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Nanxun Ancient Town, or Nanxun Water Town as it is more commonly called, is the lesser of the three water towns belonging to the prefecture-level city of Jiaxing. Nanxun, as part of Jiaxing, sits in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River Delta, nestled in between the Lake Tai Basin and the Hangjia Hu Plain. Nanxun once boasted almost as many private scholar gardens – 27 of them, in fact – as the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, situated on the northeastern shores of Lake Tai, though only 5 of Nanxun's famous private gardens exist today. Indeed, at one point in China's history, there were more private gardens in Nanxun that anywhere else in China south of the Yantze River, according to an historical essay written by the Qing (CE 16544-1911) Dynasty poet and essayist, Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610), entitled Yuan ting ji lüe ("A Brief Account of Gardens and Pavilions").*
Nanxun (meaning "South of the Xun [River]"**) – considered as present-day Huizhou's old town, though Nanxun Water Town is situated about 30 kilometers east of the heart of modern-day Huzhou – lies on the southern shores of Lake Tai and on the border with Jiangsu Province. Though much if not most of Nanxun's present-day architecture stems from or is restored during either the Qing Dynasty or the Republic of China (1912-49) period, the village, whose original name is lost, actually stems from CE 746, or the middle of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty.
In the 9th century, also during the Tang Dynasty, the village was named Xunxi. Several of Nanxun's stone arched bridges – including its most famous currently existing bridge, Tong Jin Qiao (High River-Crossing Bridge), though the bridge was rebuilt in 1798 during the latter half of the Qing Dynasty – stem from the 9th century period, which explains why some sources confusingly indicate two history origins for Nanxun (sometimes both are mentioned in the same paragraph!): one dating back 700 years to the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty emergence of Nanxun the silk town, as it were (when Jili Village, a part of Nanxun, began to be famous for its silk, and when the village of Xunxi was renamed to Nanxun); the other dating back 1400 years to the Tang Dynasty emergence of Xunxi the water town.
Like all water towns, canals run past the back door of every row of houses in Nanxun. The canals of Nanxun are connected to a branch canal which in turn is connected to the Changxing-Shanghai Canal, part of the Grand Canal system and known locally as the Oriental Rhine. The Grand Canal, as earlier indicated, flows between Hangzhou and Beijing. It was of course the presence of the Grand Canal, with its seemingly unlimited trade opportunities, which resulted in the immense wealth that was amassed in the relatively small town of Nanxun.
The wealth of Nanxun stemmed almost exclusively from its silk production. The production of silk in ancient China was generally a cottage industry that was run by the women of the village, with each housewife tending the silkworms, harvesting the silk thread from the silkworm cocoons (i.e., reeling up the silk filament into skeins), then spinning a silk yarn from the silk thread, and finally weaving the silk yarn into a fabric with the help of a loom, a fabric that could be dyed and then made into an article of clothing, as-is, or adorned as a brocade to be used in a variety of products, from articles of clothing to curtains to framed wall decorations. It was decidedly an advantage if all, or as many as possible, of the households of a village could participate in this cottage industry, since with many families producing silk skeins, one could always borrow and lend back and forth between households, avoiding costly stoppages in the production.
However, in Nanxun, silk production was restricted solely to the raising and harvesting of the silkworms, that is, the town only produced reeled skeins of raw silk thread and skeins of spun silk thread, i.e., no fabric – not even a medium-stage (undyed, non-embroidered) fabric – was produced at Nanxun. In contrast, the silkworm growers of Nanxun – in particular, the silkworm growers of Jili Village, which, as indicated, was a part of Nanxun – were experts at their craft; they had some of the purest water in the world and their mulberry trees, of which there was abundance, produced the best leaves for the silkworm's "dinner".
Very quickly, the silk skeins and yarns from Jili made the village a famous household name the world over, and made several leading households of Nanxun, who owned the raw silk manufacturing base in Jili, both famous and rich. So exquisite was the silk produced in the village of Jili that the silk merchants of Nanxun became purveyors to the most discriminating of customers in the world: royalty. And this included not only the Chinese royal court but the royal courts of Europe as well. Jili Silk would go on to become even more famous as the centuries passed; for example, Jili Silk won the Gold Medal at the World Expo in London in 1851.
