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Group Discourse and Ritual Tradition in Local Society: An Analysis of the Cult of the Minister of Water in the Lower Reaches of the Minjiang River

Xiangchun HUANG (Xiamen University)
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Since the Ming dynasty, the temple and ritual networks of the Minister of Water (Shuibu shangshu), a cult popular among the boatdwellers living on the lower reaches of Minjiang river in Fujian, has evolved in the context of changing institutions of the state and local society. Most of the cult’s apotheosizing rhetoric originated among the boat people and river merchants, but the construction of its temples was inseperable from power relations in local land-dwelling society. As a result, certain modes of social classification and identity formation, such as water/ land, boat-dweller/ land-dweller, “koleang” (a derogatory term for boat dwellers)/ merchant, have become discourses of ethnicity through the history of the temples and their ritual networks. These are expressed through the formation of hierarchies based on rights of ritual participation. A system of root and branch temples oriented around five Ministers of Water has emerged in the area. Both the self-identity and the externally imposed identity of the boat people have been defined and redefined in the continuous contest for symbolic resources. The boat people’s strategic practice has been influenced by the dominant traditions of local society, which have in turn been shaped by these cultural practices. As a result, the cultural networks articulated by such rituals as boat processions (yingchuan), deity processions (yingshen) and Dragon-boat races have evolved dynamically. Elites among the boat people who have affiliated with Daoist priests and the literati served as the “cultural agents” in this process.

Journal of History and Anthropology