakes in jars and boxes of drugs in Tylenol-like packaging but with names such as ‘Snake Gall Capsules’. It looks like a snake-themed pharmacist, which in a way is exactly what Yang’s business is.
While many of the families in the village merely rear snakes, Yang’s company produces its own range of medicines and products too, selling them to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and South Korea.
His major sales pitch comes when he asks one of his workers to find ‘the boy’. A 24-year-old from Guilin surnamed Wang, ‘the boy’ was diagnosed with polio when he was 11 years old.
'His family had taken him to lots of doctors and even a specialist in Beijing,’ says Yang, ‘but the condition kept getting worse and he couldn’t walk. Then they saw our snake farm on CCTV and he came to live here. He’s been here nearly six months now, taking snake medicine every day.’ Yang is keen to play up this story, and repeatedly emphasises the ability of snake medicine to heal illnesses (at one point claiming that it can help fight against AIDS). True or not, Wang is now able to stand unaided and walk with the help of a stick.
It’s a remarkable tale, but then Yang is a polished story-teller. His empire has earned him the attentions of numerous media from home and abroad, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to take newcomers around his facility, opening the various cages and removing, or shining a torch at, the snakes he keeps. Walking past buckets of dead chicks and frogs used for feeding the snakes, Yang surveys his snake farm before estimating that the value of his stock is ‘several million renminbi’. Little wonder then that Yang has earned the nickname of ‘The Snake King’.