The beauty of Zhouzhuang lies partly in her tangible assets – i.e., in her canals and bridges and her many historical, scenic sites such as Shen Mansion, Zhang House, the Former Residence of Ye Chucang, Milou Tower, Nanhu Garden/ Quanfu Temple and Chengxu Taoist Temple, to name the most prominent – and partly in her intangible assets such as her cultural history – i.e., her Xuanjuan Theatre and Kunqu Opera traditions (see below), and even her ritualized, tea-drinking culture (see also below), not to speak of the fact that here lived a number of distinguished scholars, poets and successful businessmen.
A more recent addition to the town's attractions is Zhouzhuang Fang, a medium-sized ship that was constructed in 2001 for a special meeting in Zhouzhuang of OPEC ministers, and which still serves as a large-scale conference venue. It deserves mention for its uniqueness, and, being a ship, it fits in perfectly with the "watertown" concept.
Also listed as an "Attraction" are the area excursions by so-called pleasure boat, although one generally thinks of a boat as a transportation means to see "Attractions", yet these excursions are more than simply transportation trips, they involve comprehending the larger perspective of the countryside as well as seeing certain of its details close-up.
Note that many of the structures in Zhouzhang have been molded, as it were, to the twists and turns in the canals, which adds charm to the village. Another charming aspect of Zhouzhuang is the town's lack of motorized traffic, as mentioned earlier.
Shen Mansion is located in Nanshi Street, just across Fu'an Bridge (in an easterly direction) from the decidedly rectangular islet on which is located Milou Tower and Chengxu Taoist Temple. Put slightly differently, Shen Mansion, Zhouzhuang's largest residential building, is located on the north-south oriented, or "vertical" (think of the shape of a stone axe), islet just north of Quanfu Bridge, Zhouzhang's longest – and most recent, modern-era – bridge.
Shen Mansion was built by Shen Benren, a descendant of the Jiangnan (literally, "South of the River", but meaning "South of the Yangtze River", or "South of the Chang Jiang") business tycoon, Shen Wansan in the eighth year (1742) of the reign (CE 1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. Shen Mansion is in the form of a compound of connecting courtyards, each surrounded by dwelling quarters, slighly reminiscent of the Siheyuan compound characteristic of Beijing. The visitor passes 7 rings through 5 gates as well as winding corridors full of confusing twists and turns in order to reach the compound's deepest courtyard.
Shen Mansion consists of over 100 rooms of varying sizes, covering an area of more than 2,000 square meters. The entire complex is constructed in accordance with a typical "hall after lobby" building scheme. Shen Mansion was classed as a Special National Cultural Relic by the state (meaning that is is protected), thanks to its impressive appearance, its precise, "hall after lobby", maze-like layout, and its exquisite Qing period furnishings.
Said to have originally been built by descendants of a brother to Xu Da, the famous general who helped Zhu Yuanzhang wrest control of China from Emperor Huizong, the last of the Yuan Dynasty emperors, thus establishing the Ming Dynasty, the house was purchased by the Zhang family (the wealthy merchant was so modest that his given name never appears in the history annals, only his family name!) during the early part of the Qing Dynasty. Zhang House, spanning some 1800 square meters and whose main hall is Yuyan ("Jade Swallow") Hall, is a residential complex consisting of more than 70 rooms, with a courtyard that of course contains a pool.
Water is an integral theme of Zhang House, with a river that flows under the arches of Yuyan Hall, permitting smaller boats to pass under the hall and into the courtyard, where they could anchor up on the "shores" of a square pool in the center of the courtyard.
Yuyan Hall is spacious and bright, with elegant columns that rest on large bases, as was typical of the best of the Ming period architecture.
Zhang House has now been placed under provincial protection as an important cultural relic of the Ming Dynasty period.
The Former Residence of Ye Chucang
Ye Chucang (1887-1946) was a poet and statesman – and native of Zhouzhuang – who decided to do something to reverse the destructive effects of opium abuse and gambling, both widespread pastimes during the period, on the residents of his natal city. The historical annals do not indicate whether the concerned citizen's residence was used as a rehab center, but we do know that Ye used his large residence to receive guests, including those whom Ye had recruited to help in the effort to disabuse the residents of Zhouzhuang of their bad habits.
