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Bridges & Boats in The Water Country

One spring, I went to a region of rivers and lakes in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces to collect folk stories. The region is situated on the south banks of the largest river in China, the Yangtze River, so it is often called "water country south of the Yangtze," including southern Jiangsu Province with Taihu Lake at its center and eastern Zhejiang Province. It is a typical lake region, with scattered lakes and a network of waterways.

There are many bridges in the region. Some are high bridges with arches like a crescent moon, some are slabstone bridges, some rainbow-shaped reinforced concrete bridges, and some are long and thin arch bridges. There are over 5,000 large and small stone bridges in the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province, therefore, Shaoxing is renowned as a museum of ancient stone bridges.

The bridge for pedestrians is called Taiping (peace) bridge or Ankang (safe and healthy) bridge, to wish pedestrians safety in travelling. The bridge near grocery stores is named Jinli (making profit) bridge or Jinding (golden tripod) bridge, to wish for a brisk business. The bridge in the vicinity of some temples is known as Jishan (accumulating kindness) bridge or Xianghua (fragrant incense) bridge, meaning that those temples will have many worshippers. The Ke bridge, Xie bridge, Hong bridge, and others are named for famous families. Many ancient bridges are decorated with carved stone lions at the ends or columns of these bridges. It is an ancient Chinese custom to place the stone lions there, which presumably can frighten away water monsters that cause disastrous floods. At one time, superstitious people believed that God of Bridges existed. on New Year's Day or other festivals, some of the older women brought joss sticks, candles and paper money to bridges, as offerings to the God of Bridges for stable bridges, safe passengers and boats. When a pregnant woman was about to give birth, her family would carry several pounds of noodles to cross over three bridges. It was believed that the woman and the baby would be safe and healthy after she ate the noodles. When a rich and influential family held a funeral procession, a temporary ceremonial gateway would be constructed with pines and green bamboo, with paper flowers placed at the ends of the bridges which the procession would pass, as a symbol hoping the person would have happiness in the afterlife.

These old customs have all disappeared now. on festivals, however, local residents still decorate the main bridges with pines, cypresses, colorful flags and festive lanterns. After a night snowfall in winter, some people go to clean the snow from the bridges the next morning or spread husks of grain on the surface of the bridges in case someone slips and falls. in summer people like to sit on the bridges, enjoying the cool air, chatting, watching the lights of fishing boats on the river, in the gentle swaying breeze. The cares of the day are relieved by the tranquility of the scene.

Boats are the main means of transportation in the region and are as important as buses in the north, hence there is the Chinese saying:"boats in the south and busses in the north." Factories, government institutions and shops in cities and towns have their own boats besides those of shipping companies. The backdoors of many factories face the water, so boats can reach the doors directly.

Villagers depend on boats. They use boats as transportation to go to work and to go to town and visit friends in other places. Therefore, every household has a boat. It doesn't cost much to buy a small boat. It is even cheaper than buying a bicycle if you borrow a mold of a boat and pour cement into it to make a boat.

Though in the same village, when a bridegroom goes to his bride's home to escort her to the wedding, people will take several boats: a dowry boat transporting cupboards, clothes, and wooden basins, a boat with a pipe and drum band, a passenger boat for those who welcome the bride and offer congratulations. Although the bridal sedan chair is not popular now, the bride still sits on a bamboo chair and is carried to a boat by four young men. According to local custom, a wedding ceremony must be held at night. Many people like to get married at Spring Festival. At that time, fleets decorated with colorful lanterns can often be seen on the rivers at night, with the band playing music.

As well as bridges, there are various boats in the region, including wooden sailboats, cement boats, motor boats and fleets of freight barges sometimes over 1,000 metres long. on the rivers around Shaoxing there is a kind of willowleaf-shaped boat, which is four metres long and one metre wide. Since its roofing is painted black, it is called wupeng (black awning) boat. The boat can generally hold two or three persons, six at most. The method of rowing the boat is unique. The boatman sits on the stern, paddling the boat. So, local residents also call the boat jiaohuachuan (boat paddled with feet). The cabin of this kind of boat is very short and narrow, so people can barely sit up straight in the cabin. However, the awning can be opened on a fine day, to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the banks of the river. When the boat with its small and light body sails on the surface of water, it is fun to slap the water with the hands. It is very interesting to travel on this sort of boat.

Chinese character xi (happiness) will be placed and the cabin is filled with all kinds of food symbolizing prosperity and good fortune. The indispensable jubaopen (treasure bowl) is full of cakes made of glutinous rice in all shapes, such as caps, pomegranates, bamboo shoots and evergreen trees. The words for these items sound like the words for good fortune in Chinese. What is more, people will light red candles and set off firecrackers according to tradition.

Compared with driving a vehicle on land, it is much more dangerous to sail a boat on the water. Factors like a sudden storm, a damaged boat, and ineffective devices may cause an accident, capsizing the boat and killing people. in the times when there were no weather forecasts and modern communications, people could predict the weather only according to experience and communicated to each other by waving lanterns. in the struggle against nature to survive, some customs developed from superstitions. For example, boat dwellers or those who often took boats often refrained from saying words related to accidents such as fu zhou (a boat capsizing), chen (sinking), or fan (overturning), qi huo (catching fire), and fu shi (floating bodies). They even didn't say words which were similar in meaning or pronunciation to these phrases. Some boat dwellers carved the characters for the jade Emperor, Queen Mother of the West Heaven, (Tathagata Buddha), and Goddess of Mercy on the lintel of doors, which were gods who give blessings.


By courtesy of Mr. Qiu Huanxing and Mr. Lu Zhongmin,
the authors of Folk Customs of China

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