From the Tang through the Song Dynasty, the heartland of silk production in China was centered in the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, on the northeastern shores of Lake Tai, but by the end of the Yuan Dynasty, this center had shifted southward to Nanxun, Zhejiang Province, the birthplace (Zhejiang Province) of another excellent Chinese handicraft product: celadon porcelain.
Nanxun, in the meantime, continued to specialize in its unparalleled raw silk. A new generation of silkworms could be started roughly every other month, or in all, 5 generations of silkworms could be raised and harvested each year, but it was very demanding work, since the silkworms, if fed their diet of mulberry leaves on an optimal basis, would continue to feed, off an on, on a 24-hour basis, meaning that the village women who tended the silkworms had their precious sleep interrupted several times nightly.
So lucrative was the silk trade in Nanxun, given the unparalleled quality of Jili silks, that it was rumored that at one point in the town's history, the combined annual revenue of four of Nanxun's wealthiest families – known as the Four Elephants, which included the famous Nanxun merchant, Zhang Shiming, whose former residence is highlighted below – equalled that of the entire annual tax revenue collected by the Qing emperor's tax authorities throughout China, which was surely a whopping sum! Little wonder then that so much money was lavishly expended on private gardens in Nanxun Water Town.
Silk production reached its peak in Nanxun during the reign (CE 1521-66) of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty (go to learn more about serieculture in China).
Despite Nanxun's wealth, it would be mistaken to believe that the wealthy barons of Nanxun were consumed by a foppish preoccupation with ostentatious wealth, for a part of the opulence of the town was put to good use down through the years to preserve Nanxun's future. For example, from the Song through the Qing Dynasty period, Nanxun produced 41 successful candidates alone at the highest level of the Keju, or the famously difficult Imperial examinations; quite an achievement for such a small town!
Xiao Lian Zhuang (Lesser Lotus Villa)
Lesser Lotus Villa is the former private garden of Nanxun's richest ever son, the Qing Dynasty government official and merchant, Liu Yong. The centerpiece of the enormous garden compound, which comprises over 7,000 square meters, not surprisingly, is a lotus pond. Artificial streams run here and there throughout the large garden, with winding, in places tree-lined paths nearby, and with numerous smaller buildings surrounded by lawns, shrub oases, flower gardens, the whole interspersed with trees.
The pond's lotus flowers blossom pink in the summer, creating a colorful, magical effect. Lesser Lotus Villa is considered the best of Nanxun's private gardens (though, as residences proper go, the Former Residence of Zhang Shimeng, described below, comes out on top), which is not too surprising given that it was created by the town's once richest inhabitant. The walls inside the buildings are adorned with paintings, plaques and stelae that are the handiwork of famous calligraphers, which points up another interesting detail about Nanxun Water Town: just as the wealthy city-states of early Rennaissance Italy attracted some of the period's best Italian artists, Nanxun Water Town, thanks to its silk industry wealth, attracted numerous Chinese artists, from painters to poets and calligraphers.
Jiaye Tang Cangshu Lou (Jiaye Hall Library)
Jiaye Tang Cangshu Lou (literally, Jiaye Hall (Tang) Book-Depot (Cangshu) Multi-Storeyed Building (Lou)) is a private library built by Liu Chenggan in the period 1920-24, during the Republic of China (1912-1949) period. The library's collection of books and documents numbers some 600,000. The facade of the library reflects a Western architectural style though its rear portion as well as the garden proper is reminiscent of the layout of a typical scholar garden, with a lotus pond surrounded by rockeries and pavilions, the whole connected by walkways, some of which are narrow corridors.
Despite the Western style facade, Jiaye Hall Library comes closest in form and spirit to the typical scholar gardens of the city of Suzhou, situated on the northeastern shores of the lake that the two towns share, namely, Lake Tai. Jiaye Hall Library, which has an extensive collection of ancient documents, is one of Zhejiang Province's four ancient libraries.
