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

Constructing a Water Town: The River, the Sea, and the Communities in Wenzhou

Water has shaped Chinese history. Yet, scholars have not thoroughly explored how water became an important space that shaped the life of many communities in the Chinese society. Delving into the case of Wenzhou, a southeast Chinese city with extensive water systems and rich experiences with rivers and oceans, this module examines the spatial history of water surrounding this city. As this module demonstrates, water in a city does not occur as merely a natural resource or a channel of transport; instead, it is a contested zone wherein a variety of actors negotiated local order, engaged in communal water politics, developed social organizations, and fostered cultural and religious life.

Wenzhou is located in the southeastern region of Zhejiang—around 200 miles south of Shanghai and near the northern border of the Fujian province. Facing the East China Sea and being at the periphery of the Western Pacific Ocean, Wenzhou had long served as a port for fisheries and coastal trade. Since the surrounding Yandang Mountains blocked Wenzhou’s land routes to the prosperous Jiangnan region and the southern provinces, the inhabitants of the city heavily relied on water routes in order to associate with the neighboring regions. The geographical location and the continued coastal trade turned Wenzhou into a major trade center in southeast China. In 1876, Wenzhou became a treaty port open to foreign countries and continued to develop its maritime trade and water transportation.

The coastal environment had significantly shaped Wenzhou’s economy and society. Trade, fisheries, and salt production remained the major economic activities along the coastal areas. Smuggling and piracy were common occurrences as traders hid in the surrounding waters and used the isles and the fishing villages as their bases. The mountainous isolation made it difficult for the state to deploy troops or extend its administrative reach to Wenzhou. Many pirates and smugglers thus continued to flourish around the seas, and had maintained wide connections with both local communities and the nearby regions, including Taizhou and Fujian. Yet, it was also because of such geographical features that many political regimes set up maritime defense infrastructures and made Wenzhou an important strategic region.

Against the same backdrop, the waters surrounding the city profoundly structured the daily life in Wenzhou. The inhabitants built seawalls and water gates to prevent flooding, especially during typhoons and rainy seasons. They also drew boundaries on the land along the seawalls, and competed for resources for cultivation and fishery. The three rivers that flowed from the western mountains to the eastern sea divided the city into several subordinate counties. Therefore, canals were built between rivers for irrigation and transportation purposes, forming an extensive water system—the Wenruitang River. The locals viewed this river as "the mother river of the Wenzhou people" because it nourished the lands of the Wenzhou Plain and connected the scattered regions through its canal channels. The density of water networks made Lucy Soothill (1857-1931), who served Methodist missionary in Wenzhou for nearly 25 years (1884-1907), call this city the “Venice of China.” Furthermore, due to sand accumulation and the emergence of new lands, the old seawalls along the coast gradually merged into the canals of the Wenruitang system. Such dynamic formation of canal system, as well as the accompanied demarcation of new lands amongst local communities, had become an integral part in the formation of the Wenzhou Plain. Thereby, as this module asserts, Wenzhou represents a distinctive example of a “water town” (shuixiang)—an urban settlement not only located in close proximity to a water body but also manifesting frequent interactions between water and local communities.

While water deeply influenced the life of local communities, it was also a site and implement for actors with varied interests and agendas to manipulate local politics and social relations. Villagers across the Wenzhou Plain used canals, seawalls, water gates, and bridges to mark the boundaries between different communities. The locals constantly relied on dragon boat rituals to set up cross-regional networks. The villages joined the ritual alliances to participate in communal affairs, and used dragon boat racing to compete with the other villages for social, political, and natural resources. Local cults were also developed around the waters, one such ritual is the “Send a Boat” practice wherein a boat is sent to the water with the belief that it would expel plague. All in all, the waters of Wenzhou have caused local communities to develop their distinctive cultures, and demonstrated the diverse experiences and contesting strategies belonging to different communities across the plain.

Consequently, this module contends that water in Wenzhou has constituted an important space and is a contested zone wherein regimes and local actors had constantly negotiated local order and socio-political relations. The water space in Wenzhou, which was vastly built on the water, was intertwined with ecological, social, and political structures of southeast China. It reveals how local people acted, perceived, and responded to the maneuvering of water and the associated matters. It also reflects upon the complex layers of experiences involving the water, including how actors from varied strata developed contesting strategies regarding the distribution of social, cultural, and political resources. Moreover, as this module argues, the water in Wenzhou has created a zone that is similar to what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone”—the “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.”  This module further demonstrates, the competing powers and villages across the Wenzhou Plain had formed up an arena through constant adaptation and negotiation in which local actors manipulated the ways of approaching and dealing with waters.

This module explores four aspects of the spatial history of Wenzhou waters. First, it examines the evolution of the Wenruitang River. This water system contains natural streams originating from mountains and other main rivers. It also contains canals that were built after the accumulation of sand. Residents built these canals not only for irrigation, but also for boundary-making purposes. The abandoned seawalls now serve as markers between communities. Thus, the entire “tang” river system continued to expand, while communities consistently divided new lands based on economic and social deliberation. Drawing on the newly available archives and local sources, this module elaborates on, and maps, the development of the Wenruitang River during the modern era (circa 1800s-1950s), which includes the construction of seawalls, water gates, and canals. It also explores the political and economic causes behind each major change the river went through, with a focus on the interaction between the environment and local communities.

The second aspect focuses on festivals and rituals. While canals became an integral part of daily life in Wenzhou, they also served as an important site during festivals and entertainment time, including the famous dragon boat races and performances. Similar to many regions in China, Wenzhou celebrated the dragon boat festival in every county. Due to the fact that this tradition was deeply embedded in popular religions and local politics, local communities utilized this competition as a way to settle disputes and restructure their relationships with neighboring villages. Recent studies have demonstrated how the festival varies regionally in terms of rituals, deities, performances, and dates. Sources also reveal how local officials frequently banned dragon boat races because they caused fighting, injuries, and drowning. Focusing on the ways in which dragon boat practices were enforced, challenged, and manipulated, this examines the dynamics of festivals and rituals on Wenzhou’s waters.

The third aspect throws light on the ritual of “Send a Boat” and its connections with Wenzhou’s local religion and communities. Due to fear of the spreading pandemic, Wenzhou people developed local cults in order to expel plagues. Many communities created an array of plague-fighting rituals such as the one of burning and sending boats that represent demonic spirits in the water. Using both primary and secondary studies, this section explores how religious beliefs were practiced and negotiated in the water space. This module further examines the ways local communities perceived and imagined illness, spirits, and the environment of their religious practices around the waters.

The final section examines the life and characteristics of outlaws and their illegal activities on Wenzhou’s waters. Due to its strategic location and proximity to water, the Wenzhou society displays a high frequency of smuggling, piracy, and warfare. Communities along the coast developed varied strategies regarding the use of violence in illicit trade and local political struggles. Competing regimes also occasionally battled on Wenzhou’s waters in order to extract social, political, and economic resources. Drawing on abundant sources, this module explores how waters shaped Wenzhou’s endemic violence and how outlaws, in turn, structured the space of water and impacted Wenzhou’s politics and society.

This project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No. 788476).

Click here for a list of references for this module, which is also available from the module's Conclusion page.

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