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Preparing the Ceremonies
As Paul Katz (1995) points out, most plague-expulsion festivals in Zhejiang centered on the cult of Marshal Wen (also known as the Loyal and Defending King), whose multiple images co-existed and mutually shaped one another. The ceremonies involving “sending off a boat” took place when epidemics struck. In Wenzhou, elders met and organized the rituals at the temple that enshrined the King of the Eastern Ou (circa 251—185 BCE), an ancient king who protected and developed Wenzhou more than 2,000 years ago. They urged local residents, along with other temples, to donate funds to support the ceremonies. They also hired Daoist priests to prepare and perform the ritual in front of the King of the Eastern Ou temple.
The ceremonies could be performed either for communities or for individuals. However, not everyone could afford the donation or hire their priests. According to a report in the Shen Bao, one of the largest Chinese-language newspapers, to hold such a ritual in Wenzhou, each family had to pay at least 30-40 foreign silver dollars. Expenses included the fees for the priests and the costs for the boat, paper ritual items, candles, and sacrificial offerings. Thus, some regions developed creative ways to organize rituals for those in need. In 1883, for example, another epidemic struck Wenzhou and killed many people. Some families then hired Daoist priests to perform a ritual for their sick family members. Those who did not join in advance could still participate on the site by sailing alongside the plague boat. In some places, villagers helped their fellow infected neighbours by donating sacrificial animals for the ritual. This would often help strengthen community solidarity; sadly, in the end, some regions ran out of livestock and starved because of the ritual.
In some cases, tragedy happened while others were celebrating joyous events. One example from 1883 describes a time when a carpenter was dying of the plague while another family in his residence complex was holding a wedding ceremony. As the relatives of the carpenter were crying intensely, the loud music of the wedding drowned out their voices so that the guests did not hear their crying. In 1887, when the epidemic struck Wenzhou again, priests were busy sending boats off and doctors were hurrying to treat patients. The situation was so dire that some patients died within a few hours and some even collapsed on the road. The managers of the Temple of the Eastern Peak, where Marshal Wen served the Emperor of the Eastern Peak, hurriedly raised funds and sent Marshal Wen to patrol the streets. However, while some experienced hardships, pharmacies and coffin shops were flourishing due to the pandemic. Such disparate stories involving sadness and happiness were not uncommon in Wenzhou life during the years of plagues.
Some of these rituals caused disputes within communities. For example, in 1883, a man prepared sacrificial animals for the ritual at the same time as his mother-in-law was infected during the pandemic. His house was too small for the feast, so he asked the shop across the street to hold the ritual for him. The entire ritual took several nights, and each night the man took the sacrificial food from the shop to serve his sick mother-in-law, who proceeded to complain that the soup tasted oily. The man then checked with the shop and found that they used the meat and soup from the night before without preparing it anew. Furious at the way the shop pilfered his fresh food, he threw the soup at the shop. In another instance, this time in 1884, the plague struck the city again. The boat sending ceremonies were performed and the music of the rituals was loud, even during the night. During this time, some local bullies visited the families holding the ceremony in order to extort food and wine prepared as offerings to the deities. A group of hooligans asked the Zhaos, a local family, for food. They received chickens, ducks, and wine, but were still not satisfied and seized the entire amount of sacrificial food from the Zhaos, who then asked the security guards and firefighters to expel the hooligans.