Shaoxing: steeped in tradition and history

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: November 25th, 2011 | Updated: January 10th, 2013 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations canal town shaoxing zhejiang china China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> Narrow alleys lined with traditional white-washed buildings looking out towards a pagoda-topped hill. Arched stone bridges crawling with ivy bent over lazy, emerald-watered canals. Shaoxing feels like the traditional China of old paintings, which is no surprise for a city that has a history dating back 2,500 years. It doesn't make the splash in travel guides fellow canal town Suzhou does, which makes for smaller crowds. Chinese travelers, writers and history buffs have long known this Zhejiang city for its famous wine, beautiful scenery and storied past. The city is relatively small, with the old town area around Fushan Park (Fǔshān Gōngyuán, 府山公园) and Jiefang Lu (Jiěfàng Lù, 解放路). It's an area worth strolling through, though some Shaoxing sights, like the man-made East Lake (Dong Hu), lie outside of town.

When in Shaoxing....

Many of Shaoxing's traditions are well known, even to outsiders. It's especially known among Chinese tipplers for its Shaoxing Yellow Rice Wine (Shàoxīng Huángjiǔ, 绍兴黄酒), renowned for its mellow flavor. For those more familiar with Chinese firewater baijiu, "mellow" may come as a surprise, but the milder huangjiu still isn't for easy drinking. Some may be put off by its rich, fermented flavor, while some may enjoy it warm, as it is often served. Another of Shaoxing's traditions are the "Shaoxing three blacks" (Shàoxīng sān wū, 绍兴三乌)—black dried vegetables, black felt caps and black awning boats. Black dried vegetables (wū gāncài, 乌干菜) are greens that are first pickled, then dried, shredded and stored. Usually, Chinese mustard (jiècài, 芥菜), a common leafy green vegetable, is used. The final product has an ever-present but mild saltiness, and is sometimes mixed with another ingredient like bamboo or pork in addition to being served alone. Local favorite méigāncài zhēngròu (霉干菜蒸肉) makes use of the latter. shaoxing three blacks The second black, the Shaoxing black felt cap (wūzhān mào, 乌毡帽), is a hat peaked near the back with a narrow rim on the back side which looks like a Tylorean or Bavarian cap. These caps can be found relatively cheap and have long been a sign of a Shaoxinger's origin wherever he may roam. Walking the streets, especially around the older parts of town, an older gentlman with a black felt cap is a common sight. Despite their heavy appearance, the caps are worn year-round. In shops, the caps are often stored bent into a bowl-like shape and often retain their original crease after being bent into the correct shape. Plying the waters of Shaoxing's canals and East Lake, black awning boats (wūpéng chuán, 乌篷船) can make for a relaxing way to tour Shaoxing the right way—floating along slowly. Usually able to carry four to six passengers, the boats are propelled by the boatman's feet and steered with an oar. A ride on the boat can run from RMB 30-80, depending on where you hop on. Shaoxing is also the home of one of China's indigenous opera forms, Yue Opera.  Unlike more well-known Beijing Opera, performed traditionally by all-male casts, Yue Opera was traditionally performed by all-female casts. Performances can be seen at the Shaoxing Grand Theatre.

Little city, big history

For Chinese historians aiming to harmonize history into the unfolding narrative of China emerging from the Yellow River Valley, Shaoxing makes an appearance early in the story with the death of the legendary ancient ruler Yu the Great dying near Shaoxing while touring south of his capital. The Mausoleum of Yu the Great was built much later, near where he was believed to have been buried. Since then Chinese leaders, including former PRC president Jiang Zimen, have come to pay their respects. According to one origin story, the ancient Yue Kingdom, possibly a contemporary and sometime rival of the Shang Dynasty to the north, arose from a very filial grandson of Yu the Great who went south on his father's wishes to take care of his grandfather's tomb. Shaoxing traces its origins back to the Yue ruler Gou Jian, who founded the city as his new capital after defeat and temporary imprisonment by the Wu Kingdom. In a well-known Shaoxing tale, he sent a bevy of beauties to tempt the ruler of the rival kingdom. Femme-fatale Xi Shi, one of China's historical "four great beauties," was among the ladies sent and is credited with the downfall of Wu, making use of her beauty which was said to cause fish to stop swimming and sink upon seeing her to distract the king. orchid pavilion shaoxing china Shaoxing also contributed to the Chinese arts, not just politics. "Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion," an important contribution to the early Chinese literary cannon, was composed near Shaoxing during a gathering of poets during the 4th century. Famous poet and calligrapher Wang Xizhi and several others gathered for some good old drinking games and poetry writing. The group floated cups of rice wine down a man-made stream in the garden around Orchid Pavilion and the fellow at whose feet the cup landed had to ganbei and write a poem. The actual site of the Orchid Pavilion has been lost to time, but a reconstructed Orchid Pavilion lies where the original is believed to have been and hosts a yearly gathering of drinking and calligraphy on the third day of the third lunar month. During the Ming Dynasty, the city was home to the studio of Xu Wei (Qīngténg Shūwū, 青藤书屋); a famous and influential poet, playwrite and painter. Not unlike poet Qu Yuan (who is celebrated during Dragon Boat Festival), Xu took political change to heart and with despondence. In moments of political upheaval he attempted to kill himself numerous times, including once with an ax to the head, after the execution of the governor-general who had employed him despite Xu's repeated failure at the imperial exams. After the governor-general's arrest for treason, the artist feared repercussions for himself. Later, he beat his wife to death after believing she was having an affair, but was released after his friends worked to have him freed. His studio can be found down a small alley, Houguan Xiang (Hòuguān Xiàng, 后观巷), off of Jiefang Lu.

Making Waves

In modern times, Shaoxing was the home to a number of movers and shakers that help set China on her path into the 20th century. Many revolutionary figures came out of cities around Zhejiang and Jiangsu like Shaoxing including Qiu Jin, Lu Xun and former PRC Premier Zhou Enlai, whose family left their ancestoral home in Shaoxing for his birthplace in Jiangsu. Qiu Jin was a feminist and anti-Qing revolutionary who, like many other Chinese revolutionary figures of her time, studied in Japan and looked forward to a more modern, open China. The ruling dynasty didn't share her views and she was beheaded. Qiu Jin's Former Residence (Qiū Jǐn Gùjū, 秋瑾故居) lies near the intersection of Jiefang Lu and Hechang Tang (Héchàng Táng, 和畅堂) and statues erected in her memory can be found in Shaoxing and Hangzhou, near her tomb on Solitary Island. One of the most important modern writers in China, Lu Xun was known for both his literary contributions and political views. Having also studied in Japan, Lu Xun believed China suffered from stifling, outdated superstitions and a social structure that brutally oppressed the poor and uneducated. He had originally gone abroad to study medicine, but after seeing a newsreel of Chinese crowding around with curiosity while a Japanese military officer executed a Chinese prisoner, he decided China needed a different kind of medicine. His groundbreaking work, written using colloquial language rather than the formal written Chinese of the time (comparable to the relationship between Latin's standing as the language of literature in Europe even after it died out as a spoken language), attacked the social ails with a mix of comedy and cynicism. Lu Xun's collected works were translated into English and released in 2010. Lu Xun's Former Residence lies among a collection of sights dedicated to the author, where English copies of his books can be found.
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