Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Building Sea Walls

While seawalls and canals played an important role in Wenzhou’s plain formation, they were also sites of conflict and instruments of struggle. Focusing on a case in 1901, which I have explored further in my 2013 article on Zhang Gang's life, this section will examine how seawall construction triggered a conflict between villages (Guo 2013).

In 1901, after a thunderstorm demolished the harbor of Rui'an, the local communities discussed plans to rebuild the seawall. One villager from Xiaodianxia expressed willingness to donate to the communities, asking Zhang Gang—who was a native of the Tingtian village—to coordinate the project. Zhang had previously suggested the government rebuild the seawall. He was delighted to take on this new role.

After a prompt survey of the surrounding area, Zhang found that a nearby seashore had been severely destroyed. He proposed to lengthen the seawall so that it could protect a majority of the land. However, the neighboring village, Houli, argued that the new wall would invade its lands. With Zhang’s intervention, the villagers reached an agreement for their seawall boundary.

Unfortunately, the agreement only lasted for one day. The villagers from Houli and Tingtian argued that the other side had crossed the boundary. Those from Houli carried over 100 wooden sticks to threaten Tingtian farmers, while the latter turned to borrow militia weapons from Zhang Gang’s stocks (Zhang Gang’s father had previously organized a militia during the Taiping Rebellion). Ultimately, the two sides did not battle, but tensions continued to boil over.

The following day, Zhang Gang invited the representatives of both sides to settle the dispute. He condemned the Houli elders for failing to control their “ne’er-do-wells,” as they were the ones that first started the quarrels. He also waived Houli’s responsibility of providing compensation, probably in the hope of showing an impartial attitude. After that, he designated a boundary between the villages and asked both sides to maintain the peace.

A new seawall was then built along the coast. While Zhang himself did not mention how local officials dealt with this seawall, sources suggest that the county government built a long seawall from Dongshan to Meitou (which covered the shore between Houli and Tingtian).

However, the conflicts between these villages did not cease. In the following years, villagers continued to blame their neighbors for stealing crops, eroding soil, and poisoning fish. Like many other communal affairs, seawall construction was deeply entrenched in local politics and economic competition, and hence became a common source of disputes.

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