“Constructing a Water Town” examines the spatial history of water surrounding Wenzhou, a southeast Chinese city with extensive familiarity with water. It explores the evolution of canals, seawalls, and the Wenruitang River. It also examines how water influenced the life of local communities and served as a site, and tool, for actors to manipulate local politics and social relations. Drawing on an array of images and texts, this module shows how water shaped Wenzhou society and how local communities, in turn, structured the water spaces. As this module demonstrates, the competing powers and villages across the Wenzhou Plain had formed an arena, through constant adaptation and negotiation, in which local actors manipulated the ways of approaching and dealing with waters.
Similar to the modules of Shellen X. Wu and Hiroko Matsuda, this module considers the waters in Wenzhou as boundaries that demarcate and connect places, people, and social practices. Using the examples of the “tang” river system, dragon boat races, the “sending off a boat” ritual, and smuggling and piracy, this module demonstrates that water in Wenzhou draws borderlines between various realms of social life, including the new and old (cultivation) lands, the ritual and non-ritual alliances among communities, the clean and ill/polluted realms of life before and after plague-expulsion ceremonies, and the legal and illegal trades and activities surrounding the waters.
Moreover, as Edward S. Casey also points out, “Rather than being the zone in which human action gives out or comes to an end, the boundary is precisely where it intensifies: where it comes to happen in the most effective or significant sense.” Water in Wenzhou, in this sense, becomes an important arena where actions and historical events intensified, and thus creates a significant space wherein regimes and local actors constantly negotiated regional order and socio-political relations. Ergo, as this module argues, water as a contested zone in Wenzhou society did not merely determine how local actors perceived, responded, and manipulated matters associated with water; it also facilitated encounters, confrontations, and negotiations between different sectors and realms within the society.