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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.
Building on Water
Our enforced isolation on the River's Heart had one advantage. It gave us better opportunities to explore the neighbourhood than we ever had again. The City-of-the-South is considered to be one of the most picturesque of Chinese cities, and I have heard it grandiloquently called the Venice of China. We certainly made the most of its river, charming scenery, and encircling hills, thereby provoking sarcastic comments from the Commissioner. "You cannot eat hills. A club would be more satisfying," he said.
In 1931, Lucy Soothill (1857–1931) made this vivid comment in her bibliographical book, A Passport to China. She and her husband, noted Sinologist and missionary William Edward Soothill (1861–1935), lived in Wenzhou for nearly 25 years (1884–1907; William arrived in 1881). They once lived in the “River's Heart” — an island in the middle of the river that housed the British consulate during their stay. They also established many churches and used them as major sites for their mission. After heading to North China for another two-decade journey, the couple still reminisced about this beautiful city. They began calling it “The City-of-the-South,” as this town had been so special in their long trip across China.
To Lucy, this “[one] among the cleanest of Chinese cities” had brought them incredible memories. Rivers and canals scattered across the city. Bridges and boats connected the communities, and people used waterways as often as land routes. While these appeared to be exotic to Lucy, they also left her with unforgettable experiences. Lucy greatly enjoyed the convenience of canals and small boats. She noted how canals in Wenzhou differed from the English rivers she used to live beside:
The waterways of South China are wonderful. Some of the canals are as wide as our English rivers, run long distances, and are often beautiful. We sat in the bottom of the little boat, our bedding making excellent back-rests, being so arranged by our youthful attendant, the Bright One. The canal carried us "past twenty towns and half a hundred bridges." At one o'clock we stopped outside the temple of The Narrow Gate, where we ate our lunch and obtained boiling water for our coffee… At three in the afternoon we reached the City-of-Clear-Music-Ngoh-ts'ing… There were no railways, cars, cabs, horses, or carts; no mills, gas, or electric light. Nothing but the long rows of one-storeyed dwellings, plenty of empty spaces, and several fine canals.
Apparently, Lucy was quite impressed by how vastly this city was “built on” the water. In the following parts of this module, I offer examples of these incidents during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, to elaborate on what this water town was like during the turn of the century and how it went through social and political transformations throughout this period.
Feuding, Racing, and Religious Conflicts
Dragon Boat Festival
The great Dragon Festival provided the people with the desired opportunity of showing the young man their opinion of his detested foreign proclivities. "As one of us," they said in effect, "you shall not worship that outside barbarian god, Yi-su [Jesus], and you shall worship on the other hand our own great dragon god, both for yourself and also as our representative" — the latter a ceremony he had never before been called upon to perform.
When Lucy Soothill lived in Wenzhou, she witnessed how local people—like many others in the rest of the country—performed the Dragon Boat Festival, as it was widely associated with local affairs and people's daily lives. The "great dragon god," Lucy described, was perceived as a deity that any community member, who was treated by his fellows as "one of us," should worship in their communities. On the contrary, Lucy's God was viewed as an "outside barbarian god," especially when it was deemed as a threat to local beliefs and cultures.
Lucy was primarily concerned about her mission, and hence her only account of dragon boat incidents was correlated to the tensions between Christians and non-Christians. Yet, the incident she described was not merely about how a few native Wenzhounese converted to Christianity or about how the majority of local communities held hostile attitudes towards them. The case here was closely related to a feud between several villages. While fighting over dragon boat races was a convenient excuse to organize campaigns for local political struggles, it was also a way to mobilize those who would like to resist the influence of foreign religions.
The incident happened in 1895, around 10 years after Lucy's husband encountered a serious religious incident in Wenzhou. Two villages along the Cedar Creek (Nanxi River), Maple Grove (Fenglin) and Crag Head (Yantou), experienced decades-long feuding. The clans of these two villages even had a strict intermarriage ban, going back years. When the Crag Head villagers heard that a man from Maple Grove, Ding-er (Xu Ding'ao), had converted to Christianity, their anger rose again. They disturbed the opposing villagers immediately by accusing them of introducing an "evil religion."
The antagonism between the two villages eventually became an anti-Christian campaign within each community. Lucy's husband, William Soothill, had previously preached the gospel in these villages. He had helped several men convert to Christianity, including Ka-kung, who was from Ding-er's opposing village, Crag Head. Ka-kung was once obsessed with fighting, cursing, and gambling. He decided to change his lifestyle after becoming a Christian. Yet his opponents still held enmity toward him and sought opportunities to get him in trouble.
In 1895, severe persecution of Christians took place in Maple Grove. William Soothill negotiated with the government in order to rescue Ding-er. The process took almost six months, after which Ding-er was eventually released from prison. However, the conflicts did not cease. Ding-er and Ka-kung were continuously harassed by the villagers. Ka-kung was beaten and his wife was insulted, to the extent that she once attempted suicide.
Shortly after that, a more brutal persecution happened at the neighboring village of Vu-yoa (Furong). It was the home village of Ding-er's nephew, who had made it public that he followed his uncle's Christian teachings. The villagers had warned this young man to stay away from the foreign religion and took advantage of a Dragon Boat Festival to instruct him on how to worship the dragon god—in order to be "one of them."
Apparently, all these warnings did not work, and the use of dragon boats only fueled the sentiment against foreign religion and opponents. During this persecution, Ding-er and Ka-kung, together with another Christian, Pang-di, went to Vu-yoa in hopes of reasoning with the antagonists. The three men did not even have a chance to start a discussion, as a brutal attack quickly came upon them. Ka-kung was almost beaten to death. Ding-er, on the other hand, successfully escaped. Pang-di was pelted with stones and thrown into the center of a pool deep enough to drown him. Fortunately, he was saved by an old man, received treatment, and recovered in the following days.
Ka-kung was not that lucky. He was beaten several times, and was dragged out again and again. His clansmen at Crag Head now thought it was a good opportunity to amass a crowd of villagers to march to Vu-yoa. Due to these new conflicts, along with previous ones, the two villages were now serious and intense adversaries. The Vu-yoa elders eventually advised their young villagers to release Ka-kung. Unfortunately, tensions continued in the following years, as the two villages also had a rivalry with Maple Grove.
Lucy had never visited the conflict scenes herself. But she heard that the fighting had lasted for years—not only between Crag Head and Vu-yoa, but also between Maple Grove and Crag Head. In her book, she mentioned that due to the fighting between Crag Head and Maple Grove, the men from the latter burnt down the homes of the former, while the former, in turn, brought guns to threaten those from the latter village. Right after that, the magistrate told them that he had already "been [up there] sixty times to hold inquests on violent deaths, and the year had yet some months to run."
Fighting was a common way to resolve disputes; however, it also enhanced rivalry and exacerbated the existing tensions. Lucy's narratives reveal how local feuds were mixed with religious conflicts and dragon boat races. While the accumulated hatred led to serious injuries and deaths, it also increased the demand for making peace and for adjusting inter-village relations through varied means.