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

Zhang Gang's Experiences with the Races

As a village man who had witnessed and engaged in local affairs for over fifty years, Zhang Gang recorded numerous incidents in his diary involving dragon boat races. Here I will use an 1899 case, which I have explored in the 2013 article, “Living with Disputes,” to demonstrate how villages engaged in a dragon boat conflict and resolved the dispute through formal and informal channels.

Before the incident, Zhang Gang had witnessed the practice of dragon boat racing on many occasions. He was quite familiar with the customary practices surrounding these races, including the extortion that took place between racers and family members and the fighting between villages and lineages. In some cases, he mediated the disputes between villagers and even reported his observation to local officials.

When Rui'an celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival in 1899, fierce feuding took place between the Shen’ao and Yanxia villages. Thirteen villagers from Shen'ao were killed during the fighting. While Zhang's relatives in this villages informed him of this tragedy, many others came to ask Zhang to settle the dispute.

Zhang then went to Yanxia and Suifeng, the site of the slaughter, where people agreed to make peace with the victims' families. One of the victims’ relatives, Li Shumei, represented the victims. He and Zhang successfully persuaded the two sides to reach an agreement: Yanxia should pay 400 foreign yang and Suifeng should pay 300. Just when their negotiations had come to an end, a villager, Chen Pingdong, and a litigation master, Shao Yichen, requested additional payment. They attempted to rob Li and Zhang, where the latter successfully fled to a boat and carried the money away.

The villagers then abducted Li as a hostage. This prompted the magistrate to send runners to rescue Li and investigate the case. After that, the magistrate told Zhang to re-conduct the mediation and close the case. The entire case took around three months before compensation was finally paid. However, the perpetrators were not punished, even though state law stipulated severe punishments for manslaughter cases.

The motivation behind this fighting remains unknown to this day. Yet, as Zhang concluded in later years, such incidents usually involved extortion, competition, and various miscellaneous matters. Many “scoundrels,” as Zhang repeatedly asserted, saw the races as an opportunity to mobilize villagers and turn a profit through extortion or false accusations. Some took advantage of racing to take revenge on their opponents, either during the races or in following years. Some even destroyed their opponent's villages and property. At times, local officials banned this practice, but their runners (or later, the local policemen) received bribes and tolerated fighting by local bullies during the races. All these customs, together with the rivalries between neighboring villages, continued to fuel dragon boat fighting and eventually made it a violent practice in local society.

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