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Ancient Firemen


Text by Zhang Qian Photographs by Zhou Jiamin

The twentieth day of the fifth lunar month brings an important festival to Shaoxing: Rainfall Division Day, which is traditionally believed to be the time that the Dragon King, the deity responsible for rainfall in Chinese mythology, orders his subordinates to deposit rain in various areas. To mark the occasion, local towns including Anchuang and Sunrui hold several ceremonies associated with water, of which the “dragon performance” is considered most unique. In ancient times, the “dragon performance” was a competition between different fire fighting groups, but now it is a revival of ancient fire fighting techniques. 

By nine o’clock in the morning, swelling crowds are eagerly awaiting the ceremony on the banks of the river winding through Anchang Town. Eventually, two teams wearing bamboo helmets and holding several big wooden buckets arrive, respectively garbed in red and yellow waistcoats as they push through the crowd towards the bank. The buckets they carry are actually traditional fire fighting devices known as “water dragons.” A valve with a lever works with a bronze water outlet connected to a pipe. When the bucket is full of water and the lever is pressed, the “dragon head” (the person in charge of the water pipe) will plug the hole with his thumb. When the pressure in the pipe becomes great enough, he will remove his thumb and water will shoot out like a modern high-pressure hose.

Following the command of the “dragon head,” the “dragon soldiers” are divided into two groups: one to move the lever and the other to refill the bucket. Aimed through moving the lever, columns of water will hit a target floating on the river, resulting in great cheers from the crowd. The competition tests teamwork through the power and accuracy of the water stream. Despite no ranking or prizes for contestants, every participant delivers his best efforts. In the old days, the “dragon performance” provided a prime stage for young men to demonstrate their masculinity and attract admiration from young ladies as well as respect from senior “dragon soldiers.”

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