Liushi Tihao (Liu's Garden)
Liu's Garden was built by Liu Ansheng, the 3rd son of the aforementioned wealthy Qing government official and merchant, Liu Yong. The private garden, given its external appearance, is also known as Hong Fangzi (Red House). Liu's Garden is typical of most of the private garden residences of Nanxun Water Town, in that the garden's buildings combine both traditional Chinese architectural elements with Western architectural elements. Sometimes the facade is in quintessential Chinese style, with the back, or hidden side of the building, in a Western style, but this pattern is as often reversed!
In the case of Liu's Garden, the facade of the main building is designed in a traditional Chinese architectural style whereas the rear side of the building, which faces the garden proper, is built in a Western if not in a classical style – i.e., it has arched French windows and a second-storey balcony that is supported by Greek columns, creating a gallery of sorts. Similarly, the other buildings that make up the garden compound combine elements of both Chinese and Western architecture, a feature that distinguishes the private gardens of Nanxun from all of the other private gardens of southern China, and which makes them of particular interest to a Western visitor.
Indeed, given the town's Western architectural flavor and its many canals with their high concrete walls and their wide, pond-like areas connected by narrow passageways with stone arched bridges overhead, Nanxun Water Town bears a certain resemblance to Venice, minus, that is, the gondolas, but with small, roofed junks instead.
Zhang Jingjiang Guju (Former Residence of Zhang Jingjiang)
The Former Residence of Zhang Jingjiang is situated at the end of Dong Dajie (East Street), one of Nanxun's main thoroughfares. The former residence was built in 1898 by an ardent, well-to-do friend and supporter (both financially and otherwise) of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the military strategist who is credited with being the founding father of the RoC and who served as the provisional President of the RoC from the fall of the Qing government in December of 1911 until the inaguration of the RoC in March of 1912 (Dr. Sun was even more important for his role in bringing down the last Qing government).
Another frequent guest of Zhang Jingjiang was Chiang Kai-shek, the general who eventually became the generalissimo who would lead the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party of the RoC in the republic's later years, and who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the KMT was driven from the mainland by Chinese Communist forces under the command of Mao Zedung. The former residence, whose Chinese name is often translated as "Respect for Morality Hall", is – not too surprisingly, given Zhang's nationalist fervor – built entirely in a traditional Chinese style, devoid of Western architectural influences of any kind.
Zhang Jingjiang was praised by Dr. Sun Yat-sen as "the most outstanding citizen of China". He was even praised by Mao Zedong, who was much more conservative in his praise of anyone, as "one who understands economics". In Zhang's former residence, the visitor can see well-preserved letters, photos, etc., that show the close relationship between Zhang and Dr. Sun.
Zhang Shiming Guju (Former Residence of Zhang Shiming)
The former residence of Zhang Shimeng, a wealthy Zhejiang merchant who introduced many foreign luxury goods – principally luxury goods from Western countries – to the people of Nanxun, was built during the period 1889-1906, or from the 25th year to the 31st year of the reign (CE 1875-1908) of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty.
The residence itself sits on roughly 4500 square meters, while the entire area of the former residence, including its complementary garden, spans some 6140 square meters. Like many similar residences in Nanxun, the Former Residence of Zhang Shimeng combines traditional Chinese and Western architectural styles. The inter-connectedness of the multi-storeyed residence with its small but integral garden is what one today would call "organic", i.e., the two complement each other perfectly, producing a single, harmonious entity. This last feature is said to reflect Zhang Shimeng's intimate knowledge of Western culture on matters of art and architecture as they were espoused in the late 19th century.
The residence comprises numerous rooms, including salons, halls, studies and bedrooms. Each room is designed in a separate style, yet the whole is one of harmony, reflecting, yet again, the "organic" nature of the building's construction philosophy. Construction of the exterior required several tons of delicately chiseled stones while its exquisite embellishment, especially its arched window frames, involved countless wood-and-brick carvings, and the window glass itself, with its intricate, Gothic style tracery is so unique that it keeps the windows perennially dust-free.
It is said of this unique glass, which was specially imported from France, that there were only 80 sections of this particular type of window glass ever made, 73 of which sections were used in the construction of the Former Residence of Zhang Shimeng, while the remaining 7 pieces now belong to a museum in France. Both the overall design of the building, with its twin yet complementary architectural styles, as well as the superior craftsmanship of its construction, sets the Former Residence of Zhang Shimeng apart not only from the other garden residences of Southeastern China but also from the other garden residences of Nanxun.
