Living on a plain with extensive “tang” rivers, people had long enjoyed water transportation in Wenzhou. Ferries and boats could be seen everywhere. Water routes remained the main option roughly until the late 1990s.
Here, I will briefly explore a Rui'an village man's experiences with water transportation. The gentleman here, Zhang Gang, was a teacher and mediator in the village of Tingtian. From 1888 to 1942, he recorded almost everything in his diary, including his conversations with friends and officials, his meals and the goods he purchased, the places he visited and the books he has read, and the disputes he reconciled and the events he witnessed. Unsurprisingly, he recorded many of his thoughts about water in this precious diary.
In my 2013 article, “Living with Disputes,” I explore Zhang Gang's experiences with local actors during his mediation practice. Here, I will focus on Zhang Gang's experiences with water, which occurred every day—and sometimes, every hour. During the Chinese New Year, he traveled by boat to greet his friends. He took a boat to watch dramatic performance. He would watch fireworks and lanterns from a boat. He also took a boat to sweep ancestor’s tombs.
Sometimes, he would hire a boatman to take him and his friends to travel around. Zhang Gang had a group of friends who liked to write poems and comment on books. He quite enjoyed trips with them, even if the trip was so short that they could finish it within a few hours. After these boat trips, Zhang Gang and his friends would usually relax in a tea house or a friend’s place. Sometimes they would visit an attraction, such as a temple, other times they would have a meal before going home or staying at a relative’s place.
Zhang Gang also traveled by boat to visit officials. As a village mediator, he was obliged to deal with lawsuits and disputes in a prompt manner, and boats could help him reach this goal. In many cases, Zhang Gang had to meet different parties before he settled a dispute. He even used boats to escape quarrels—he did this in an 1899 dispute, where he fled to a boat and carried the compensation to the victims of the incident.
Boats made his life convenient, but they also caused trouble in some situations. In 1888, for example, Zhang Gang wanted to travel by boat to take a civil service exam. The boatman attempted to raise the price. Zhang and the boatman had a dispute about the rate, leading Zhang to pay a fee to a yamen runner—the government personnel who exercised a wide range of administrative functions—to report this to the government. The boatman then had no choice but to accept the rate, so he intended to be late the next morning. Zhang Gang quickly reported this to an official, who sent a runner to urge the boatman to show up. In the end, the boatman took Zhang to the next stop. Zhang was aware he had pushed the boatman quite hard, so he agreed to buy more food and wine for the poor man after the ride.
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What We Learned
Learn how multivocal spatial history changed how we approach our research
David R. Ambaras
Bodies and Structures helps me to think comparatively about the kinopolitics of the Japanese empire and the larger region to which it related. The officially-organized movement of Chinese settler-migrants into the Xing An frontier zone differed from the pilgrimages to the Japanese metropole of elite colonial students like Cai Peihuo, or the journeys along informal migration circuits, often improvised and sometimes clandestine, of marginal men from Fuqing to Japan and Japanese women to Fuqing. But together, they make us think about the dislocations, large and small, that made people (as subjects or as bodies) available for incorporation into new projects of spatial control, while at times putting new forms of pressure on state territorial imperatives. Reading across modules also prompted me to think about how to situate the world inhabited by my Fuqing peddlers, who sometimes sold medicine alongside cloth and other sundries, in relation to the emerging spatiality of modern drug store franchise networks, and to that of the core urban department stores that offered different kinds of textiles and commodified dreams from those that were carried on foot into remote villages across the archipelago. Each of these commercial networks produced its own contact zones: the juxtaposition of modules opens possibilities for comparing them.
Working on this project has also enabled me to reflect more fully on the materiality of movement and the frictions attendant on it. Not only can one compare the experiences of the mobile bodies in the above examples; one can also think about the subjectivities of those who attempt to capture space as they move through and record it: the self-confident excursions of Charles Gail through the physical and social terrain of occupied Okinawa (but how was he seen?); the more tentative incursions of Japanese consular police officers into the unstable Fujianese hinterland; the positioning of Kon Wajirō and his modernologist students at their assigned stations as they sought to represent bodies in motion through a burgeoning urban consumer zone; or Ishikawa Kōyō's remarkably disciplined movements (conditioned by the protocols of civil defense) as he photographed Tokyo's transformation into a site of utter terror and devastation (this a stark contrast to the sense of complete spatial domination affected by American air raid planners and B-29 crews).
