Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu Province, China

October 20, 2013

Picturesque towns dotted 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 were ancient, of which Zhouzhuang, established almost a millennium ago, was the oldest.

Postcard Pretty Zhouzhuang: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou

Ready to Explore Zhouzhuang with Mamerto Banatin of Adam’s Express Travel
Zhouzhuang, China’s Oldest Water Town

It 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.

Row Boats Berthed by Riverside Houses @ Zhouzhuang: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou
Zhouzhuang Gondola
Window over a Zhouzhuang Canal: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou

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.

Wang Chong Zhou, Zhouzhuang Artist
A Folk Shop @ Zhouzhuang
A Zhouzhuang Artist at Work

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.

A Rigid Fan and a Fan with Wang Chong Zhou
Boat in Zhouzhuang Passing Through Canals
Gondola under Taiping Bridge @ Zhouzhuang
Zhouzhuang: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou

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.

Round-Arched Shide Bridge @ Zhouzhuang
TTT on Shide Bridge, Zhouzhuang
Square-Shaped Yong’an Bridge @ Zhouzhuang
Beauty and the Bridge: Rowena Coloma of Travel Specialist Ventures @ Shide Bridge, Zhouzhuang
Taiping Bridge: My Favorite Bridge in Zhouzhuang

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.

Village Life: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou
A Zhouzhuang Gondolier
Local Women Doing Laundry @ Zhouzhuang

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?

Product Logo Placement in a Heritage Town @ Zhouzhuang
Throng of Tourists @ Zhouzhuang
A Riverside Restaurant @ Zhouzhuang
Zhouzhuang Girl Looking Down at the Procession of Tourists

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.

Zhouzhuang Arts: Painting, Sculpture, Woodwork
Fuhong Bridge and Reflection @ Zhouzhuang
Lonely Lady @ Zhouzhuang
Flowers of Zhouzhuang
Riverside Houses @ Zhouzhuang
TTT @ Zhouzhuang
Zhouzhuang Panorama on a Folding Postcard: Illustration by Wang Chong Zhou

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.

China Eastern Airlines (photo provided by the airline)
China Eastern Airlines (stock photo)