The former residence, oriented roughly north-south and located on Xiwan Street, comprised 5 courtyards and three main architectural structures: Zuyin Hall, Ye's private residence; Main Hall, which served as the poet's workshop, or studio; and Rear Hall, which was where the poet and statesman – and concerned citizen – received guests, including friends and working colleagues.
Once the home of De's Tavern, Milou Tower is located next to Zhenfeng Bridge on the decidedly rectangular islet in the southwestern part of Zhouzhuang. During Zhouzhuang's heyday, Milou Tower was a rallying place for artists, writers, poets and other revolutionary types of the region. The same artists who painted the Twin Bridges by day would come to Milou Tower in the evening to be in the company of fellow artists, including poets. The "Collected Works of Milou Tower" contains over 100 poems composed by members of Nanshe ("South Society"), a literary society of the late Qing Dynasty – early Republic of China era, whose leader was Chen Qubing (1874-1933).
Note that the Former Residence of Chen Qubing – who was also a member of the Tongmenghui ("Chinese Revolutionary Alliance") that was founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the late Qing Dynasty - early Republic of China national hero – is located in the neighboring watertown of Tongli. Given Milou Tower's association with Nanshe and, by extension, with the Tongmenghui, it is not surprising that the poems, songs and anecdotes about Milou Tower were spread far and wide across China during the period.
Quanfu Temple is situated inside Nanhu Garden, aka the Pearl of Zhouzhuang, itself located behind (south of) the Former Residence of Ye Chucang. Nanhu Garden is built on the shore of Lake Nanhu, and is divided into 4 sections corresponding to the four seasons. Quanfu Temple, aka Blessed Temple, as peviously indicated, is accordingly located at water's edge, and is in fact surrounded not by the customary temple walls, but by a living moat, as it were, i.e., by water lanes along which gondolas may pass, providing a "sail by" viewing for those in a hurry, though the visitor is urged to take a cloer look inside. The unusual outer perimeter of Quanfu Temple has earned it the nickname "Buddhist Kingdom in the Water".
Chengxu Taoist Temple
Chengxu Taoist Temple is located on Zhongshi Street, just opposite Puqing Bridge, which is situated between Zhenfeng Bridge and Taiping ("Peace") Bridge. The temple was originally built between CE 1086-93 during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. The temple has since seen several refurbishings and expansions, such that today, Changxu Taoist Temple stands as one of the largest and most famous Taoist temples in the region. Its simple but majestic halls include Sheng ("Sanctity") Hall and Doumu (Goddess Mother of the Great Wagon, i.e., the Big Dipper constellation, a reference to Taoist cosmology) Hall, while its pavilions include Yuhuang and Wenchang. All of these structures are recognized as exemplary masterpieces of Taoist architecture. Chengxu Taoist Temple spans an area of some 1500 square meters.
Zhouzhuang Fang (Zhouzhuang "Big Ship") is a conference ship that was specially built for the informal, 2001 APEC Meeting of Trade Ministers. Construction of the ship began on November 15, 2000, and was completed on May 20, 2001. The ship's hull is of steel, while its doors and window frames are made of nanmu wood (nanmu is an indigenious Chinese evergreen tree with straight trunks that grow to 35 meters in height and 1 meter in diameter, and have for centuries been popular with Chinese shipbuilders). Zhouzhuang Fang has architectural features characteristic of the architecture of the Yangtze River Delta: upturned eaves, raised ridges, and an overall elegant shape. The main body of the ship houses the conference hall proper, and covers an area of 244 square meters, which can accommodate more than 150 guests. Auxilliary functions are housed in side rooms.
The ship has a café and an open-air bar on the upper floor, comprising some 50 square meters. The conference hall itself has all the modern facilities demanded of an international business or political conference venue: 6 simultaneous translation systems, a high quality audio system, a state-of-the-art sewage disposal system, a dependable power and lighting circuit system, ample and highly visible fire-fighting equipment, central air conditioning and a lightning-rod protection device that combines a classical Chinese architectural exterior with a modern, high-tech interior.
