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

Feuding, Racing, and Religious Conflicts

The great Dragon Festival provided the people with the desired opportunity of showing the young man their opinion of his detested foreign proclivities. “As one of us,” they said in effect, “you shall not worship that outside barbarian god, Yi-su [Jesus], and you shall worship on the other hand our own great dragon god, both for yourself and also as our representative” — the latter a ceremony he had never before been called upon to perform.

When Lucy Soothill lived in Wenzhou, she witnessed how local people—like many others in the rest of the country—performed the Dragon Boat Festival, as it was widely associated with local affairs and people's daily lives. The “great dragon god,” Lucy described, was perceived as a deity that any community member, who was treated by his fellows as “one of us,” should worship in their communities. On the contrary, Lucy's God was viewed as an “outside barbarian god,” especially when it was deemed as a threat to local beliefs and cultures.

Lucy was primarily concerned about her mission, and hence her only account of dragon boat incidents was correlated to the tensions between Christians and non-Christians. Yet, the incident she described was not merely about how a few native Wenzhounese converted to Christianity or about how the majority of local communities held hostile attitudes towards them. The case here was closely related to a feud between several villages. While fighting over dragon boat races was a convenient excuse to organize campaigns for local political struggles, it was also a way to mobilize those who would like to resist the influence of foreign religions.

The incident happened in 1895, around 10 years after Lucy's husband encountered a serious religious incident in Wenzhou. Two villages along the Cedar Creek (Nanxi River), Maple Grove (Fenglin) and Crag Head (Yantou), experienced decades-long feuding. The clans of these two villages even had a strict intermarriage ban, going back years. When the Crag Head villagers heard that a man from Maple Grove, Ding-er (Xu Ding'ao), had converted to Christianity, their anger rose again. They disturbed the opposing villagers immediately by accusing them of introducing an “evil religion.”

The antagonism between the two villages eventually became an anti-Christian campaign within each community. Lucy's husband, William Soothill, had previously preached the gospel in these villages. He had helped several men convert to Christianity, including Ka-kung, who was from Ding-er's opposing village, Crag Head. Ka-kung was once obsessed with fighting, cursing, and gambling. He decided to change his lifestyle after becoming a Christian. Yet his opponents still held enmity toward him and sought opportunities to get him in trouble.

In 1895, severe persecution of Christians took place in Maple Grove. William Soothill negotiated with the government in order to rescue Ding-er. The process took almost six months, after which Ding-er was eventually released from prison. However, the conflicts did not cease. Ding-er and Ka-kung were continuously harassed by the villagers. Ka-kung was beaten and his wife was insulted, to the extent that she once attempted suicide.

Shortly after that, a more brutal persecution happened at the neighboring village of Vu-yoa (Furong). It was the home village of Ding-er's nephew, who had made it public that he followed his uncle's Christian teachings. The villagers had warned this young man to stay away from the foreign religion and took advantage of a Dragon Boat Festival to instruct him on how to worship the dragon god—in order to be “one of them.”

Apparently, all these warnings did not work, and the use of dragon boats only fueled the sentiment against foreign religion and opponents. During this persecution, Ding-er and Ka-kung, together with another Christian, Pang-di, went to Vu-yoa in hopes of reasoning with the antagonists. The three men did not even have a chance to start a discussion, as a brutal attack quickly came upon them. Ka-kung was almost beaten to death. Ding-er, on the other hand, successfully escaped. Pang-di was pelted with stones and thrown into the center of a pool deep enough to drown him. Fortunately, he was saved by an old man, received treatment, and recovered in the following days.

Ka-kung was not that lucky. He was beaten several times, and was dragged out again and again. His clansmen at Crag Head now thought it was a good opportunity to amass a crowd of villagers to march to Vu-yoa. Due to these new conflicts, along with previous ones, the two villages were now serious and intense adversaries. The Vu-yoa elders eventually advised their young villagers to release Ka-kung. Unfortunately, tensions continued in the following years, as the two villages also had a rivalry with Maple Grove.

Lucy had never visited the conflict scenes herself. But she heard that the fighting had lasted for years—not only between Crag Head and Vu-yoa, but also between Maple Grove and Crag Head. In her book, she mentioned that due to the fighting between Crag Head and Maple Grove, the men from the latter burnt down the homes of the former, while the former, in turn, brought guns to threaten those from the latter village. Right after that, the magistrate told them that he had already “been [up there] sixty times to hold inquests on violent deaths, and the year had yet some months to run.”

Fighting was a common way to resolve disputes; however, it also enhanced rivalry and exacerbated the existing tensions. Lucy's narratives reveal how local feuds were mixed with religious conflicts and dragon boat races. While the accumulated hatred led to serious injuries and deaths, it also increased the demand for making peace and for adjusting inter-village relations through varied means.

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