Going beyond the subject matter itself, can one draw on our varied reflections to create a different kind of narrative or analytical space? Clearly, Scalar offers the possibility for hyperlinked, nonlinear presentations involving a rich variety of sources. Each of us has explored some aspect of this digital writing process in our own modules, and the tag map and grid offer the possibility for visualizing crossings and connections. While developing these approaches further, I would like to see the collective start to experiment actively with the construction and performance of narratives and arguments that build from the ground up with elements from multiple modules.
In my module I set out to investigate the social history of biological warfare in the Red River Delta during the First Indochina War. This project called for writing about the voices of Viet Minh officials, medical and agricultural experts, and local cadres, which I could access through published and archival materials. My project also called for writing about the perspectives of famers and others in the delta who did not leave lasting written traces. Reading the archives against the grain helped, but as I found out from participating in Bodies and Structures, there was a lot to learn about the collective experience of biological warfare from spatial methods.
First, engaging with the Bodies and Structures project pushed my thinking forward on the terms and concepts of my project. The combination of instant communication and increased time to reflect enabled by sharing virtual space took some getting used to—but I found hashing out hashtags over Slack and on other platforms really interesting. These conversations helped me get closer to what I wanted to say about the boundaries between, say, bodies and structures in the Red River Delta. For example, I found debates about keywords associated with the airplane and the kinds of viewing it enabled, and necessitated, very enlightening. I was also encouraged to look at how the concepts of the Sinosphere and of the borderlands shaped the official and popular responses to the threat of biological warfare.
Second, I learned a lot methodologically from how other scholars mapped the movement of smallpox vaccinators, marginal migrants, and of opium smugglers, and then used those maps to say something unexpected about the relevant societies. In terms of reading sources, I drew inspiration from the analysis of images reproduced in print material from Qing China and those contained in colonial Taiwanese libraries, along with images produced by a mid-century Japanese father-photographer and a mid-century US army captain.
Third, participating in Bodies and Structures allowed me to think about narrative in the digital humanities. The project forced me to struggle with how to translate grounded, rooted places into timeless, digital scalar space. The approaches of participants writing about riverine communities, religious communities, drug stores, and department stores all provided grist for the mill. If it sounds like I learned a lot from this project—I did!
Bodies and Structures lets me “read across places” in collaboration rather than in isolation. The modules present a range of different spatialities: peddler routes, ruinscapes, militarized borders, contested empire, island, and retail floor plans. Exploring my collaborators’ spatial arguments helped to open up and at the same time anchor the rapidly multiplying types of spaces bubbling up from the two-dimensional journal pages with which I began this project. Before Bodies and Structures, I had been focusing on the challenges of developing a coherent narrative regarding the conflicted nature of Mitsukoshi’s wartime journals. However, working with my collaborators helped me begin to catch glimpses of faintly visible maps hovering over and in the journal pages. It turns out a New Year’s gift box is not just about class and nation, but also the production and distribution networks necessary to put together the collection of savories and sweets. Such a ghost map might look a little like Ambaras’ peddler itineraries or Yang’s franchise store network. A running series on daughters of elite households offers data points to trace the contours of neighborhoods where the wealthy clustered, their ephemeral spatiality resonating with that of Wright’s vanished Okinawan sites. Reportage from the Japanese front lines starts to demand triangulation with the locations of Chinese and guerrilla forces, while essays celebrating luxury cruises to Southeast Asia reinscribe the imagined geography of empire contested by McDonald’s Cai Peihuo. Not only did the multiplicity of spatialities claimed by Mitsukoshi Department Store become increasingly apparent to me, but the method of spatializing our analysis made it possible for me to present the journal series in more depth, with more accuracy, and with more embeddedness than traditional narrative has hitherto allowed.
