Shaoxing is a prefecture-level city situated between Hangzhou and Ningbo, near the point where the Cao'e River makes a near-perfect 90-degree turn before emptying into Hangzhou Bay at the confluence of the Qiantang River - or estuary/ river mouth, at this particular juncture. The entire land mass on which the city of Shaoxing sits - and neighboring Yuecheng as well - resembles one great marsh-like terrain, dotted with countless lakes and crisscrossed with numerous rivers and canals, some of the latter of which may well have been dug in order to drain parts of the terrain that was deemed suitable, once drained, for the purpose of building. The presence of so many waterways - and note that some of the wider canal-like bodies of water are in fact designated as lakes - means that the city of Shaoxing is characterized by bridges, bridges, and yet more bridges; in fact, there are some 4000 bridges, many small and some large, in the city of Shaoxing.
The city of Shaoxing has a rich cultural history, beginning with its role as the capital of the Kingdom of Yue (aka Yue State) during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, as the next section illustrates...
A Brief History
The Han Chinese rule in the ancient "cradle" of Chinese civilization - roughly, the provinces which include and are contiguous with Henan Province, less Shaanxi Province, i.e., Shanxi, Henan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Hebei - had an understanding, or pact, with the tribes that lived farther south, who were collectively called the Yue, or "Hundred Yue", since there were numerous subgroups belonging to the Yue peoples. Though the Yue people still lived for the most part according to their own cultural customs, their leaders, by the time of the peaceful, first period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the Spring and Autumn Period, had become more or less sinicized.
There was naturally trade between the Han and the Yue, but more importantly, the Han Chinese rulers were interested in assuring that their southern border with the Yue remained peaceful. For the Yue there were clear benefits: trade, of course, which also brought with it what one today would call a transfer of technology; and freedom from having to constantly wage war. This is not to denigrate the technological achievement of the Yue people, since, according to legend, Yu the Great, founder of the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) Dynasty, is credited with having been the first Chinaman (and perhaps the first human, period) to master the art of flood control by constructing spillover canals and, where necessary, diverting the flow of a river. Many Han Chinese engineers would later walk this same path. Still, the society of the Han Chinese was more developed, which is why it had something attractive besides peace to offer the Yue leaders, and which probably explains why Yue leaders had become sinicized, though this is pure conjecture on my part.
Unfortunately for all parties, things did not continue on a peaceful course. Firstly, the Eastern Zhou Dynasty was at best a weak confederacy of states, and this lack of power in the center resulted in individual states vying among themselves for power. The Qi State began to fulfill the role that the Zhou Dynasty should have, namely, offering protection to weaker states. This caused the Chu State to try and check the influence of the Qi State by itself becoming more powerful at the expense of weaker neighboring states.
In the meantime, the Yue and the Wu States farther south and east, both peopled mainly by members of the Yue ethnic group, began to make war against each other, or rather, the Wu State, southern neighbor to the Chu State, tried to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Chu State at the expense of the Yue State.* Finally, hostilities broke out between the Chu and Wu States, with the Wu State dealing the Chu State a major, though not decisive blow, even though the Chu capital of Ying was sacked. Seeing its chance, the Yue State attacked the beleaguered Wu State and crushed it, only to itself be crushed by the then resussitated Chu State (now we know why historians call it the Warring States Period!).
To make a long story short, the Qi State eventually came out on top, declaring itself a dynasty, China's first Imperial dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, and the troubled Warring States Period came to an end (to stop the bickering among all of the thus unemployed kings of the defeated Zhou Dynasty states (i.e., those kings who did not perish in the wars), the rather autocratic Emperor Qin simply chose to enslave them).
After the fall of the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty, another troubled period in China's history began. Nomadic Turkic tribes from the north pressed southward, first as marauding gangs but eventually with an eye to conquering territory. This caused the mass migration of Han Chinese peoples southward into the area where the Yue peoples lived. This tendency was braked during the Sui (CE 581-617) and Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties, but resumed thereafter during the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Periods, only to be checked again by the emergence of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. During the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, Hangzhou, Shaoxing's neighbor immediately to the west, became the nation's capital, one of the 7 ancient capitals of China. Moreover, it was during the Sui Dynasty that the Grand Canal was dug, from Hangzhou to the northern plains of China.
The invasion of northern China by the Jürchens and the establishement of the Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty started another major exodus of Han Chinese, this time to the area farther south of Zhejiang, to the coastal provinces that face Taiwan and to Taiwan itself, the resulting mix between Han and Yue culture there being later referred to as the Lingnan Culture. However, Zhejiang Province, including Shaoxing, had already become a part of China proper and thus did not form a part of the Lingnan Culture that would develop farther south.
The exodus of Han Chinese from the north resulted in a blossoming of the southern part of China, as witnessed by the fact that the Southern Song Dynasty was ruled by Han Chinese, who had made Hangzhou their capital. This tendency was only reinforced by yet another invasion of Turkic peoples, the Mongols, into China, though the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty would eventually become thoroughly sinicized, and would prosper. In fact, Hangzhou prospered during the Yuan Dynasty, as we know from the travel diary of Marco Polo, who visited the city during the 13th century, referring to it as the "City of Heaven".
