Blood, Luck, and Clanship: The Annual Rock Fight at Lukang, Taiwan
Donald R. DeGlopper
Library of Congress

Abstract of Paper presented at
Traditional China Colloquium of Metropolitan Washington
University of Maryland at College Park
October 28, 1995

Until shortly before the Second World War the men of Lukang, a seaport city on Taiwan's west coast, would gather every year on one day in the early spring, line up by surname, and throw rocks at their fellows of other surnames. They were thus throwing rocks at and dodging rocks thrown by men who were in other contexts their in-laws, mother's brothers, business partners, old school friends, allies in local factions, and fellow members of groups ranging from rotating credit societies to poety and wine circles. The rock fight was a festive public occasion; women and children watched and cheered; vendors sold snacks. Blood was shed and teeth lost, but old men who recall participating insist that no one was ever killed. The strife was sub-lethal and intramural (though Lukang never had a wall), participation being strictly limited to natives of the city.
The most common response to my question "why?" was "It was an old Lukang custom." Most of those I spoke with in 1967-68 felt that no further explanation was needed -- communities are distinguished by having different customs (fengsu) -- but a few added that folks back then had different thought (sixiang) and beleived that if blood was not shed in the spring, then the community might suffer bad luck during the coming year, such as disease, a bad harvest, a typhoon.
Various accounts of life in southern Fujian, whence the ancestors of Lukang's people had emigrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, refer to similar customs in at least three prefectures there. All acounts agree on the annual nature of the battles, their association with the New Year and spring, their restriction to the inhabitants of such solidary and bounded communities as single lineages or villages, and the associated but not elaborated belief in the apotropic quality of such internal bloodshed. One could, though I have not, pursue the matter as one of folklore, looking for other instances, for geographical distribution, and for possible links with myth, ritual or other elements of Minnan culture. There is a clear temptation toward a Frazerian "comparative" approach and toward seeing the custom as a survival of something possibly very old and pre-Han.
In my book on Lukang I act as a social anthropologist, and try to explain the rock fight in the context of Lukang's particular situation and social organization. Given the restriction in time, space, and lethal intent, as well as the absence of any clear winners or losers, I interpret the annual rock fight as ritual, and as a statement, an exemplification, of the structure of local society and its constituent segments. It involves the definition of the boundaries and segments of the total community. It tells us something about the meaning of surname solidarity and clanship within this particular community. (Lukang's surname groups were defined more by their opposition to each other than by such internal means as descent or worship of common ancestors.) By stretching the boundaries of our categories, we may think of the rocks as what Mauss called 'prestations'-- objects of exchange, and hence of the rock fight as an example of Durkheim's model of mechanical solidarity -- of a society composed of replicating segments and bound together by the exchange of the same objects (e.g. yams, cattle, women). In the book I look at other examples of ritualized exchange and competition in nineteenth and early 20th century Lukang, exchanges involving localized surname groups, neighborhoods, temple cults, and the Eight Guilds that ran the city's commerce and political organization.
I call such relations of limited antagonism and competition between overlapping groups "agonistic" rather than antagonistic, and suggest that such relations were fairly common within late traditional Chinese society, representing one mode of large-scale social organization. Doing things this way avoids the inherent problems of trying to organize society on the valued and rhetorically appropriate assumption of ultimate community of interest (Datong, the Sacred Edict and all that), or of leaving social organization to the invisible hand of unbridled competition and sheer power politics. Just possibly, in the unlikely guise of Lukang's rock fight, we may be seeing an indigenous Chinese form of a civil society, based on recognition of overlapping groups and mutual checks and balances.