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              --by Madeleine Lynn

  Life on board a junk was hard and dangerous work. Cornell Plant, River Inspector for the Chinese imperial Maritime Service in the 1900s, Wrote about the risks of travelling through the Three Gorges f Chinese say that one junk in ten is badly damaged, and one in 20 totally wrecked each trip. Probably not 20 per cent reach Chungking unscathed, and never one without experiencing some hair's--breadth escape.

  It was common for trackers to fall from the tow-paths to their deaths or to break a limb andYangtze River be left behind by their junk. Thus Yangtze boatmen had a wealth of rites and taboos that had to be observed to ensure a safe passage.

  At the beginning of a voyage and also before entering the Three Gorges,the most dangerous stretch of the river, it was the cook's task to light incense,set off firecrackers and, most importantly, to kill a rooster and sprinkle the blood on the bows of the junk. Writing in 1880, Captain Gill described how to get through the Xintan Rapids safely. The junk could hire a shaman who would come on board with a yellow flag inscribed 'Power of the Water! A happy star for the whole journey'. As the boat ploughed through the waves dragged by the straining trackers, the shaman would stand at the bow,waving the flag in a regular motion to appease the powers of the water. It was also essential to sprinkle rice on the water all the way through the rapids.

  Like fishermen everywhere in China, many Yangtze boatmen still believe that it is very bad luck to turn over a fish at table f 'capsize fish, capsize boat'.Another taboo is resting chopsticks on top of a rice bowI in a position that suggests a junk ran aground. Unlike Western sailors, however, there is no taboo against women aboard ship and junk owners usually brought their
wives along.

  Sometimes fish swimming upstream used to jump onto the decks. They were considered Yangtze River demons and had to be taken ashore and buried. Boatmen also had to contend with the ghosts of the drowned, who would string themselves in a line behind a boat, preparing to board the vessel and cause trouble. The way to shake them loose was to cut quickly in front of another boat, so that the ghosts would lose their grip and attach themselves to the boat behind. Not a very neighborly thing to do ! Describing this to explorer Wong How Man in l986, a boat captain recounted that, 'In the past, it was a game that often left the trailing boat's owner jumping, cursing and shooting off firecrackers to pacify his increased string of ghosts.'

  Meanwhile those living on shore had floods to contend with. The lovely pagodas all along the river were built for flood prevention. It was believed that floods were often caused by dragons (since they have the power to control the waters), or by evil demons. A pagoda built on top of the hill inhabited by one of these creatures could prevent him from coming out and causing trouble. A pagoda could also prevent the wealth of the nearby town from being swept away by the current.

   After the disastrous flood of 1788, which inundated over 30 counties in Hubei Province, the Emperor ordered nine iron oxen to be placed along the banks of the river. According to the court record :"The Sea Dragon submits to Iron and the Ox belongs to Earth, Earth controls Water, the lron Ox can suppress the flood." This was following Chinese theories of the properties of the elements:fire, metal, earth, water and air.


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