Baijian Lou (Mansion of One Hundred Rooms)
The Mansion of One Hundred Rooms, which we will refer to by its shorter, Chinese name here, Baijian Lou, is not a private garden, but rather is a series of interconnected, one- and two-storey tenement dwellings originally built, it is said, to house workers and which line, quite literally, both sides of the canal, which, here, is affectionately referred to as Baijianlou He (One Hundred Rooms River). As indicated in the above, the canal – a branch canal of the nearby west-east oriented Changxing-Shanghai Canal – is walled in by the concrete foundation at the rear of the town's houses (there is a flagstone-paved street running in front of all of the houses of Nanxun Water Town, with the branch canal running behind the houses). The total length of the branch canal that runs west-east through the town is about 4 ½ kilometers, while the total length of the flagstone walkways is about 3 kilometers.
The branch canal that runs west-east through Nanxun is ultimately connected to the larger, also west-east oriented Changxing-Shanghai Canal, aka Oriental Rhine, at the western end of the town by a section of the same branch canal (i.e., Baijianlou He) that swings in a north-south direction just west of the town, and at the eastern end by the north-south oriented Shi River, thus creating a large, horizontal rectangle of waterways on whose lower long side is situated Nanxun Water Town, with roughly half of the town on the south side of Baijianlou He, or outside the rectangle in question.
Baijian Lou, which, as indicated, is an uninterrupted row of tenement dwellings (aka apartment houses) stretching some 400 meters on either side of the canal, dates back some 400 years to the end of the 16th century, i.e., near the end of the Ming Dynasty. The tenement houses are characterized by their distinctive white walls and their black-tiled roofs. As indicated, Baijian Lou, according to historical records, was built to house the famous water town's army of servants and their families, which, given the relative luxury even of these handsome servant houses, is very impressive, and bears further witness to Nanxun's former status as part of South China's lucrative silk trade.
Besides its famous former residences, Nanxun Water Town – which can be said to be a living museum in the sense that the ancient houses are still inhabited, and the residents wash their clothes in the canal just as they did 1400 years ago, though the town's silk production has declined drastically, given the competition from more mechanized silk production elsewhere throughout Southern China – offers the visitor the opportunity to experience a number of ancient Chinese archways which, down through the ages, have played an important role in the religious rituals of the water town's traditional ancestral worship.
In 2008, Nanxun Water Town, along with a handful of other water towns in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces, including Wuzhen and Xitang Water Towns, were added to the UNESCO Tentative List of World Cultural Heritage Sites under the rubric of 'Ancient Waterfront Towns in the South of Yangtze River'.
* Yuan Hongdao's essay, to my knowledge, is not available in English. However, translated parts of it are cited in the 1996 book Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China by Craig Clunas, published roughly simultaneously in the UK (Reaktion Books Ltd., London) and in the US (Duke University Press Books, Durham, N.C.), and probably available at your favorite online bookstore. According to Clunas, Yuan's essay, which does not otherwise indicate a publishing date, can at least be determined to have been originally published before CE 1602, based on informational clues that can be gleaned directly from the contents of the essay itself.
** In spite of the designation "south of the Xun River", there is no present-day Xun River in the immediate vicinity of Nanxun/ Lake Tai (!), though it can't be ruled out that there was a nearby river by that name in former times. The only present-day Xun River is a branch of the Pearl (Zhu) River located in Guangxi Province (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), just before that roughly east-west oriented (flowing from west to east) river branches out (but looking in the reverse, or east to west, direction) into a northern and a southern "Y" (each with further sets of branches... the Pearl River Drainage is immense).
To compound this name confusion, the section of the Pearl River that lies just east, or downstream, of the Xun River is called the Xi River, which might lead the unsuspecting reader to conclude that the ancient name for Nanxun, Xunxi, stems from these two contiguous sections of the Pearl River. The only problem with this theory is that Nanxun Water Town lies about 1500 kilometers northeast of these two stretches of the Pearl River, which would put it north, not south, of the Xun River (Nan means "South"). Ahem! (Or, as one of my university economics professors once cleverly said of an unsolvable mathematical conundrum: "we choose to look it straight in the eye, then move on!")