Zhouzhuang is a small town located in China’s Jiangsu province not far from the modern metropolis of Shanghai. As one of the China’s most famous water towns, Zhouzhuang has been nicknamed the “Venice of the East.” Apart from the picturesque natural scenery, the town is also known for its well-preserved architecture, including several stone bridges, and old houses that date to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today, this beautiful little town has developed into an extremely popular tourist destination.
Zhouzhuang is situated in southeastern Jiangsu, a province in the eastern-central part of China. The town is located about 38 km (23.6 mi.) from Suzhou, the second largest city in the province after Shanghai. The southern part of Jiangsu belongs to a geographical region known as Jiangnan, which literally means “south of the river,” south of the Yangtze River. Since ancient times, this region has been famous for its rivers and lakes, and its inhabitants have learned to live in harmony with the natural environment.
During the 11 th century AD, a network of towns, which are known also as water towns or canal towns, began to emerge around these bodies of water. Two centuries later, these water towns were flourishing, and became prosperous important trade centers. Moreover, these water towns served as an inspiration to many Chinese poets and painters over the ages. It may be mentioned that whilst water towns exist in other parts of China as well, those in Jiangnan are the most famous. In addition to Zhouzhuang, other well-known water towns in this region include Tongli, Xitang, and Nanxun.
A classic view of the famous side canals of Zhouzhuang, which are so popular with tourists today. (ngader / CC BY 2.0 )
Zhouzhuang: China’s Most Famous Water Town
On the top of this list of famous Chinese water towns, however, is Zhouzhuang, which has even been dubbed in one article as the “Number One Water Town in China.” The same article also claims that Zhouzhuang is one of the “ten most beautiful towns in the world.”
The history of Zhouzhuang dates to China’s Spring and Autumn Period , which lasted from the 8 th to the 5 th century BC. At that time, Zhouzhuang was a small town, perhaps even a village, called Zhenfengli, and belonged to the fiefdom of Yaocheng. It was only in 1086, during the Northern Song dynasty (the first part of the Song dynasty ), that Zhouzhuang got its present name. In that year, a devout Buddhist by the name of Zhou Digong donated a large area of land to the Quanfu Temple, or Full Fortune Temple. In honor of the generous donor, the name of the town was changed to Zhouzhuang or, roughly translated, the “Village of Zhou.”
Zhouzhuang is a small town, covering an area of about half a square kilometer (about 124 acres). About 60% of the town’s buildings date to either the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD) or the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912 AD). Nevertheless, there are also a number of structures in Zhouzhuang that pre-date these periods.
Zhouzhuang’s popular Chengxu Taoist Temple(Paul Louis / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
One of these, for instance, is the Chengxu Taoist Temple. This temple is known also as the Shengtang Hall, or Sanctity Hall, and was constructed between 1086 and 1093 AD, when China was ruled by the Northern Song dynasty. In the centuries that followed, the temple was expanded from time to time, and it eventually came to cover an area of 1500 m 2 (1800 yd 2). The Chengxu Taoist Temple is one of the most famous Taoist temples in the area, and is known for its Shengdi and Doumu Halls, as well as the Yuhuang, Wenchang, and Shengdi pavilions. These elements of the temple, though simple, are majestic, and hailed as elaborate masterpieces of Taoist architecture.
Another structure at Zhouzhuang that predates the Ming and Qing dynasties is Fu’an Bridge (translated as “Peaceful bridge of abundance”), which is situated to the east of the Chengxu Taoist Temple, at the eastern end of the Zhongshijie Street. The Fu’an bridge is one of 19 stone bridges in Zhouzhuang. It was originally built in 1355 AD during the Yuan dynasty. In the centuries that followed, the bridge was restored and rebuilt on several occasions, the most recent being in 1855 AD. In that year, granite stairs and elaborate engravings that were fashionable in the Qing dynasty were added to the bridge.
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Another of Zhouzhuang’s famous stone bridges is the Double Bridge. In fact, this pair of bridges may be said to be even more significant than the aforementioned Fu’an Bridge. The Double Bridge refers to the Shide Bridge and the Yongan Bridge and is located in the heart of the town. The Double Bridge is known also as the Key Bridge, supposedly because they are linked together like the keys that were used in ancient China. Whilst the Shide Bridge was built in 1573 AD, the Yongan Bridge was built in 1619 AD.
The famous Double Bridge of Zhouzhuang. ( wusuowei / Adobe Stock)
The Double Bridge is said to be the part of Zhouzhuang where the ancient charm of this water town can be best appreciated. Indeed, Chen Yifei, a renowned Chinese painter of the 20 th century AD, drew inspiration from the scenery of the Double Bridge. In 1983, three years after arriving in the US, Chen had a solo exhibition of Suzhou landscapes at the Hammer Galleries. Two years later, Armand Hammer, an American businessman and the owner of the Hammer Galleries, presented one of Chen’s paintings, Memory of Homeland – Double Bridge , as a gift to Deng Xiaoping, the premier of China at that time.
Thanks to Chen’s status as a renowned painter, his former residence in Zhouzhuang has also been transformed into a tourist destination . Other residences in the town, however, are associated with individuals, or families, from further back in Zhouzhuang’s history.
The Zhang Residence, for instance, is one of two houses that visitors to the water town should not miss. The residence is located to the south of the Double Bridge, and was built in the 15 th century, during the Ming dynasty. Built by a relative of the Ming royal family, the residence was later sold to the Zhang family, hence its current name. The residence is notable for its 70 rooms, its Ming-style columns, and the free-flowing river that flows through the complex, which allows boats to pass through the residence. Today, however, the Zhang Residence is owned by the local government, which is responsible for its preservation and restoration.
Painted barge docked at the Zhouzhuang Wansan Pier which relates to the town’s long and prosperous trade history. ( Weiming / Adobe Stock)
The other residence, the Shen Residence, was built in 1742 AD, during the Qing dynasty, by Shen Benren, over a smaller residence that he had inherited from his father. Shen Benren was a descendant of Shen Wansan, the richest man in Jiangnan during the Ming dynasty. Incidentally, Shen Wansan is also connected with two famous dishes from Zhouzhuang, the Wansan Eight Bowls, and the Wansan Pork Shank. Compared to the Zhang Residence, the Shen Residence is more impressive, containing 100 rooms that surround seven courtyards. The residence is divided into three sections, the water gate and wharf, the tea and main halls, which were used to receive guests and for important ceremonies, and the living quarters. Today, the Shen Residence is no longer a private residence, and is open to the public.
Zhouzhuang is undoubtedly a picturesque water town that is worth visiting, and its titles, “Venice of the East” and “Number One Water Town in China” are not undeserved. Whilst the town relied on trade for its prosperity in the past, it now depends on tourism. Indeed, thanks to Zhouzhuang’s scenic landscape and old buildings, the town has been turned into a popular tourist destination, which has kept it alive in the modern world.
Top image: A residential area in the ancient town of Zhouzhuang, China today. Source: 昊 周 / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren