Monday, 24 May 2010


Venice of the Orient/East (according to some)

sunny 27 °C

Today, we left Suzhou for Zhouzhuang, which was about 30 kms from Suzhou or 1.5 hrs drive. I actually only heard about Zhouzhuang a week ago. Suzhou is famous for 2 things: classical Chinese gardens, and water towns. So why did we opted Zhouzhuang for the convenience of Suzhou's water town? I heard from the travel grapevine that this Zhouzhuang is the most well-known of all water-towns (of which there're many around here). It's been called the Venice of the East/Orient. I've been to Venice, and if the title is well-deserved, I'll give it a go.

These 2 places share many similarities, of course, to call for the comparisons: narrow canals, stone bridges arch over them, narrow alleys, history, rowing boats, etc. Zhouzhuang called itself No. 1 Watertown. It's so called not because it's the best (some might say, it is), but because it's the first one to get recognition. So the story goes, a struggling Chinese water-colourist name Chen Yifei painted many of his works based on his home town Zhouzhuang. One of his works was the Twin Bridges in Zhouzhuang was exhibited in New York Gallery. This work was purchased by Armand Hammer, and later presented to Deng Xiaopeng as a gift. He died before his greatest achievement is accomplished, that made him a legend (Take Andy Warhol). The fame of the town was sealed. Mary told us that she doesn't think this water town is the most scenic. It's simply the most well known.

I don't know if you can meaningfully compare the two travel destinations, but I'll attempt to list the pros and cons of visiting Zhouzhuang (aka Zhouzhuangzhen) and Venice, and highlight their differences, according to my experiences:
  • The large Chinese crowd. There're large tourist crowd at Venice too, with more subdued European mob. If you can't enjoy the colourful and rowdy Chinese tourists that Chinese call 热闹 ('heat & noise'), it can be minimised by going there on weekdays. We were there on Monday, where the crowd is considerably smaller than what we saw in Suzhou on yesterday (Sunday). By the time we left there about 2pm, but place was practically deserted. Since this place can be covered in less than 3 hours, you can come here, say, 2 pm, and spend the morning somewhere else.
  • The place is less well maintained than Venice (which, even if it's sinking. It's a well-maintained sinking ship). Actually it's maintained quite ok, just can't compare to the more polished Venice. This isn't necessary a minus, one might argue, it gives the place history and character.
  • It's much smaller than Venice because Zhouzhuangzhen is a 镇 ('zhen') - a small town in Chinese, while Venice is a city (used to be city-state). Again, this isn't necessary a bad thing.
  • Chinese prices.
  • The riverbanks are covered by willows that not only makes it more picturesque, but provides nice shades. Venice on the other are covered by millions of pigeons that drop their loads freely on your head. I got one hit on my shoulder. You're simply against the odds.
  • You can buy local Chinese souvenirs, as well as Russian dolls, and Venetian masks (all of these are made in China these days, not Venice).
In short, if you're looking or something that full of rustic charms on a shoestring budget, Zhouzhuang is for you.

Entrance to Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Entrance to Zhouzhuang

wansan pork hock - a well known local dish, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
wansan pork hock - a well known local dish
There're many such watertowns in the Jiangnan ( 江南) area. Jiangnan - literally means south of the river - is a very scenic place south of the lower reaches of Yantze Delta. Suzhou, Hangzhou, for example, are within this area. As is Zhouzhuang, and many water towns or water villages. When all these water town/villages are taken together, they're likely to be much bigger Venice. But unfortunately, they're all floating around in bits an pieces. No individual one is as big as Venice.

Canal in Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
You can't experience the water town without taking a cruise
on this men (mostly women) powered boats on its narrow canals

Arch bridge over Canal in Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Arch bridge over Canal. This type of ancient arch bridge is a unique Chinese invention.
In the West, ancient arch bridge supports a level walkway. This gives rise to a bridge with
only quarter circle arch. This Chinese arch bridge has a semi-circle, giving rise
to greater heights for boats.

Jiangnan is more or less coincides with the Wu area (for more background on Suzhou, read article "Suzhou - Day 1"). Jiangnan is such a picturesque area that Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝) of the Qing Dynasty who used the excuse of 'observing and understand the people' to frequently sneaked out the Imperial Place, disguised himself as commoner and went down to Jiangnan from Beijing (乾隆下江南). Typically, Chinese Emperors were imprisoned in their opulent palaces, and were never to set foot outside except for battlefields.

We know better, these Jiangnan trips were more about pleasure than business. His grannie Emperor Kangxi did the same (followed the grand father's footsteps all the way, eh? Like grand daddy like grand sonny). In fact they both took 6 trips respectively. Again, followed the footsteps to the letter (I mean number).

I suspected they came down using the Grand canal. This canal was built to connect Beijing to Suzhou as it was the cultural, and more importantly economic centre of China. The canal facilitated the Beijing imperial court for the transportation of goods, and more importantly, the collection of taxes from Suzhou.

Tourists lining up to enter the Kunqu opera theatre
The Kunqu Opera (崑劇) is listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2001. It's considered the mother of all Chinese operas, including the more well known Beijing Opera. This shouldn't come as a surprise as I mentioned in the Suzhou article that Jiangnan is really the cultural centre of ancient China.

Kunqu Opera Poster, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Kunqu Opera Poster

The Kunqu Opera is originated in Kunshan (Kunqu = "Kun music", and Kunshan = Kun Mountain"), and Zhouzhang is a city at the Kunshan county level. Hence, this explains its presence in Zhouzhang.

We made a brief visit to the theatre.

Kunqu Opera theatre stage, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Kunqu Opera theatre stage, and audience seating

Theatrical boots and costumes for the Kunqi Opera.

Theatrical boots for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Theatrical costumes for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Theatrical boots for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Tiger head shoes, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Tiger head shoes
Every kid in ancient China would dream to own a pair of these

Water courier, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Water courier to facilitate the passing of things between the opposite banks of the canals

Boat Rover, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Don't know if this is a tradition, but nearly all boat rovers here are women.
Perhaps the men have all gone to work in the Big Smoke

Bean curd "flower", Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Bean curd "flower" (豆腐花), one of my fave sweets deserts

Busy traffic on Zhouzhuang canal, Jiangsu, China
Busy traffic, Zhouzhuang style

As this is a popular venue, it's best to go there on weekday to avoid crowds. The crowds were ok (for China) when we were there. It took us only half a day to see everything as it's a small town, which gives it its rustic charm.

Mary was right; this isn't the best water-town in China, it's just the most well known. Still, it's well worth the trip.

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