When I began to work on my module for Bodies and Structures, I expected that it would give me an opportunity to express spatial aspects of my research that had been latent within earlier versions of it. It certainly did that, and it productively forced me to rethink my ideas about territory, boundaries, and scale, and to make explicit my own process of “deep-mapping” the city of Jilong (Keelung). Much of this reconsideration and conceptual evolution took place in the context of discussions with the project’s collaborators. For example, I came in with a sense of the intersection of divine and earthly space in the act of the raojing or the process of defining a deity’s local cult by parading its likeness through the city streets. Through the project, I developed a clearer definition of sacred geography as a flat space, where place, time, and distance have no meaning; and a form of imaginative geography created by human societies and imbued with organizing principles that allow it to interact with and influence their everyday lives. Perhaps most illuminating at the conceptual level was our collective effort to grapple with issues of scale (local, national, regional, state, individual, etc.) without applying fixed hierarchies to the relationships between the different layers. Working on the project also enabled me to see my sources as things that historical actors had created in order to define and make sense of their worlds, and which I then used to map the physical and imaginative spaces of Jilong.
The other important thing that I learned from Bodies and Structures was about spatial history. The modules cover a remarkably disparate range of topics, linked only by a particular metageographical concept (the region of East Asia) and a vague periodization (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). As examples of narrative history, many of them could not meaningfully speak to each other, but as spatial histories, they overlap in often unexpected, but productive, dialogue. Reading Maren Ehlers’ module about disease-control strategies in late Tokugawa Japan, I saw clear connections to my own in terms of concerns with the reinforcement and erasure of boundaries in relation to things that could not be seen. Similarly, the process of crossing or transgressing borders, by the opium smugglers in Petery Thilly’s module or the Okinawan migrants in Hiroko Matsuda’s, reinforced my sense of boundary construction as a contested process. Also, the ways that science and technology provided mastery over space (or at least the illusion of mastery) in the modules by Sakura Christmas (on the aerial view of territory), Nathaniel Isaacson (on the mobility of images of trains), and Mitch Aso (on biological warfare), helped me to rethink the leaders of the religious festivals in my module and to link scientists, engineers, publishers, and spiritual leaders in a common category of people who made socially acceptable claims of being able to bring order to the world.
This project has been educational for me in many ways, but perhaps my biggest take-away was that spatial humanities can help integrate questions and sources we often locate in separate dimensions: microscopic biological processes, material artifacts, physical geography and built environments, written and visual media, and social structures as well as other constructs of the human imagination. The conceptual vocabulary gradually developed by Kate and David (and to some extent also by us) had the effect of flattening some of the categories I had long considered natural in my work. For example, I started to imagine both human bodies and written texts as “vehicles,” and decided to subsume various social structures under a broad notion of “network.”
My thinking about space evolved a lot while working on my module. When I started out, I was focused mainly on issues of territorial fragmentation and integration in late Tokugawa Japan. But as a result of our discussions, I reorganized my module so it would no longer privilege any particular spatial problem or perspective. I put the smallest possible agent—the cowpox virus/vaccine—at the center and followed its travels through various material, geographic, social, and imaginary environments. Although the cowpox virus was entirely ignorant of human designs to perpetuate it, its movement through space and time actually sharpens our understanding of human constructs, including the status order and the territoriality of samurai rule.
I found our conversations between contributors very enlightening, perhaps in part because we all dealt with different times and places. Peter Thilly's module probably felt the most familiar to mine as it also looks at the movement of a substance (in his case opium) across borders, passed along by legitimate and illegitimate handlers at a time of relatively weak state control. I found unexpected common ground with Evan Dawley's module about sacred geographies in colonial Taiwan, especially the role of professionals in redrawing boundaries in the context of a transition to a new order. Tim Yang's and Noriko Aso's modules inspired me to explore the role of built environments in perpetuating smallpox vaccinations. And Mitch Aso's and Sakura Christmas' modules helped me think about the spatial implications of scientific practice as well as the possibility of ephemeral networks, which could emerge between bodies as well as points in physical space. The innovative software environment also motivated me to experiment with new forms of narration and presentation and annotate, for example, a vaccination flyer and a clinic floor plan.
