During an extended return visit to Hangzhou where my husband was working with colleagues at Zhejiang University, we had the opportunity to visit one of China’s six most famous water towns, Wuzhen. Youliang Zhu drove us there and Joey Zhou was our guide and translator. When I asked about seeing a city my friend had recommended to us that was the “Venice of China”, I didn’t realize this term could be applied to about eleven towns in the Grand Canal between Beijing and Hangzhou. China Highlights states: The waterways of Wuzhen are kept topped up with water by the adjacent Hangzhou to Beijing Grand Canal, which is still used to supply the dry north with water from the wet south and local goods transport. It was a major transport artery in times gone by, which led to the rise to prosperity of water towns like Wuzhen.
Before arriving. I didn’t realize how much Wuzhen offered beyond its’ interesting canals. The town was originally designed by using ancient planning methods that rest the center of the town perfectly on the axis of east, west, south and north, the streets are also divided up into almost perfect 'criss-cross' patterns which is just one of its remarkable characteristics.
Once we arrived and walked through the courtyard, we were in a large hall. There were many kiosks where one could purchase tickets to a wide variety of activities. In our case, we just wanted an admission ticket to the town, which included a short boat ride to get us there. We began by visiting a small museum that depicted life in ancient Wuzhen. Artifacts have been found to dating this town back to the Stone Age, but they were not on display here. Both the town and life style of its residents date back about one thousand years. Shortly after tea was discovered and brought to Wuzhen, teahouses filled the city. Festivals and the culture of the times were demonstrated.
We walked through a room displaying a wall size map of Wuzhen and moved to the dock where we boarded the boat that would bring us to the city. The city looks just like the China of storybooks and old films with narrow streets and wooden doors on stone buildings. Now our adventure began.
Our first stop was the workshop area where it looked fabrics hung out drying to demonstrate the work that was once done in this workshop. Walking into the building we saw the way Indigo dye was used. The fabric was patterned using a stencil and painting a water resist material made from leaves to create a pattern. The fabric was dipped into Indigo dye, dried and the resist washed away creating a pattern that is characteristic of the area. Nearby shops sell all kinds of merchandise that are made from this patterned fabric.
We were impressed by Wuzhen’s charm and the look of the houses, the streets, and the canal. As we continued, we found unexpected, fascinating places when we entered open doorways. The first was the family home of famous writier, Mao Dun. He is a revered writer in modern China, who is best known for the novel Midnight. His former home is located in the middle part of Guan Qian Street, where he lived happily as a child. The home was built during the Qing Dynasty and is a traditional Chinese style. In one of the most interesting rooms there were figures depicting a room set up for a wedding.
Soon we came to a library with books by Moa Dun and others. Over bridges, along the street in another doorway and there was a very surprising museum. It is devoted to the history of footbinding and speaks to ending the “Golden Lotus”. The museum displays 825 pairs of footbinding shoes from various places of China as well as many pictures and footbinding tools with detailed explanations. Though small feet hobbling on the land of China are seldom seen now, there was a photo of a Wuzhen woman at the age of 95, hobbling.
We stopped for lunch at one of the many restaurants. The food was delicious and they served a special variety of rice wine that is made in this restaurant with bayberry. It was very strong and tasted good but very much like whiskey. On a board nearby, all kinds of activities were listed, like the spa, Peking Opera, movies, and much more. There are also several hotels and clearly no shortage of things to amuse.
There were a few more surprises waiting for us, such as an exhibition of works by an artist painting currently and then an amazing stamp collection in a back room with English royalty and Scottish tartans, and much more. After walking for a while there was a small house where a figure of the “Chinese Cupid” was on display. Outside there were very unusual trees - one was a “couples tree” with two trunks from the same base and a wonderful love story to go with it. Next to it was a “family tree” with three trunks coming from the same base. Walking further, we went through the area designed for opera performances and it was lovely and inviting. However, we were not staying over night so it was time to find a boat to take us back to our starting point, our van, and Hangzhou.
I found the blend of ancient and modern so intriguing that I wanted to find out more. From Things Asian, I learned: “The top water towns of China are Zhouzhuang Water Town, Luzhi Water Town and Tongli Water Town near Suzhou, and Xitang Water Town and Wuzhen Water town near Hangzhou. An ancient Chinese saying goes: In heaven there is paradise, and on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou. These four water towns are indispensable parts of the enchanting scenery of Suzhou and Hangzhou. They are all easily accessible from the biggest metropolis of China, Shanghai.”
From Wuzhen Tourism Co., Ltd., I learned: “Wuzhen has become a living remnant of ancient oriental civilization for its profound history and culture, graceful water town scenery, unique-flavored delicious foods, various and colorful folk-costumes and festivals. Wuzhen is endowed with natural beauty. While displaying the extraordinary charming of Chinese ancient culture and the soul of the oriental life, Wuzhen has become a disseminator of traditional culture and an emissary of the communication between China and foreign countries.
With a good integration of history, culture, nature and surroundings, advanced and complete service facilities, warmhearted people and service team, Wuzhen is best touring destination in China, no matter for sightseeing, leisure, holidays or business activities.
In 2001, Wuzhen East Scenic Zone was opened to public. It attracts over 3 million visitors every year from around Mainland China, as well as overseas for its original style, and has become the most popular tourist attraction in Zhejiang Province. In 2007, the Wuzhen West Scenic Zone was opened to the public after a 3-year renovation project. Wuzhen West Scenic Zone is not only for sightseeing, but also for holiday, business and conference because of its modern facilities, such as drinking water system, natural gas, broadband Internet, satellite TV.”
From Travel China Guide, I learned: “It is said that people have lived in Wuzhen for 7000 years and over time it has produced a galaxy of talents. Mao Dun, an outstanding modern Chinese writer, was born here and his masterpiece, 'The Lin's Shop', describes vividly the life of Wuzhen. In 1991, Wuzhen was authorized as the Provincial Ancient Town of History and Culture, so ranking first among the six ancient towns south of the Yangtze River.”
From our boat driver, I learned that there are 72 bridges spanning the canals. From our group, I learned that all of us enjoyed Wuzhen very much and would happily return given the opportunity.
Company name: Wuzhen Tourism Co., Ltd.
Address: No.18 South Shifo Road, Wuzhen, Tongxiang City, Zhejiang Province, China
Post code: 314501
Tel: +86 573 88731088
Fax: +86 573 88731087
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.wuzhen.com.cn
Photos: Leon Keer