Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Racing through Water

As one of the most popular holidays in Chinese society, Dragon Boat Festival, as well as dragon boat racing, have commonly been perceived as being associated with the commemoration of an ancient poet, Qu Yuan (circa 343 — 278 BCE). Yet, as historian Hsi-yüan Chen points out, the festival varies regionally in terms of rituals, deities, and dates, and it has been closely correlated with local identities, popular practices, and political deliberations (Chen 2008).

In Wenzhou, for example, this festival was not solely for the commemoration of Qu Yuan. It was linked with various sections in local society, and was also used as an instrument for conflicts and competition. As historian Roger Shih-chieh Lo persuasively argues, dragon boat races in Wenzhou–with varied origins, forms, and beliefs—have constantly been used for distributing social, cultural, and political resources. Local people usually used these races as an opportunity to show their opinions, and hence were involved in behind-the-scene conflicts and negotiations at their races and festivals (Lo 2019).

Moreover, while the races had constantly been regarded as an arena for competition, they were also related to one of the most important elements of Wenzhou society—namely, water. The canals and rivers were not only used for irrigation, flood drainage, and transportation, they were also used as boundaries between lands and as routes connecting villages with shared interests. These waterways could be the causes of disputes regarding the use of waters and lands; they could also serve as the site for resolving disputes or reshaping social relationships. In either case, dragon boat races have served as a useful instrument for local communities to connect, contest, or negotiate with one another.

In the following sections, I will use Zhang Gang's experiences to discuss how dragon boat racing became an integral part of daily life in Wenzhou. I will also use these cases to analyze how such races shaped the ways people interacted with water—especially the rivers and canals where the races were performed—and constructed a space for negotiating resources and communal affairs in people's daily life.

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