Before I joined Bodies and Structures, my research focused on law, outlaws, and local communities. I was studying a “pirate queen,” Huang Bamei (1906–1982), who had wide connections with competing powers on the sea. I was also conducting research on a village man, Zhang Gang (1860–1942), who had recorded almost everything in his life for over 50 years, including his experiences with the rivers around his village. However, I had not explored the spatial aspect of all these projects and an important arena in which actors could manipulate local politics and social relations, namely, the water. Thanks to the organizers and contributors of Bodies and Structures, whose modules cover a wide range of topics that analyze space from different angles, I have put together some sources and developed a project on the spatial history of water in Wenzhou, a southeast Chinese city with extensive experiences with rivers and oceans. Through the process of mapping the activities on Wenzhou’s water, I have come to see water as a space, which is produced, reproduced, and manipulated in both physical and imagined ways and serves as a boundary for demarcating and connecting places, people, and social practices. By reading other contributors’ works, including Hiroko Matsuda’s module on borders of the Japanese Empire and Peter Thilly’s module on the maritime trade of opium, I have also learned that water in Wenzhou not only intensified encounters and confrontations but also embodied a process by which regimes and local actors reconstituted spatiality through various activities and agendas.
Strictly speaking, I am a scholar of literary and cultural studies, rather than a historian. Getting to be in dialogue with other scholars working on very different projects is what I love most about academia. I think that the “crisis” in the humanities is best confronted by doing a better job sharing what we do with an audience outside of academia, though. The biggest impact on my research has been to make me think about how to conduct and communicate humanities research that is accessible to a broader audience, and to think about the media we communicate in.
I want my work to be widely available, and to use new media in ways that allow people to get a deeper sense of the material than they would be able to get from traditional print. It turns out that this is really hard to do, and for all kinds of reasons. The limits of print are apparent—there’s no sound, no video, and you are lucky if you get one or two low-quality images. But, working outside of the linear mode of essays and books and creating something that allows your audience to explore freely turned out to be really hard. It felt like writing a dissertation all over again, where you are doing the research and learning a new form of composition at the same time, and you don’t actually have much of a handle on what you are doing until you’ve finished it.
Assuming we do learn to use websites, podcasts, video essays and the like to do all the things that a monograph can’t, the educational infrastructure is mostly built around print. If I publish a book, it will be in a library somewhere, and people can hopefully find it. It’s not as clear how digital materials will be maintained and curated. Tenured faculty also need to consider how they are going to use their privilege to make sure that work like this counts on junior faculty members’ CVs.
Bodies and Structures has given me the language and tools to explore the making of Japan’s imperial art world in a new way. Place is often taken for granted in historical research. Also, it tends to be seen as a fixed category. In contrast, Bodies and Structures emphasizes how place-making is a process and makes that process visible. The modules themselves have diverse architectures. They work with different scales and do not privilege any one type or agent of place-making. By dissecting a conventional research paper into a multitude of interconnected pages, media, sources, and tags, the modules bring to the fore the messy, fragmentary, and always incomplete process of writing history.
My module is based on my dissertation research. I had conflicted feelings about it. On one hand, I wanted to bring attention to the long disavowed involvement of Japan’s art world to empire-building. To excavate the infrastructures connecting Japan’s art world and those of Korea and Taiwan, to show the movement of artists (and artworks and art journals…) within the empire, and how the empire shaped artistic imagination. On the other hand, I did not want to create a sweeping narrative that would simply replicate the cultural imperialism present in so many writings and institutions of the time. The fragmentary nature of the module and connections with other existing and future modules help deflect any such reading. There are always more stories to tell about a place. Mine is just one story. I think that it is a worthwhile story to tell because it pushes us to think harder about how the presence of Taiwanese Chinese artists in Japan’s art world can change our understanding of Japanese art history and modern art in general.
Bodies and Structures changed how I understood Cai Peihuo and the spatial politics of empire. In my own work, I put Cai Peihuo into conversation with other political activists and organizations of his era, including the imperial tourism industry. Through the process of conceptually mapping Bodies and Structures, however, I saw that Cai’s argument was in conversation with other modes of ordering and representing space. Some are fairly obvious. Cai’s proposal to recognize the unique character of Taiwan as a place and grant self-rule on that basis is one case of using spatial ordering to make a political claim, as is Mitsukoshi’s reporting on Asia. Others, however, only came to light when we completed the conceptual mapping process. Cai’s claims for self-rule are part of a discourse of “peopling place,” to use Aso’s phrase, that also included Kon Wajirō, a figure associated with consumer modernity in the metropole rather than empire. And, when seen alongside Dustin Wright’s critical reading of Charles Gail’s photographs of Okinawa, the conservative nature of Cai’s approach to the politics of place becomes clear.
