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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.
The Way of the Dragon Boat
Dragon Boat Festival
As historian Roger Shih-chieh Lo (2019) points out, dragon boat racing in Wenzhou was not just a festival and religious practice. It was usually the cause of fighting and manslaughter. Yet, it was also used to maintain social relations and distribute local political resources. The paradoxical structure of a dragon boat race can be greatly attributed to the tensions between local groups in terms of the use of land and natural resources. It was also closely related to the dynamics between local families and other social powers.
The dragon boat race was not necessarily performed at the “Dragon Boat Festival” (Duanwu Festival). Both Lo and Hsi-yüan Chen (2008) point out that the Duanwu Festival did not necessarily involve a race, and that races did not always use dragon boats and could take place in any month of the year. In Wenzhou, dragon boat races were not necessarily associated with the rituals of expelling the plague or disastrous elements. As recent studies suggest, dragon boat racing was closely associated with local politics and the distribution of resources, and hence, was a common source of violent conflicts.
During racing days, the rivers and canals were filled with boats. As Zhang Gang noted in 1895, during racing, “over a hundred boats flooded [in]to the tang-canal…people at both shores prepared incense and offering[s] to welcome the Dragon God.” Some villages would hold their races in a bigger river, while others held their races in the narrow waters of a canal. Among others, as Zhang Gang recalled, the Gongrui, Xincheng, Tangxia, and Suifeng rivers had the most racing boats. The number of these boats may have even reached several hundred. As Zhang asserted, the main reason behind such racing was the collection of “dragon boat silver,” which was a fee requested by a bride’s parents-in-law or the “ne’er-do-wells” who demanded donations for building a ship.
The violent aspect of Wenzhou's dragon boat races has been richly recorded in historical documents. For example, in the Wenzhou Prefectural Gazetteer Compiled during the Wanli Regin (1604), the authors cited an earlier quote by Ye Shi (1150–1223) stating that the dragon boat race, as a customary practice, had usually caused fighting, injuries, and drowning. The racers extorted wine and feasts from the villages they passed. As a result, the officials frequently banned this race and its associated practice.
Unfortunately, the officials’ bans did not work very well, as local people still needed the race in order to compete for resources and negotiate with one another. Sometimes governments chopped off parts of the boats to prevent races in the regions. Yet, even with this “punishment,” villagers produced new boats and raced, collected wine and fees, fought their opponents, and even killed members of other villages.