Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu Province, China
October 20, 2013
Picturesque towns dot the waterlogged Yangtze basin between Shanghai and Suzhou. Collectively known as “Venice of the East” for their capillary network of canals, gondolas gliding through stone bridges, narrow cobblestone alleys, and riverside houses directly accessible from the water, these water towns are ancient, of which Zhouzhuang, established almost a millennium ago, is the oldest.
This was my second visit, but this time I saw Zhouzhuang through an artist’s eyes. There were sculptors, weavers, painters, and illustrators creating art and making a living in their folk shops and ateliers that flanked the tourist-choked pedestrian streets. Tuning out the crowds, my eyes were drawn to a lonely shop window brimming with ink drawings on postcards, fans, and scrolls. Each stroke captured the delicacy of arched bridges and shingled roofs, shadows and reflections, evoking a pristine Zhouzhuang yet undiscovered by the world beyond its canals.
Almost inconspicuous amid the display, the artist hunched over his worktable, lost in creative reverie, illustrating yet another town scene on a spread-out fan. I wouldn’t have intruded, but, before I could avert my gaze, he looked up and bid me welcome. The artist was his own agent, after all. Language barrier be damned, he pointed at his name written in Chinese characters on his artworks. I drew a blank, betraying my illiteracy. He read his name out loud, Wang…Chong…Zhou, deliberately drawing out each syllable, and thus we were acquainted.
I picked up an elegant folding fan as a souvenir for my mother. Mr. Wang, however, explained through a bilingual Taiwanese tourist who had dropped in, that, in ancient times, folding fans were used by men and rigid ones by women. Perhaps folding fans could slip into pockets easily when men were out on the road, a design feature unnecessary for fans used at home where women mostly stayed. I chose to be historically accurate and bought the rigid fan.
My thoughts wandered to the story our guide had told us earlier. For much of its existence, Zhouzhuang remained quietly under the radar even among the Chinese. That changed in the 80s when statesman Deng Xiaoping was given Memory of Hometown (故乡的回忆), an oil work by contemporary classical painter Chen Yifei, depicting Zhouzhung’s quaint bridges, by an American businessman. Perhaps aghast that it took a foreigner, no less, to train his eyes on the water town, the highly-regarded leader awakened the dormant renown of Zhouzhuang as a heritage town worthy of national pride. Coming full circle, the painting took a roundabout way to return the acclaim to its subject.
The bridges depicted in Chen’s painting were Zhouzhuang’s icons: the Double Bridge – Shide and Yong’an, one round, the other square. Closest to the entrance, the bridges complement each other like a Chinese traditional key, unlocking access to long-gone Ming and early Qing Dynasties (between the 13th and 17th centuries), when most of the 14 bridges in this water town were built. Given the ones I was able to see, the creeper-covered Taiping Bridge was the most enchanting: a short bridge with an arch rising around a corner of flower beds. This vestige of dynasties past seemed far removed from modern Shanghai, just an hour or so away by bus.
This proximity to the modern world could threaten the fragile fabric of life in this world of yore, invaded by throngs of tourists straining its structural and cultural integrity. On the other hand, self-proclaimed discriminating travelers would sneer at such commercial exploitation that had turned these towns into theme parks. Both may be true to an alarming extent, but how else could such an antiquity keep up with the rapid modernization of China?
No matter, I found a thriving art scene that had tenaciously clung to the town’s traditions. Bridges and willows, streams and flowers, people watching boat men – a throwback to the quiet delicacy of village life: this was the collective memory of Zhouzhuang that had endured in the works of its artists. Art had sustained the oldest water town and heralded its renaissance in modern times.
This trip was sponsored by China Eastern Airlines which flies daily between Manila and Shanghai. Book flights here or call China Eastern Airlines Manila Reservation at +63 2 789 9125. A day trip by bus to Zhouzhuang can be made from Shanghai.