Boat Excursions beyond Zhouzhuang Proper
You can take an excursion on one of the two larger tour boats (aka pleasure boats), the Wansan or the Zhouzhuang. The boats are otherwise identical – 22.6 meters long/ 5.5 meters wide – are equipped with air conditioning, and offer recorded background music performed on a bamboo flute in order to enhance your pleasure of the excursion. It's a swank way to see what the local region looks like from a "global" perspective.
The "Tour Around Town on Water" commences at Lake Baixian and proceeds through Eastern Chai Port ("chai" being the Sanskrit (rendered to pinyin) word for "tea" – and the word is also used for "tea" in Russian) to the Boatyard on South Lake (Nanhu). The trip covers several kilometers, combining idyllic, watertown scenery with historical-cultural scenic sites of interest to the tourist, both the domestic as well as the foreign tourist. (See also the canal tours by gondola below, under the "Onsite Transportation" rubric.)
The local culture of Zhouzhuang has elements that link to the rest of China – if not to the rest of the world – such as opera and theatre, but it also has elements that are strictly regional if not local, such as live performances of "bird fishing", i.e., fishing with the help of cormorants (family Phalacrocoracidae). Just as the fishermen of the neighboring village of Tongli fish the surrounding rivers and lakes using cormorants, the fishermen of Zhouzhuang fish their waters with cormorants too.
National Geographic Magazine's TV channel once did a special documentary on "bird fishing" in China, and the place where the documentary was filmed was one of the Suzhou area's watertowns. Curiously, cormorants are known to cooperate in catching larger specimens, which is all the more remarkable given that there is no way to share a single large fish (swallowing a fish whole is the only way they manage it), but perhaps they have a way of "keeping score".
If you would like to see for yourself how it is done, there is a special tour here where you can observe as a Zhouzhuang fisherman deploys his fishing birds. Note that these birds are trained to bring the catch back to the fisherman, for which they will receive their just reward at the end of the day, but to eliminate any temptation to "cheat", the fisherman places a "necktie" (rope) around the bird's neck, thus preventing it from swallowing anything larger than a freshwater shrimp.
Kunqu Opera originated during the Ming Dynasty in the village of Kunshan, located about 30 kilometers, as the crow flies, northeast of Zhouzhuang. Kunqu Opera spread throughout the region, and in fact throughout the entire world, though it is still performed in tiny Zhouzhuang. The city of Zhouzhuang is recognized as one of the present-day centers for the performance of Kunqu Opera, possibly outstripped in this connection only by its larger neighbor the the north, Suzhou (Suzhou's Kunqu Opera Museum is, however, located in Kunshan, now a suburb of Suzhou).
In fact, Zhouzhuang played a role in the 2010 Shanghai Expo. For example, in late March a catwalk performance was staged whose aim was to present the gorgeous costumes of Kunqu Opera, where the assembled guests could enjoy first-hand these beautiful, yet sedate (by comparison with Beijing Opera) costumes. In addition, a Kunqu Opera Moonlight Party will be held (the time of this writing is early May, 2010) at Zhouzhuang Theatre in late September, also as part of the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
To learn more about Kunqu Opera, which reached its fruition during the late Ming – early Qing Dynasty period, scroll down to the "Central China" section, which begins with Ming period Kunqu Opera
Zhouzhuang's Original Xuan Juan Folk Theatre
Xuan Juan is a 200-year-old form of variety performance, reminiscent of Kunqu Opera, that combines storytelling with the singing of Suzhou-inspired ballads. It is traditionally performed with stringed instruments or with a wooden knocker musical instrument as its base instrument, with other musical instruments (for example, with copper chime instruments, or with end-blown and/or globular flutes) that accompany the base instrument. The knocker was originally used only in Buddhist religious ceremonies (i.e., it is Indian in origin), but eventually became a part of Chinese folk music. Xuan Juan originated in Zhouzhuang, but spread to other cities in the region. It is performed on holidays, but also on special occasions during the agricultural off-season – and today it is performed at all seasons for the sake of tourists.