Juxtaposing Cai’s spatial politics alongside other modules underscored the particularity of Cai’s approach to space and place and more fundamental issues that structured spatial experiences in the era. Juxtaposing the mobility of Cai as a student against David Ambaras’s Fuqing peddlers illuminates how the elite nature of Cai’s encounter with empire shaped his approach to political activism. The juxtaposition of Kon’s representation of the gateway to the department store as the embodiment of the egalitarian nature of consumption with the intra-empire borders that colonized students faced, makes clear how the state and capital constituted people as both consumer-subjects and imperial-subjects – and that these identities were not two parts of a coherent whole “self” but which emerged in the encounter between a given body and a particular structure.
My approach to using maps in my writing and my thinking about space as a historian have evolved over the two years of working on Bodies and Structures. Working in collaboration with the other authors has taught me to become more intentional about identifying different coexisting spatial logics among the people and networks in my research, and has helped me find new ways to employ spatial insights to tell stories with maps. In “The Case Against Shi Hou,” the narrative and accompanying maps together serve to explain the development of a maritime lineage’s opium operations from incubation to an almost kingpin regional status, drawing out the ways in which the migration of the opium trade from Guangdong to Fujian in the 1830s was built on preexisting coastal trading networks. And in the “Jardine Matheson Global Network” path, maps and non-linear narrative text serve to explain that organization’s logics of profit: from production, shipping, insurance, political lobbying, right down to the receiving ships anchored off the shore of Fujian’s southern coast.
In the collaborative environment that Kate and David created for the authors of this project, we constantly churned through different articulations of spatial logics, and hashed how one might create a map or tell a story from the perspective of an imperial airline, a disease, a technology, or a religious institution. The way that these logics and maps change over time make up the stuff of the historical narratives that bring this site to life. That these modules were created in an interconnected fashion—both in their web presentation and in their actual germination, writing, and revision—means that visitors have a genuine opportunity to build on our work, perceive new connections, and interpret our evidence in new ways.
Okinawa is a place built on networks, some more obvious than others. Putting the photographs from The Okinawa Memories Initiative into dialogue with the other modules of Bodies and Structures has helped me to see more clearly the ways in which colonial and capitalist networks in postwar Okinawa shared many characteristics with similar prewar structures throughout East Asia. Okinawans today will often proudly tell you about their islands’ histories from centuries past, when the Ryukyu Kingdom was an important trade node and cultural transmitter between peoples throughout East Asia. This is no less the case when looking at the modern history of the islands. Anyone with an interest in Okinawan history will necessarily find themselves slipping into wormholes that deliver them to Tokyo, Honolulu, Beijing, and beyond.
While I’m excited to highlight these networks, Bodies and Structures also helped me to focus more on the things in Gail’s photos. The networks of consumption and commerce that appear in many of Gail’s photos of Okinawan markets and shops, some filled with repurposed American products, remind me of Timothy Yang’s insight in “The Global Space of a Drugstore.” While Japanese companies like Hoshi Pharmaceuticals drew inspiration from a marketplace of ideas and were inspired by American corporate practices, Okinawan shopkeepers and small business owners relied on American military products and military currency to survive. Both the pharmaceutical giant on the Japanese mainland and the humble shopkeeper in American-occupied Okinawa were deeply connected to global commodities and contemporary business practices.
In thinking about Okinawans themselves (Gail’s preferred subjects), I was drawn to the concluding section of David Fedman’s module on the destruction of Tokyo, in which he considers how new approaches to mapping historical experience might allow us “to probe the nature of total war more generally.” The dehumanization of the enemy gave license to the targeting of Japanese civilians. Gail, in his own way, tried to rehumanize a people who only seven years earlier were targeted by the U.S. military and killed en masse during the bloodiest battle of the entirely of World War II. The Okinawa Memories Initiative, perhaps, helps to show that total war lingered in Okinawa long after the fighting ceased.
