Brian's Blogs

Water, water everywhere. Welcome to Wuzhen!

I’ve often wondered what it is about Venice that makes everyone want to share in its glory. There are loads of cities around the world that claim to be the “Venice of the North / South / East / West” but some of them have such a flimsy case that I wonder what the burgers of Venice make of it all.

Wikipedia lists seven “Venice of the North”s – though my favourite, Amsterdam, has more canals and bridges than the Italian city (while Hamburg has more bridges than both of them combined).

As for “Venice of the East”, Wiki lists 20 in all – of which five are in China (do you think they vie with one another for the real title?). One that is listed, that appears to have almost nothing in common with that great Italian city, is Wuzhen – though I have to say it is gorgeous in the extreme despite that.

Wuzhen is located 16kms north of the city of Tongxiang, 120 kms west of Shanghai and 90kms north of Hangzhou. Its 1,300-year history, with its ancient lanes, centuries-old stone houses and arched bridges, make it one of China’s top ancient water towns south of the Yangtze River.

The many tourist blurbs eulogising the place sum it up… “Canals run through the city in lieu of larger roads, keeping the pace of Wuzhen charming. Wuzhen is divided into the West Area and East Area with many visitor attractions including shops, restaurants, and various museums. Distinct arts including indigo-dye printing, loom weaving, and wine distillery delight visitors. There are also many folk performances offered in the East Area, including shadow puppet plays, the Huagu Opera, bamboo pole climbing, and even martial arts performances on boats. The waterways there are vibrant with small skiffs carrying passengers up and down the watery routes.”

It is undoubtedly true that the entire town is devoted to tourism, but it is still lovely despite that.

Your favourite blogger is in Wuzhen to attend an international internet conference. Some clever person in the town’s planning committee must have thought that combining a (state of the art) conference centre with a historic town was an unbeatable combination. How right he / she was!

The conference centre is located in Wuzhen’s West Area (or Xi Zha) where there are also a number of boutique hotels. It’s larger than the eastern area, and conference delegates don’t have to pay the 120 kwai entrance fee.

The Beijing-Hangzhou canal – a.k.a. The Grand Canal – is the oldest and longest canal in the world. It passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to the city of Hangzhou and connects the Haihe, Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze and Qiantang rivers over a total length of 1,794 kms. There used to be thousands of ships on the Grand Canal and during the Tang dynasty there were 100,000 people living in Wuzhen and boats were their principal mode of transport.

As well as the waterways, there are lovely old streets to wander through, passing centuries-old wooden houses, and taking in the scenery of arched bridges and waterside pavilions, most of which have been restored “to look as they did during Wuzhen’s original establishment in 872 AD” (complete with litter bins and street lights!).

Along this road you can find the Zhaoming Academy… Xiao Tong was the eldest son of Emperor Wudi of the short lived Liang Dynasty (502-557). He was named Zhaoming after dying at the tender age of 31. Apparently he was a gifted kind of guy, and wrote the first poetry and essay collection of ancient China which, the notices tell us "influenced later literators a lot".

During Emperor Wanli’s reign in the Ming Dynasty (1614), local people built a stone archway to commemorate him, while the tourism chiefs, nearly 400 years later on built the Zhaoming Academy, "not only to pay reverence to the former wise men, but also to encourage our coming generation to inherit and develop the spirit of enthusiasm for learning and self fulfilment." How sweet!

Mind you, you must behave yourself. Not only are you not allowed to spit here, but you can’t even throw your own food and rubbish into the water. (Presumably if you give a friend your rubbish and he gives you his, then that’s OK, I guess.)

Some of the bridges are stunning.

while many of the carved doors are equally attractive.

That set of doors, btw, leads into the Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum – an amazing collection of over 800 pairs of shoes designed for bound female feet, numerous pictures, and associated items, all accompanied by detailed descriptions.

Footbinding was a controversial custom that existed for over a thousand years. Chinese men, so we are led to believe, got more turned on by small feet than by a woman’s breasts or legs. (Strange people!)

The beauty of a Chinese woman was judged by the size of her feet, and the standard for beauty was three inch feet – or 7.6cm. This is said to be the best museum in the world devoted to the “three-inch lotus” (a euphemism for the bound foot). I can believe it. The collection is stunning, and the explanations of this very painful pursuit of beauty are fulsome.

Unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden; and even first thing in the morning, there is an army of minders to make sure you do as you are told… (I counted at least 12 of them, while I was the only visitor.)

(Sorry, minders… my finger must have pushed the shutter by mistake…)

Outside again, and everywhere there is a view that just begs to be photographed.

Early morning sees a few intrepid delegates from the conference taking their constitutional…

Many of the buildings have decorations to attract the passing tourists in order to sell them something inside

Though autumn has well and truly turned to winter in Beijing, with the first snow already arrived, here the autumn fall is only just starting. It is, after all, 25 degrees warmer here than in the northern capital. Yet another stone-beamed bridge spans the waterway.

The White Lotus Pagoda in the north west of this western area cries out to be photographed from so many different vantage points…

… while the view from the top gives you a good impression of the surrounding area, albeit the early morning mist does its best to block your view.

There’s even a stone boat – presumably they got the idea from Empress Dowager Cixi’s Marble Boat in Beijing’s Summer Palace – but I think they really needn’t have bothered…

One of the biggest disappointments of the entire town is the privately owned Mu Xin Art Museum, which opened in November 2015. Five permanent galleries are dedicated to Mu Xin’s work, displaying ephemera, his writing and his art, though I have to say I really didn’t like any of his work one little bit.

There are also two temporary exhibitions devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Mu Xin, featuring manuscripts and books loaned from the Goethe and Schiller Archive, the Anna Amalia Library and the Nietzsche Documentation Centre. It marks the first exhibition in China of Nietzsche since his works were first translated into Chinese.

There are no explanations given in English – unlike the rest of the attractions in Wuzhen, this is designed for Chinese visitors only. And maybe it is more a measure of my lack of artistic appreciation; but frankly I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. This museum now tops my list of the most boring / awful / unappealing museums in the whole of China.

But as for Wuzhen? I love it. And next time I visit, I will explore the eastern area of the town.

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