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

Zhang Gang: A Village Man in Rui'an

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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