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

Making Alliances

As Zhang Gang mentioned in his diary, the Gongrui, Xincheng, Tangxia, and Suifeng rivers were the major sites for dragon boat racing. Other rivers also held racing, including those outside the Wenruitang region. In either case, the practice of dragon boat racing was an integral part of the ritual of forming an alliance.

According to Roger Shih-chieh Lo's recent work (2019), which adopts both historical and ethnographic approaches in the exploration of Wenruitang's dragon boat practice, three major ritual alliances existed in the Wenruitang region: (from top to bottom) the Xianyan-Xialin system, the Tangxia-Tangxi system, and the Xincheng-Xiacun system.

The villages in these systems paid tribute to their “Dragon Boat Madam,” which was a huge dragon boat that was used as a symbol for the entire ritual alliance. Upon the building of a new boat, villagers performed a ritual to invite gods to their boats, then carried the boat from their temple to the water. After the ceremony, the new boat was recognized as a member of the alliance, and hence was permitted to participate in racing under the Madam's scrutiny. Villages belonging to one ritual alliance were thus the players of local political games, using the races to confront and negotiate with other villages within the same alliance (Lo 2019).

The map here shows these three major regions, as well as their ceremonial centers (marked with a semi-circle “U” sign), which housed their Madam boat and possessed the power to adjudicate disputes. In some regions, as Lo points out, communities had built more than one Madam boat. The boundary of each alliance evolved over time, depending on the power balance and the values and shared interests between villages.

In general, the Dragon Boat Madam culture helped local communities maintain their local self-governance system. Villages formed a bond with one another using shared culture and ceremony. When disputes occurred, they also resorted to the deity and the authoritative figures who had managed these rituals.

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