Famed for being as the backdrop of many foreign and Chinese movies, including the Hollywood hit, ‘Mission Impossible 3’, Zhouzhuang is consistently considered to be the best and the most popular "water town" in China’s eastern region. Located around 35km southeast of the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, and on the southern shores of the famed Lake Baixian, Zhouzhuang is remarkably tiny compared to other water towns around this part of China, such as Luzhi, Tongli, and Mudu. The town is well noted for its rich culture and the well preserved ancient residential dwellings, many of which still remain in a similar condition to what you may have found if you had come here, say 30 years ago. It is one of the few ancient water towns wehre over 60% of the buildings are the original structures from the Ming (CE 1368-1644), and Qing Dynasties (CE 1644-1911).
With a rich history spanning over 3,000 years, Zhouzhuang is a living example of how people used to live their lives in China well before any of the technologies of modern life that we take for granted these days came into effect. The best way to explore the town is by taking a trip abroad one of the gondolas (costs 100RMB for a 1 hour tour of all the canals). While rowing the gondolas through the narrow canals, the oarsman will be chanting folk Chinese songs which themselves contains stories about the life and culture of this ancient water town.
The town originated as a village by the name of Zhenfengli during the period around the Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty. It is claimed by historians that the town received its current name in CE 1086 during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty when the village was donated to Zhenfengli's Quanfu Temple by a devout Buddhist by the name of Zhou Digong, who owned this piece of land. Quanfu Temple is a marvel of a temple complete with some original artifacts on display, and it forms a signature part of a tour of Zhouzhuang.
Until the early 1980s Zhouzhuang was perfectly hidden away from the world’s eyes. The town was only bought to the world’s attention when an American businessperson who owned an art gallery in New York, visited the town and realized its true gifted potential as a tourist town. The interest in watertown Zhouzhang has sparked interest in other watertowns across China, and in particular, the watertowns of the Suzhou area. Since the 12th century, Zhouzhuang has been connected to the Grand Canal, which extends from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north.
In terms of food, the town has plenty of offerings of fresh fish (from the water), house made rice wine (very sweet tasting), and pork meat (especially pork knuckles!).
If you are going from Shanghai or from Suzhou then you need a full day set aside for exploring the whole of the town. The following places of interest are worth paying a visit at Zhouzhuang:
Strikingly beautiful and located inside Nanhu Garden, Quanfu Temple is a Buddhist place of worship built on the shores of Lake Nanhu. The temple is so large that had to be divided into four parts, which related to the four seasons of the year. The enormous prayer halls of the temple are a delight to be in as it brings out the best of all the different personality faces of Buddha. Light a joss stick and make a wish!
The distinctive looking Milou Tower is situated next to Zhenfeng Bridge on the islet in the southwestern part of Zhouzhuang. It is clearly visible as one makes their way to the entrance of the ancient town. Milou Tower was originally a place where actors and writers would gather around to perform or tell stories. Even to this day performances take place at the Milou Tower.
Chengxu Taoist Temple
Considered to be one of the largest and most famous Taoist temples in the region, Chengxu Taoist Temple is located on Zhongshi Street, just opposite Puqing Bridge. Originally built during the Song Dynasty (CE 960-1279), the temple contains fabulous halls including Sheng ("Sanctity") Hall and Doumu (Goddess Mother of the Great Wagon) Hall, while its pavilions include Yuhuang and Wenchang.
Situated discreetly in the narrow Nanshi Street, Shen Mansion is Zhouzhuang's largest residential building containing over 100 rooms covering an area of over 2,000 square meters. With its beautiful courtyards, each surrounded by living quarters, the mansion is the stuff made out of dreams for any emperor. Take note of the expensive period furniture still on display in the rooms.
The Former Residence of Ye Chucang
A native of Zhouzhuang, Ye Chucang (1887-1946) was a poet and statesman who made many efforts to reverse the destructive effects of opium abuse and gambling during that period. His residence is made up of five courtyards and three main architectural structures (Zuyin Hall, Ye's private residence; and the Main Hall). The lavish displays of rich furniture and the strong smell of mahogany and oak strongly flavor the air. It provides a glimpse of what life must have been like for the gifted Ye Chucang.
How I got to Zhouzhuang
I took the coach from Shanghai Railway Station. The journey takes approximately 1 and a half hours, and costs 25RMB one way. There are regular buses throughout the day from Shanghai or from Suzhou (if that’s where you are travelling from. The journey takes around an hour and costs less then 10RMB one way). Zhouzhuang is close to Tongli Village.
This article was also published on TheTravelEditor.com
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