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Zhejiang and its major cities, including Shaoxing, would prosper even more. During the 13th century, Hangzhou and the neighboring cities developed a porcelain glazing technique that was later referred to as celadon (i.e., porcelain finished with a translucent, pale-green glaze), and which became a hit the world over, generating fantastic trade for Zhejiang Province for several centuries to come. It was first during the Ming Dynasty that the region, which had previously been divided into prefectures, was officially organized as Zhejiang Province. Shaoxing profited greatly during its long history from its geographic proximity to illustrious neighboring cities such as Hangzhou and Ningbo.
Shaoxing is a city of culture, being home to a number of famous political or cultural personages such as the famous calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (Wang Xizhi is known as the Sage of Calligraphy, and though born in present-day Shandong Province, he spent most of his life in Shaoxing, where he earned his reputation as China's foremost calligrapher); Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), an educator, anarchist and former Chancellor of Peking University during the Republic of China, Cai was open to early Chinese Communist thinkers whom he recruited to teach at the university; Lu Xun (1881-1936), considered the founder of modern Chinese literature, Lu became the head of the League of Left-Wing Writers; and Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), the former Premier of China (officially called the First Premier, since there are a number of deputy premiers) under Chairman Mao Zedung, Chou Enlai was the man who worked out the devilish details of President Nixon's visit to China (i.e., the detente between China and the West), together with Nixon's Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.
A more important measure of Shaoxing's level of culture is the city's devotion to its opera, such as Yueju ("Yue Opera", China's number two national opera form after Peking/ Beijing Opera) and Shaoju ("Shaoxing Opera", a local opera, of course), Diao Qiang (aka Gao Qiang) Opera, a provincial opera genre that originated in Shaoxing during the Ming Dynasty and which spread to other localities in Zhejiang Province (one speaks today of Shaoxing Diao Qiang, the Diao Qiang of Luan Tan Opera in Zhuji, located about 50 kilometers southwest of Shaoxing, the Ping Diao of Ping Diao Opera of Ninghai, located about 80 kilometers south of Ningbo, etc., all of which opera forms are related).
Note that Yueju was traditionally performed solely by women, who played male roles, while the opposite was the case with Peking Opera. Two other major differences between the two opera forms is that Yueju is more lyrical and does not make use of facial masks or the heavy use of makeup in general - in this sense Yueju is more akin to Western opera, which relies more on dialogue, whether spoken or sung, than the visual aspect in order to convey the storyline.
Given the many lakes and waterways intersecting the city (the local rivers include the Cao'e, the Meishan, the Yaowan and the Zhedongyun), Shaoxing, as indicated above, is a city of bridges, and, as well, a city of gardens, both of which have attracted tourists down through the ages, and which have inspired the imagery of Shaoxing's opera sets. Today's Shaoxing is ranked as one of the Top 40 cities in China, and one of the most attractive Chinese cites in which to live, thanks also to the city's efforts to preserve its pristine natural environment.
Perhaps surprisingly, Shaoxing is something of an economic locomotive, thanks to its budding textile industry. In fact, Shaoxing is not only China's largest exporter of textiles, it is Asia's largest exporter of textiles. Shaoxing is also known for its rice wine, which has a pleasing taste and an attractive, pale yellow tint. The city is also known for its contribution to calligraphy, thanks to Wang Xizhi and to the many other calligraphers who came here in order to study under Wang and to capture the city's evocative water scenes.
Shaoxing has countless historical and cultural sites of interest to the tourist, the most prominent being: the Ancient Track Road, constructed in CE 815 during the Tang Dynasty, it stretched along Shaoxing's Xiao, Shao, and Yu canals for some 40 kilometers, though today it has been reduced to only 7 kilometers; Shen's Garden, a private scholar garden built by a Shaoxing businessman during the Southern Song Dynasty, but made famous by the chance encounter here of a real-life poet and his ex-wife - and cousin (the marriage was quickly annuled by the poet's mother) - a love story as sad as that of Tristian and Isolde; Xi Shi Palace of Zhuji (Xi Shi, of the Spring and Autumn Period, is renowned as one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China... the city of Zhuji, as indicated above, lies about 50 kilometers southwest of Shaoxing); and the Former Residence of Wang Xizhi (the famous calligrapher, aka the Sage of Calligraphy).
Other attractions include: Orchid Pavilion Scenic Area; Mount Hou Scenic Area; Mount Huiji Scenic Area; Wuxie Tourist Area; the Former Residence of Lu Xun; the Former Residence of Cai Yuanpei; the Former Residence of Zhou Enlai; the Mausoleum of Da Yu (Yu the Great); Big Buddha Temple of Xinchang; Cao'e Temple of Shangyu; Keyan Cave; and East Lake. A number of these sites are listed under the "Attractions" rubric in the Table of Contents column (left column) above.
If you plan to be in the area in March or April, be sure to make your way to Shaoxing, for that is when the peach trees blossom - an event almost as famous as the blossoming of cherry trees in Japan.