Tea Culture in Zhouzhuang
Though not culture in the conventional sense, tea drinking in Zhouzhuang follows very definite, age-old customs that can rightfully be called a "culture", namely, tea culture. The following expressions represent specific tea drinking customs in the city of Zhouzhuang: "Grandma's Tea Drinking", "Spring Tea Tasting", "Full Moon Tea Drinking", "Pleasure Tea Drinking", and " Tea Talking", all of which belong to the tea drinking custom of "Sado South of the Yangtze River" of the city of Zhouzhuang, "Sado" being a reference to the very refined and highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony (sometimes spelled "Chado"), aka Chanoyu.
Below is a closer look at the "Grandma's Tea Drinking" custom, including a short description of the ancient method of collecting and boiling rainwater for the purpose of making tea, as well as a word or two on the the earliest known poreclain tea sets that were used in Zhouzhuang.
These days, younger inhabitants of Zhouzhuang use tap water for making tea, but the older generation still observe the ancient tradition of gathering rainwater to make the purest tea. A large, free-standing, so-called dragon water vat stands permanently in the courtyard where it collects rainwater directly from the sky. Rainwater from the dragon water vat is then tapped into a special crock and brought to a boiling point over an open-air wood fire.
Thereafter, the tea is made according to the following procedure: one takes an enamelled clay urn – by tradition, dark red in color, with a tightly fitting cover (the closest the ancient natural world can get to a modern-day, scientifically hermetically sealed cover) – one places the desired amount of tea leaves inside the urn, then adds a small amount of hot, open-air crock-boiled water (the younger generation uses boiled tap water, as indicated), covers the urn and lets the "potion" sit for a few minutes in order to draw out the tea essence from the tea leaves. The "potion" is then transferred to a pre-heated tea pot and the rest of the water needed in relation to the amount of tea leaves is poured into the tea pot and the tea is served in matching tea cups.
The teapot-and-teacup tea sets used for serving tea in China have an age-old history. The oldest such tea sets known to the city of Zhouzhuang stem from the Song Dynasty period, and are of brightly glazed, blue and white porcelain, with special, lacquered serving trays.
Different tea sets would be used for different tea ceremonies, the "Grandma's Tea Drinking" custom being the most common for ordinary villagers, where the entire family – representing up to three generations – would gather for tea and cookies. "Grandma's Tea Drinking" wasn't just about enjoying a cup of tea with a biscuit, it was a frequent social ritual full of conversation, laughter and storytelling that bound families together, creating a space where the youngest family member to the oldest enjoyed "a place in the sun".
Traditional female clothing in Zhouzhuang is still unique, though rapidly on the decline among younger women. It features a blouse made of floral cloth, with narrow sleeves and with exquisite embroidery, the latter designed to demonstrate the skill and elegance of women living south of the Yangtze River.
Zhouzhuang is a beautiful, picturesque village of willow-lined canals that are contiguous with rows of waterside buildings with whitewashed walls and gray slate roofs, and whose wooden eaves are upturned in the quintessentially Chinese fashion. » more
Zhouzhuang has a long tea drinking history, as indicated above, but the city likes its pastries as well as its more substantial dishes, such as those made with pork, traditionally the most popular meat in China.» more
There are direct buses from Shanghai, Suzhou, Kunshan or Qingpu to Zhouzhuang. You can take a bus or a train from Shanghai to Suzhou, then take one of the Suzhou-Zhouzhuang options. » more
If you have time for it, spending a night in Zhouzhuang is an excellent idea, as it will give you more time to see the sights at a more leisurely pace, especially the sites where the tourist traffic can be considerable as the day progresses.» more
Day 1: After having checked in at your choice of lodging, stroll/ rickshaw about town to get your bearings, and make note of the layout of the village. » more
Despite its small size, Zhouzhuang observes a fair share of annual festivals, the most popular being the Fast-Boat Race and the Lantern Rowing Ceremony. » more