Sailing on the Bowl River
Soothill, William Edward
It was the French war with China which caused the Riot that had taken place in the City-of-the-South two months before I reached there. The people had been in a restless fever of excitement for some time, fearing an attack from the French, who had attacked Foochow directly to the south. The city had been officially placarded with instructions ordering each householder to have ready, outside his door, a heap of big stones. Carpenters worked hard, both day and night, fashioning huge wooden cases, which were towed some distance down the bank of the river. When the watching fishermen gave the signal that the enemy was at the mouth of the river, these stones were to be carried by each householder and emptied into the cases, which were then to be sunk in mid-stream. Thus an impassable barrier would block the entrance to our river, the Ao-or Bowl River-from whose month our city is distant twenty miles.
When Lucy Soothill arrived in Wenzhou, it was only two months after a conflict between China and France. Residents and the government designed a water barrier close to the mouth of the Bowl River. It was not the first of its kind in this region, as similar designs had formerly appeared in the neighboring waters. The design that Lucy described, which was mainly based on the narratives of her husband, William Edward Soothill, simply demonstrated how significant this river was in local defense and regional transportation.
Lucy quickly learned about salt smugglers and battles around the water. It was also at this time that Lucy learned that pirates existed in this area:
Later, an amah of mine told me how, twenty years earlier, her own father was a passenger in a junk which was seized by pirates in these waters. With the rest of the passengers, he was thrown overboard. When he clung to the sides of the boat to save his life, they loosened his hold by stashing off his fingers with their knives. He fell back and was drowned. To Amah this seemed to be just another of life's trials, to be accepted with resignation.
Apparently, Lucy was quite impressed with this new world associated with the water. The clean and beautiful water seemed to be not so peaceful. Yet as she recalled, even if many foreigners had experienced extremely dangerous situations long before she arrived, she had “never heard a single protest against the rare visits of a British, or other foreign, gunboat.” She quickly got used to life in this water town, and even witnessed an important religious practice in Wenzhou, “Send a Boat”–a ritual performed to expel demonic elements–on three occasions.
What had brought all these elements–salt smugglers, pirates, and the practice of “Send a Boat” — to this water town? What constructed the life and culture of this city? In the following sections, I will examine the major waterways and the formation of Wenzhou's canal system. I will then further explore religious life on the water, with a focus on the dragon boat races that had long been popular in Wenzhou.