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

The Way of the Dragon Boat

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The violent aspect of Wenzhou's dragon boat races has been richly recorded in historical documents.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.

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