Working with Bodies and Structures has given me a much more complex and multi-dimensional understanding of the Japanese Empire by illustrating the multiple parallel and intersecting pathways of development and points of friction in the making of empire—multiple spatialities that the simple map cannot accommodate. In turn, following these pathways has led me to really think about the meaning of “deep mapping” and the importance of spatiality to history. It is one thing to see in a group of Chinese officers who set up a settlement in the borderlands between Chinese, Soviet, and Japanese interests as an example of counter-imperialist imperialism. The physical isolation of the Shing An Tunken zone, however, did not mean that it was not connected to the larger undercurrents of empire and empire-making. Working on Bodies and Structures has made me see much more clearly these undercurrents.
The module “Cai Peihuo’s Inner Territory,” for example, uses Cai’s 1928 manifesto to critique the spatial hierarchy of the Japanese empire. Along the way, Cai’s path intersects with the development of colonial science and unexpectedly takes the reader to other points of resistance. Cai Peihuo followed a very different life trajectory from Ogura Nobu and her Chinese husband Chen Zhaopin in the “Border Controls” module, and even more dramatically different from the Chinese officers, who attempted to modernize an isolated frontier territory using the latest globally circulating ideas in agricultural science, geology, and economic development. To navigate these pathways is to find oneself taken unexpectedly across the physical space of empire and along flows of ideas, peoples, and energy.
The deliberately comparative nature of Bodies and Structures improved my understanding of the spatial politics of circulation and consumption. My module, “The Drugstore as Contact Zone,” analyzes how Hoshi Pharmaceuticals, like other drug companies of the day, attempted to control the space of a drugstore in order to create consumer-subjects who believed in an ethos of self-medication and participated in capitalist modernity. When read alongside Noriko Aso's module, the similarities between the idealized Hoshi drugstore and the Mitsukoshi department store are strikingly obvious and undoubtedly intentional -- it shows how drugstores and department stores were spaces that cultivated freedom of consumption and how medicines often proved to be no different from any other commodity. When viewed in conjunction with Shellen Wu's module, Hoshi's efforts to control the fraught point of contact between producer and consumer overlaps with Chinese officers' efforts to police the Shing An borderland, both of which notably depend on globally-circulating advances in social science. And when seen with Kate McDonald's analysis of Cai Peihuo's colonized imaginary of the inner territory, the importance of the middleman (in my case, the drugstore clerk) as gatekeeper, arbiter, and potential resister becomes apparent.
Racing through Water
Dragon Boat Festival
As one of the most popular holidays in Chinese society, Dragon Boat Festival, as well as dragon boat racing, have commonly been perceived as being associated with the commemoration of an ancient poet, Qu Yuan (circa 343 — 278 BCE). Yet, as historian Hsi-yüan Chen points out, the festival varies regionally in terms of rituals, deities, and dates, and it has been closely correlated with local identities, popular practices, and political deliberations (Chen 2008).
In Wenzhou, for example, this festival was not solely for the commemoration of Qu Yuan. It was linked with various sections in local society, and was also used as an instrument for conflicts and competition. As historian Roger Shih-chieh Lo persuasively argues, dragon boat races in Wenzhou–with varied origins, forms, and beliefs—have constantly been used for distributing social, cultural, and political resources. Local people usually used these races as an opportunity to show their opinions, and hence were involved in behind-the-scene conflicts and negotiations at their races and festivals (Lo 2019).
Moreover, while the races had constantly been regarded as an arena for competition, they were also related to one of the most important elements of Wenzhou society—namely, water. The canals and rivers were not only used for irrigation, flood drainage, and transportation, they were also used as boundaries between lands and as routes connecting villages with shared interests. These waterways could be the causes of disputes regarding the use of waters and lands; they could also serve as the site for resolving disputes or reshaping social relationships. In either case, dragon boat races have served as a useful instrument for local communities to connect, contest, or negotiate with one another.
In the following sections, I will use Zhang Gang's experiences to discuss how dragon boat racing became an integral part of daily life in Wenzhou. I will also use these cases to analyze how such races shaped the ways people interacted with water—especially the rivers and canals where the races were performed—and constructed a space for negotiating resources and communal affairs in people's daily life.
Dragon Boat Madam
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.
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.
