Shaoxing, China Review – Culture, Rice Wine and Canals Delight Visitors

During an extended return visit to Hangzhou, China where my husband was collaborating with colleagues at Zhejiang University, my husband and I were escorted on a visit to Shaoxing, an ancient and cultural city 51.73 km or 32.14 miles south east of Hangzhou.  Joey Zhou was our translator and guide and Youliang Zhu drove us there and back with remarkable skill.


Arriving in Shaoxing, our first stop was Orchid Pavilion, the home of the famous calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (303–361), called "calligraphy saint", the great calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. He became famous because of his wide incorporation of the essence and strong points of preceding and contemporary calligraphers. He broke away from the script styles of the Han and Wei Dynasties to establish a school of his own.


Growing up Wang Xizhi practiced with perseverance and diligence and moved the writing of Chinese characters from its practical usage into a realm of art and interest. His calligraphy features fine brush strokes with variable character structures, and perfectly beautiful handwriting.


According to Cultural China, “Versed in regular script, running script, and cursive script, he had left behind calligraphy works, such as Leyi Dissertation and Huangting Classics in regular script, Seventeen Copies of Model Handwriting in cursive style, and Aunt's Copies of Model Handwriting, Kuaixue Shiqing Tie (Clear up after Snow) and Sangluan Tie in running script. The most representative is his Preface to the Orchid Pavilion in running style. On the third day of the third lunar month in 353, Wang Xizhi invited over thirty friends and his sons to a party at the Orchid Pavilion beneath the Kuaiji Hill, where they drank and improvised poems. Amid the gather-together, 26 men made poems on the spot. With the slight effect of liquor, Wang Xizhi flourished his brush and completed at a breath a preface to their poems. In terms of the content, it is a mixture of scenery description and emotional expression, conveying the writer's inner conflicts and feelings. Viewed in the perspective of calligraphy, the characters resemble flying dragons and dancing phoenixes, emitting a vigorous and unrestrained spirit. In the work, the art of calligraphy had reached the peak of development at its time. 324 characters of the preface are all legible. The 20 Chinese characters "(zhi)" are different from each other in style. Preface to the Orchid Pavilion has been revered by generations of calligraphers as "No. 1 Running Script in the World".”


It is said that a Taoist in Shanyin County wanted Wang Xizhi to write some calligraphy for him, but had not met him. When he learned that Wang Xizhi had a special preference for geese, he raised a flock of geese especially for him beside the Taoist temple. One day Wang Xizhi saw the geese when he passed by the temple and wanted to buy them and bring them home. The Taoist told him, "I would like to present you with these geese if you copy me a Taoist scripture". Delighted with this, Wang Xizhi spent the whole day copying the scripture for the Taoist. Later he took the geese home in great pleasure.


Walking through the grounds of the Orchid Pavilion we saw geese, live and in statuary. Being there was peaceful and uplifting.  Observing the items that facilitate calligraphy skill development was fascinating.


We left Orchid Pavilion at lunchtime and went to the Xian Heng Restaurant where we had an opportunity to enjoy local cuisine and the rice wine for which Shaoxing is famous.  The restaurant is known for maintaining the classic shaoxing wine tradition that has been around since the dynastic times.


Writer Lu Xun mentioned this restaurant in his work (孔乙己) as it was situated in his hometown.[1](Writer Lu Xun’s family compound was to be our next stop.)  The restaurant was created in 1884 during the reign of Qing dynasty Guangxu Emperor (光緒), and after being closed for a few years, it reopened to the public on September 18, 1981 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lu Xun's birthday.


We enjoyed the restaurant’s ambiance and the food.  The duck was prepared according to regional tradition and was delicious. The shrimp soup and fish were also unusual and all the food was wonderful. Then we had the chance to taste the famous rice wine.  It was

served in a bowl, the traditional way.  Dark and a bit thick and sweet, like liqueur, it was very different from what we envisioned


I was curious about the wine and located an online article on cooking which explained the wine. “Amber colored, aromatic, and pleasantly nutty tasting, Shaoxing rice wine is the standard spirit in Chinese cooking. Made of brown glutinous (sweet/sticky) rice, it is one of the earliest types of liquors that the Chinese made. Shaoxing rice wine adds an unmistakable flavor and fragrance to dishes, whether it is mixed into Asian dumpling fillings, added to marinades for roasted meats such as char siu pork, combined with seasonings for stir-fries, or simmered with soy sauce and sugar for red-cooked dishes. If you’ve ever used sake in Japanese cooking, Shaoxing rice wine is employed quite similarly in Chinese cuisine. Sip on some of the rice wine and you’ll warm up quickly as it contains about 17 to 18% alcohol.” Shaoxing wine is one of the most famous varieties of huangjiu, or traditional Chinese wines, fermented from rice.


We stepped out of the restaurant on to Lu Xun Road and walked past shops until we reached the entrance of the compound.  Though admission is free, tickets are required.

The compound was clearly that of a wealthy family.  Both Lu Xun and his brother were writers. We were surprised at the size and beauty of the compound.


Wikipedia says: “Lu Xun (simplified Chinese: 鲁迅; traditional Chinese: 魯迅; pinyin: Lǔ Xùn) or Lu Hsün (Wade-Giles), was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (simplified Chinese: 周树人; traditional Chinese: 周樹人; pinyin: Zhōu Shùrén; Wade–Giles: Chou Shu-jen) (September 25, 1881 – October 19, 1936), one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century. Considered by many to be the leading figure of modern Chinese literature, he wrote in baihua (白話) (the vernacular) as well as classical Chinese. Lu Xun was a short story writer, editor, translator, critic, essayist and poet. In the 1930s he became the titular head of the Chinese League of the Left-Wing Writers in Shanghai.

Lu Xun's works exerted a very substantial influence after the May Fourth Movement to such a point that he was highly acclaimed by the Communist regime after 1949. Mao Zedong himself was a lifelong admirer of Lu Xun's works. Though sympathetic to the ideals of the Left, Lu Xun never actually joined the Chinese Communist Party. Like many leaders of the May Fourth Movement, he was primarily a liberal.

Lu Xun's works became known to English readers through numerous translations, beginning in 1960 with Selected Stories of Lu Hsun translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. More recently, in 2009, Penguin Classics published a complete anthology of his fiction titled The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun which the scholar JeffreyWasserstrom[2] said "could be considered the most significant Penguin Classic ever published."[3]

Lu Xun's importance to modern Chinese literature lies in the fact that he contributed significantly to every modern literary medium except the novel during his lifetime. He wrote in a clear lucid style, which was to influence many generations, in stories, prose poems and essays. Lu Xun's two short story collections, Nahan (A Call to Arms or Outcry) and Panghuang (Wandering), are often taken to mark the beginning of modern Chinese literature, and are established classics. Lu Xun's translations were important in a time when Western literature was seldom read, and his literary criticisms remain acute and persuasively argued.”


A major literature prize in China, the Lu Xun Literary Prize is named after him. Asteroid (233547) 2007 JR27 was named after him. A crater on Mercury is named after him.


After a hot day that involved a lot of walking, a boat ride in the canal was pleasant change.  It was interesting to note that Shaoxing, while not one of the six famous water towns, it is among the top ten.  Shaoxing, known as: the 'City of Waters,' 'City of Bridges,' 'City of Calligraphy,' 'City of Tea,' and 'City of Scholars.' offers tourists much more to see and do but we needed to return to Hangzhou.


Shaoxing is accessible by air, train and bus.  Many tours go there and the roads are good if one is driving.


Photos: Leon Keer




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