In the previous section, I briefly discussed the ways dragon boat races were practiced, perceived, and negotiated in Wenzhou society. We now know that in Wenzhou, dragon boat races were not necessarily only performed at a “Dragon Boat Festival” (Duanwu Festival). We also understand that these races were not necessarily associated with plague expelling rituals and that they were frequently stymied by local politics and the distribution of resources. Here, we will discuss the culture of “sending off the boat” in Wenzhou—a practice that is symbolically and pragmatically related to dragon boat races, yet has its own distinctive beliefs and rituals.
As Paul Katz demonstrates in his pioneering study (1995), “sending off the boat” is a common practice in many regions of South China. Due to a fear of spreading diseases, residents in various provinces, such as Zhejiang and Fujian, developed rituals for sending boats off, along with any diseases, into the water. Despite regional variation, many rituals dispatched boats that carried paper money and food offerings. Some boats carried the statues of plague-related deities and their soldiers, while others carried items representing plague demons. As Katz points out, most of these rituals originated in Zhejiang during the Song dynasty (960—1279) and were often linked with the cult of Marshal Wen or other relevant beliefs. Their underlying idea of plague expulsion was closely associated with the Dragon Boat Festival and hence they shared several beliefs and deities. Their practices also derived from the plague expulsion rituals that were performed by non-Han peoples in different regions across South China. Moreover, as Katz’s study shows, throughout the late imperial period, local elites, officials, and merchants played an important role in the spread of this practice, creating various representations of the cult and different forms of rituals and festivals.
In Wenzhou, as well as many coastal regions, people usually placed paper in the boat listing the names of the plague deities and the nature of the rituals. They worshipped the deities, cast spells, patrolled the streets, and burned paper money. In some regions, people used paper boats or miniature boats for the ritual; while in others, people built large and beautifully decorated plague boats and placed ritual materials, paper money, and sacred items in them. During the ceremonies, people usually carried the deities or boats throughout the streets on a patrol to catch the demons and spirits whom they deemed were causing illness or misfortune. At the end of the rituals, people either set the boats afloat or burned them on the shore. In Wenzhou, people sometimes let the boat float for a while and then set it afire, and sometimes they set it ablaze right when the boat was set on the water. In some regions, people sent a small boat with several boatmen to monitor where the plague boat was going; while in others, people let the wind blow the boat away without any regard to where it went.
Regardless of the forms of the rituals, the key elements of sending a boat off—water, fire, and the boat—played important roles throughout the process: both water and fire were used to clean and purify the environment from demonic or disastrous elements; the boat was incorporated as a vehicle for carrying the deities and sending off the spirits; and water was a medium that could propel unclean things far away from the land and communities. Moreover, this practice constituted a space for local communities to manage their lives and handle unexpected situations. The ritual, the fire, and the water served as a boundary that demarcates the clean/healthy/fortunate and the unclean/ill/unfortunate realms of daily life. The symbolic use of boat and water also became an important component of Wenzhou’s social life, as it served as an instrument between the supernatural and mundane worlds.