Sunday, February 22, 2009

Zhouzhuang, Zhujiajiao, and Qibao. Ancient water towns.


A
bout a year back, there was a photographic exhibition at the place I work. I can't remember the photographer nor the town that was featured in the photo but I can remember that I was absolutley captivated by the photo....so much so that I *stole* (with permission) it. For now, it's safely tucked away in my bookcase at work but one day, I will get it framed and hung up.

The next time I saw images of a Chinese water town was in the closing sequence of Mission Impossible 3. I couldn't forget the scenes of Tom Cruise strolling under the eaves of an ancient Chinese building that stood alongside a narrow canal.

I have never gotten those images out of my head and had long decided that if I ever get the opportunity to travel to China, I would find a way to go to one of these water towns. I am a very lucky girl because on this trip, I not only get to go to one but three of China's most famous water villages and they all happen to be convenient day trips from Shanghai!

Zhouzhuang (周庄) is the town that was used for the scenic backdrops in Mission Impoosible 3. It looks like a really c-u-t-e little town. Located about 50km from Shanghai, Zhouzhuang is China's oldest water town. Reputedly in existence as far back as 770 B.C., Zhouzhuang was given its name in 1086 AD in honor of a Buddhist devotee named Zhou Digong. Occupying an area of half a square kilometres (124 acres), 60 percent of the Zhouzhuang's structures were built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 to 1911).

Zhouzhuang is surrounded and divided by lakes and rivers. 14 stone bridges cross the rivers. Of these 14 stone bridges built during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the most well known are a pair that are collectively known as the Twin Bridges - Shide Bridge and Yongan Bridge. The two bridges are positioned so they form a right angle over a stream - Shide Bridge runs east-west and has a round arch, while Yongan Bridge runs north-south and has a square arch.


Zhujiajiao (朱家角) translated into English means "Zhu Family Settlement" but this little town has been endowed with a more elegant name - 'Pearl Stream'. Located in a suburb of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is an ancient water town that dates back about 1700 years. More bridges built dynasties ago - in all 36 delicate spans in different shapes and styles, from wooden to stone to marble.

And the last town on my itinerary is Qibao (七宝). The town was built in Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) and grew into a prosperous business center during Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911).

Translated into English, Qibao means "Seven Treasures". Local folklore has it that the seven treasures are an iron Buddha made in Ming Dynasty, a bronze bell also dating from the Ming Dynasty but said to have mysteriously appeared from nowhere, a Gold Script Lotus Sutra written by an imperial concubine of the 10th century, a one-thousand-year-old Chinese catalpa tree, a jade axe, a gold rooster and a pair of jade chopsticks. Whatever its name means, I'm hoping to stroll along narrow streets criss crossed by canals all the while imagining what life was like being a villager in China dynasties ago.

I yearn to see these water villages not only because they captured my imagination but also because I think they represent a time in the history of a country that is rocketing itself into the 21st century faster than any other country on earth. Someday, all these old villages will be razed and replaced by suburban sprawl from Shanghai. When that happens, the only images left will be those captured by folks like me who had the privilege to see them before they disappeared.