Zhang Gang's Experiences with the Races
Dragon Boat Festival
As a village man who had witnessed and engaged in local affairs for over fifty years, Zhang Gang recorded numerous incidents in his diary involving dragon boat races. Here I will use an 1899 case, which I have explored in the 2013 article, “Living with Disputes,” to demonstrate how villages engaged in a dragon boat conflict and resolved the dispute through formal and informal channels.
Before the incident, Zhang Gang had witnessed the practice of dragon boat racing on many occasions. He was quite familiar with the customary practices surrounding these races, including the extortion that took place between racers and family members and the fighting between villages and lineages. In some cases, he mediated the disputes between villagers and even reported his observation to local officials.
When Rui'an celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival in 1899, fierce feuding took place between the Shen’ao and Yanxia villages. Thirteen villagers from Shen'ao were killed during the fighting. While Zhang's relatives in this villages informed him of this tragedy, many others came to ask Zhang to settle the dispute.
Zhang then went to Yanxia and Suifeng, the site of the slaughter, where people agreed to make peace with the victims' families. One of the victims’ relatives, Li Shumei, represented the victims. He and Zhang successfully persuaded the two sides to reach an agreement: Yanxia should pay 400 foreign yang and Suifeng should pay 300. Just when their negotiations had come to an end, a villager, Chen Pingdong, and a litigation master, Shao Yichen, requested additional payment. They attempted to rob Li and Zhang, where the latter successfully fled to a boat and carried the money away.
The villagers then abducted Li as a hostage. This prompted the magistrate to send runners to rescue Li and investigate the case. After that, the magistrate told Zhang to re-conduct the mediation and close the case. The entire case took around three months before compensation was finally paid. However, the perpetrators were not punished, even though state law stipulated severe punishments for manslaughter cases.
The motivation behind this fighting remains unknown to this day. Yet, as Zhang concluded in later years, such incidents usually involved extortion, competition, and various miscellaneous matters. Many “scoundrels,” as Zhang repeatedly asserted, saw the races as an opportunity to mobilize villagers and turn a profit through extortion or false accusations. Some took advantage of racing to take revenge on their opponents, either during the races or in following years. Some even destroyed their opponent's villages and property. At times, local officials banned this practice, but their runners (or later, the local policemen) received bribes and tolerated fighting by local bullies during the races. All these customs, together with the rivalries between neighboring villages, continued to fuel dragon boat fighting and eventually made it a violent practice in local society.
This page references:
- 1 2019-11-18T17:25:08-05:00 Zhang Gang (1860–1942) 11 From Zhang Junsun 張鈞孫 et al., Duyinyuan shiwen jicun 杜隱園詩文輯存 [Collected Essays and Poems from the Duyinyuan] (Hong Kong: Xianggang chubanshe, 2005), front page. plain 2021-08-12T07:11:18-04:00 1930s-1942 Zhang Junsun 張鈞孫 et al., Duyinyuan shiwen jicun 杜隱園詩文輯存 [Collected Essays and Poems from the Duyinyuan] (Hong Kong: Xianggang chubanshe, 2005), front page. Weiting Guo Used with permission. Weiting Guo WG-0015
- 1 2019-11-18T17:25:08-05:00 A Canal at Zhang Gang's Village 4 A canal at Zhang Gang's village. Photo by author, 2015. plain 2021-07-13T20:01:12-04:00 27.798252777778,120.69129166667 2015 Photo by author. Used with permission. Weiting Guo WG-0016
- 1 media/WENCHOW -- Une barque chinoise de voyage (0050)_thumb.jpg 2021-08-12T09:39:23-04:00 "Wenzhou–A Chinese traveling boat: the sampang" (by Cyprien Aroud) 2 "WENCHOW -- Une barque chinoise de voyage: le sampang," from Cyprien Aroud, La vie en mission: extrait des lettres de cyprien aroud, missionnaire en chine, 1899-1928 (Maison missionionnaire, Sd, 1936), 48-1. media/WENCHOW -- Une barque chinoise de voyage (0050).jpg plain 2021-08-12T09:42:09-04:00 1902–1928 Cyprien Aroud, La vie en mission: extrait des lettres de cyprien aroud, missionnaire en chine, 1899-1928 (Maison missionionnaire, Sd, 1936), 48-1. Copyright undetermined (http://rightsstatements.org/vocab/UND/1.0/). Weiting Guo WG-0050