Phoenix boats, a legacy of the Empress dowager Cixi   

It was an extraordinary day for the hundreds who lived in and converged on the rural town of Binhu to witness an authentic reenactment of the traditional Phoenix boat launching ceremony. From infants to the aged, all came out to watch the grand entrance and blessing by Xie Tangmo, a red-robed Taoist priest, followed by an arduous, spirited trek through the narrow main road of town.

Video: Phoenix Boat Ceremony, 2016

Flashing yellows, reds and greens, the din of drums, cymbals, fireworks and chanting lent strength to the 120 men carrying the 120-year-old, 125-footlong boat, shorn of thick, rough-hewn Yunnan cedar, on their shoulders. Some stoic and others cheerful, all villagers in spirit if not body, they were bringing to life the Phoenix Boat, once again prepared to take on its elder rival the Dragon Boat in a race for cultural superiority originally instigated by the legendary Empress dowager Cixi, who controlled the Chinese government from 1861 to 1908. An era of many rebellions and ruthless dealings, this event reportedly grew out of a Qing Dynasty dispute sometime during her reign.

With much groaning and sweat (it was a characteristically humid day in a region known as one of China’s “furnaces”), the men lowered the magnificent paddleboat into the dark green lake. There was laughter as a few of the men guiding the beast into the water lost their balance and landed with a splash in the shallows.

Villagers watched from the shoreline, and the visiting scholars and other dignitaries socialized and looked on from a large, moored ferry boat. A few races were held between the Phoenix boat and a Dragon boat which had suddenly materialized. The good-natured competition was followed by a sumptuous meal, carried on board by a succession of waitresses scurrying out of a small restaurant door directly adjacent to the gangplank. At table after table, people stood and raised their glasses, drinking toast after toast. Two of the tables were occupied by well-exercised boatmen who lined up frosty bottles of cold beer and lit into their food with enthusiasm.

It also turned out to be quite an extraordinary experience for the American visitor. Discovered to be the only non-Chinese person in sight, he took in all the spirit and energy manifested in sights, sounds, tastes in an embrace of general goodwill, cheer, and hospitality.

After performing ritualistic dancing and animated swordplay at an altar which included candles, giant incense, a plastic water bottle and a massive pig’s head, Tangmo had tossed his sword to an assistant; it passed just a foot or so over the American’s head. So intently was the photographer peering through a lens that he didn’t even notice this until he was reviewing video hours later. Not long afterward the priest and the photographer crossed paths in the raucous crowd-- two men whom providence had brought together on this day, one as a keeper of tradition, the other a witness from abroad, and the moment of recognition they shared was born of mutual respect, happiness expressed with smiles and firm handshakes, the unconditional gestures of brotherhood.



“It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”

– Robert Frank.

What have I done with my camera? What meaning should be given to the documentary record I created of the Phoenix Boat launch ceremony and race? With the exception of the youngest of children or the least prepared of scholars, I was among the least knowledgeable of what I was witnessing. A lack of familiarity with the culture, language and customs translates to a lack of knowledge and context. What provided me with the conceit and assuredness that propelled me to make these particular visual interpretations of the day’s events?

On the one hand, I followed a rather traditional template for creating a documentary style narrative: widely composed images that establish the environment; medium range images that close in on central ideas, moments and scenes; tightly composed images that render great detail found in objects, iconography and human expression. Framing the images this way masks the limitations of my cultural knowledge, allowing the photographs to speak for themselves, open to interpretation, and hopefully doing justice to the spirit and meaning of the event. 

The Phoenix head, fastened to the front of the boat, is made from the wood of the Chinese Tallow Tree, commonly used in temples.

The Phoenix head, fastened to the front of the boat, is made from the wood of the Chinese Tallow Tree, commonly used in temples.

On the other hand, it’s unavoidable that perceptions of these photographs not be colored by subjectivity—both mine, in choices made on what to include and what to exclude from individual images and the visual essay as a whole, and that of the viewer, who will only be able to apply meaning to each image as it fits their unique cultural, ethical and personal perspectives.

One obvious example is the large, disembodied pig's head-- placed prominently on the altar where the Taoist priest danced and implored the heavens. Though curious, my immediate concern was not the cultural or spiritual significance of the head, but simply a fascination with the visual, and the dramatic appearance of such an object in the midst of the proceedings.  I later learned from my colleague, folklore expert Prof. Sang Jun of Yangtze University, that Tangmo was asking for protection for the boat and the participants. 

Unique in its way, photography criticism has traditionally been far more critical and suspicious of the medium than, for example, criticism of literature, motion pictures or music. In each of those fields, it is more common for the critic to find commonalities, historical threads and connections. The nature of photography’s status as a sort of scientific art form, where the purported realism of the lens-rendered image skews expectations of truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity, has long left the medium open to a questioning of the veracity and verisimilitude of photographic images. Photography’s emergence during the age of colonial and imperial expansion, and its use as a tool of persuasion and sometimes outright oppression during this time and since, gives credence to Timothy Druckery’s contention that, “In documentary photography, the image served as a material witness to transformations of the urban environment or as icons of colonization in the imperialist expansions into ‘foreign’ territories. The blunt urgency of the image was rationalized as scientific and objective, while its form became mediated by positivism and aesthetics. In every sense, photography established itself as a cross between absolute fact and essentialist art.” (Druckery 4)

Susan Sontag, in her landmark book of photography criticism On Photography, hit on the same idea: “Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal.” (Sontag 55) The camera, Sontag wrote, “is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear.” 


 “The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what's there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world.”

* Susan Sontag