Zhouzhuang: a famed watertown that's come full circle

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: March 16th, 2012 | Updated: June 19th, 2014 | Comments
Zhouzhuang boat tour
 Exploring this "Venice of the East" by boat

One of the larger watertowns in the fertile region known as the “land of fish and rice” that covers parts of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui, Zhouzhuang is famed for it's beauty, despite a serious infestation of tourists during holidays and high season. Like many water towns, Zhouzhuang styles itself as “the Venice of the East.” With numerous canals running between Ming and Qing era buildings and cutting the town into seven “islands” connected by 14 stone arch bridges dating back to China’s last dynasties, they make a good case. Part of Kunshan (Kūnshān, 昆山) county-level city, Zhouzhuang stayed a sleepy water town while nearby Kunshan did the modern developing. The former Ming-Qing boomtown wouldn't get its bustle back until China's opening and the tourism industry put the historic town in its sights. Located between sister watertown Suzhou and Shanghai, the town is just a daytrip's distance from both.



A long history and the history that stuck

travel zhouzhuang watertown
                 Ming and Qing Dynasty structures make up some 60% of the town

A very very long time ago—about 916 years ago—faithful Buddhist landowner Zhou Di (Zhōu Dí, 周迪) donated 13 hectares (32 acres) of his property for the building of Quanfu Buddhist Temple. The grateful community that formed around it decided to name their town "Zhou's Village"—Zhouzhuang.  Development picked up 43 years later when the Song Dynasty imperial capital went south, briefly to nearby Suzhou and then to Hangzhou, also nearby. With the exception of the reconstructed Buddhist temple and Chengxu Daoist Temple, the town's remaining tangible legacies date from China's last three dynasties, the Yuan, Ming and Qing. The boom times came during the reigns of Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, when the city grew to around 3,000 residents. While some buildings are merely traditional in style, the Ming and Qing dynasties left nearly 100 buildings that stand to this day. These white-washed buildings topped with black flying eaves and decorated with a variety of wooden pillars and latticed windows cluster on stacked stone bases along the four main waterways and numerous smaller streams that largely run a winding, natural path together said to resemble a hash tag or the character 井 (jǐng)—which can ironically mean "orderly" or more appropriately mean "water well"—from above.


Bridges of Kunshan County

zhouzhuang watertown bridges
             Zhouzhuang's Fu'an Bridge

Zhouzhuang is known for its bridges, no surprise considering the serene image of traditional boats passing beneath the beautiful stone arches scattered across town. The most famous of the 14 are the two paired together as the Twin Bridges. The round-arched Shide Bridge runs east-west over the town's largest interior waterway and meets the square-shaped, stone beam Yong'an Bridge running north-south. While the Twin Bridges may be the most famous, many of the others are also attractions in their own right like the historic Fu'an Bridge, first built in 1339, and the infamous Qing Dynasty era Fuhong Bridge (Fúhóng Qiáo, 福洪桥), also known as the "Red Bridge" after a bloody battle between local authorities and rebelling peasants during the Taiping Rebellion. Zhouzhuang owes it’s modern reputation among Chinese tourists to the same connection that made John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” so well-known here—Deng Xiaoping. In 1985, American oil magnate and art gallery owner Armand Hammer gave the Chinese leader a painting depicting a serene scene centered on the town’s Twin Bridges. Ningbo-born Chen Yifei (Chén Yìfēi, 陈逸飞), an internationally-renowned painter, visited Zhouzhuang and was inspired to paint the bridges in Memories of my Hometown (Gùxiāng de Huíyì, 《故乡的回忆》), which Hammer purchased while Chen was living in New York.


Gold and pork

zhouzhuang shen wansan

While Chen Yifei's painting made him a popular figure in modern Zhouzhuang, Shen Wansan (Shěn Wànsān, 沈万三) has long been admired locally and around China. Living during the decline of the Yuan and the establishment of the Ming, Shen and his family left their hometown behind and came to Zhouzhuang. Starting by selling reeds, the family used the money they made from bountiful yields to expand their business into other crops and silkworms. From there, Shen expanded into a number of other goods and became wealthy from overseas trade. Having made good, Shen gave back to the community with projects like a road beside the Daoist temple. After the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the establishment of the Han Ming Dynasty, Shen used his considerable wealth to contribute to the building of the walls around the new imperial capital in Nanjing. The new emperor was more nervous than pleased with this display of wealth (and the power that comes with it), so he stripped the tycoon of his wealth and exiled him to Yunnan. Shen’s rags-to-riches story spawned a number of fantastical folk tales and served as a model to industrious Chinese looking to gaining their own fortunes.  His name also graces nutty local snack Wansan cakes (Wànsān gāo, 万三糕) and Wansan pork shank (Wànsān zhūtí, 万三猪蹄), a leg of pork braised or steamed for a day in a mix of greens that comes out sweet and tender. Both are available around town. The revered figure's history is chronicled in his former residence: part glimpse into the life of a merchant in Yuan-Ming China, part shrine to getting wealthy with items like a gold-colored statue of Shen atop a gold ingot while his children surround him, reminiscent of a statue of the Buddha. More interesting is the massive Qing Dynasty Shen Residence which belonged to a descendant of Shen Wansan.

Getting to Zhouzhuang and Touring

zhouzhuang tour watertown
                   No swimming

Buses are available to Zhouzhuang from both Shanghai and Suzhou. Staying more in the watertown spirit, boats are also available from Hangzhou and Suzhou. See our Zhouzhuang travel guide's Transport section for more. At RMB 100 for an entry ticket (or RMB 80 after 4pm), it isn't cheap to get in, but the ticket covers most of the town's attractions (it doesn't include the Bizarre Tower, however). To make the most of a trip to Zhouzhuang, take a waterway tour by boat for RMB 100 or the Shen Wansan boat tour for RMB 150.  

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