After traveling six kilometers eastward from Guangfu Town, we arrived at the Taihu District, a community of nearly ten thousand people. Out of this number, six thousand dwell on boats like their ancestors did.
It happened to be May, a month when fish were spawning and fishing was forbidden. There was a forest of masts by the lakeside, since the fishing boats were all at anchor. Making the best use of this month, the fishermen build new boats, repair old ones or knit fishnets. The legend goes that the ancestors of the floating bridal chamber is prettily-decorated. Citizens of this community were the navy men commanded by Yue Fei, admiral of the Southern Song Dynasty. While they were drilling on Taihu Lake, the wily prime minister Qin Hui falsely accused the admiral of treachery and had him killed. Hearing the shocking news, the navy men mutinied, declaring that they would no longer risk death for a stupid ruler and his murderous officials. Since they had no houses or land, they used their war boats as dwelling places and turned to fishing for a living. Today's fifty or so villages around Taihu Lake developed from these ancestors.
Strolling by the lakeside, I caught sight of a splendidly decorated fishing boat. Amid the popping of firecrackers, it slowly pulled into shore and cast anchor. It turned out that, in accordance with the new economic policies, the villages had been selling at reduced prices the boats owned by the collective to individual fishermen. The buyers then held grand celebrations much as if they were launching new ones.
Invited by owner Jiang Jiayu, we went aboard for a look. Four skeins of colored silk ribbons-called "auspicious happy nails" were nailed on the bows. Before the launching of a new boat, the owner hides one of the "nails" so that the carpenter will have to come to him and say, "My dear host, there is a 'happy nail' missing," whereupon the host gleefully brings it out. The local people believe that an owner who has such a blessing of good luck will become prosperous and acquire more boats as well.
The horizontal wooden cabin on deck, the largest and brightest of all the cabins, was where the Jiangs ate, chatted, received visitors, and officiated over the celebration. Stuck on the door of the cabin was a large word in red-"HAPPINESS." Eight plates of food were laid out for visitors, including steamed red rice cooked of red beans and glutinous rice, popped rice lumps, "Bullion Cake," "Booming Cake" and a "Basin of Treasures." The "Basin" was a pyramid of ten different kinds of colorful food: carp, pomegranates, onions, bamboo shoots, etc. - all sculpted from glutinous rice flour by the young hostess herself, all the foods represented being homonyms in Chinese for good wishes.
After bidding farewell to Jiang Jiayu, we came to another fishing boat twenty-four meters long and four wide with seven masts. Except for the old people and the children who had to go away to school, all the members of Jiang Pinyuan's family, more than a dozen in number, lived aboard year round. The hospitable host proudly showed us around this domain. Of the thirteen cabins eight were storerooms for nets, while the other five were rooms. Left-hand side space of the tenth cabin had been turned into a bridal room for the host's son who had been married the previous year: its floor was fixed as bed, along which they placed the wardrobes and suitcases, forming a partition for the bridal room.
Next to this cabin was the kitchen, or "fire cabin," as it was called by the fishermen. The stove was a pottery vat plastered with thick mud with a protective wooden frame around its top. Fire was every fisherman's deadly enemy. Although an earthen stand had been built under the mouth of the stove, anyone who cooked always asked somebody to watch for the outbreak of fire. At the same time, to be on the safe side, the fishermen had carved on the lintel of the door the names: Jade Emperor, Jade Mother, Tathagata, and Avalokitesvara-all the gods whose blessings could help protect them. In the old days, young wives who had been married for less than a month were considered to have "fiery legs," and were forbidden to visit people on other boats. Violators would be driven away by elders, after which firecrackers would be set off so as to prevent disastrous fires. At the two ends of the boat were seven or eight pots of miniature landscapes with onions and evergreens growing inside which the fishing family cherished as special treasures. During holiday seasons they also placed little red pennants in the pots to add to the festive atmosphere. The host told us that in busy fishing seasons they would have to work around the clock for two to three weeks without being able to go ashore. During such times the few pots of evergreens were the only things that could bring a ray of brightness to their monotonous days. And when they ate up all their vegetables aboard, they could pick a few green onions from the pots as a condiment to add to their fried fish.
In the years when there were no weather forecasts and they had no communication apparatus, the fishermen had to predict the weather based on their experience, and they exchanged signals by waving torches. In their vulnerability to danger and dependence on the generosity of nature, and of course in this ignorance, they were especially prone to superstition. In the past, before casting the first net in a new season, they would throw into the net a handful of broad beans together with the ashes from the "Treasury Basin" - a stove placed on the bow. Good catches were supposed to result.
Villagers in Jiangsu are in the habit of laying chopsticks on their bowls to announce that they have eaten enough, but this is strictly forbidden in the Taihu area, for the fishermen there consider it an invitation to being stranded. In the tenth lunar month every year the fishermen go to the Temple of King Yu, the first king of the Xia Dynasty (21c. B.C.-16c. B.C.), the first dynasty of China, in the Pingtai Hills on Huxin Island to offer sacrifices to Dayu (King Yu). According to the legend, this ancient conqueror of the waters once came to Taihu Lake and subdued the evil dragon, locked it up in the dragon cave at the bottom of the lake, and pressed against the entrance a heavy iron pot so that the monster could never again start storms that would strand fishing boats. Thus it was that Dayu brought peace and happiness to the people of Taihu Lake.
In addition, urinating at the bow is forbidden, for if you offend the god of water, how can you expect to catch any fish? Besides, certain worlds or expressions such as "wreck," which implies capsizing and "catching fire," which can destroy any boat are never used among these fishermen.
It is usual for villagers to slaughter chickens and prepare special diners for the rare visitor. Yet the fishermen on Taihu Lake consider the killing of chickens bad luch. I learned that in the old days when these boat dwellers fell ill without being able to get a doctor to come or go to a hospital, they would kill a chicken and offer it to Buddhist idols, praying for quick recovery. As time went on, the slaughtering of chickens came to be associated with illness and got added to their list of taboos.
With regard to children's education, the fishermen also had their own way of dealing: twelve boats that had school-age children together hired a teacher. In the first month the teacher and all the pupils stayed on one boat; the second month, another boat; the third month, a third boat. For each month of the year the school moved.
About twenty years ago the people's government built new villages for the fishermen. From then on, old people could live out their lives free from the torturous pitching that accompanied life aboard the boats; those who are ill can go to see doctors in the local hospital; and children have their own schools to go to. However, still true to their traditions, young and middle-aged men and women still cannot tear themselves away from their houseboats.