Lili ancient town offers an immersive trip into Chinese poetry
What does an ideal Chinese ancient town look like? It certainly shouldn't be a pedestrian street filled with stinky tofu, grilled squid, bubble tea or small goods.
It should be historic alleys in which local people live, the mixed smell of jasmine and stir-fry in the moist air, the muted conversation between uncles playing Chinese chess along the river, all presenting a perfect moment in the ancient town.
That is what can be found in Lili of Suzhou, a well-preserved ancient town next to Shanghai's Qingpu District, with a history tracing back 2,500 years and yet still retaining the charm of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The ancient town was written about by the poet Yuan Mei during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911):
"Thirty li from Wujiang,
known as a pear blossom village.
Like a fisherman,
I sail into it to discover an idyllic world."
Three hundred years later, when I stepped onto a boat being rowed on the river, the beautiful verse struck a chord with me, as if the scene had never changed.
Being summer rather than spring, green pears hang from the trees, and the fragrance of pears is mixed with the unique smells of the river, bringing me back to the idyllic world of the poem.
The best way to explore the ancient town is not by following a map, but by randomly choosing an alley to wander into, to seek a truly authentic experience of life's vibrancy.
Lili is one of the towns which kept the authentic Jiangnan (regions in the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) alleys, especially the "dark alleys" – as narrow as less than 1 meter wide with a roof on top, they are quite dark inside.
There are 115 alleys here, of which 90 are "dark" ones. In the past, the dark alleys were used as a hallway for important families – it is said Lili had eight major families during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) and Jiaqing (1760-1820), each of which had at least one alley named for them.
Over 200 years later, descendants of the families still live in these alleys.
Two of the best-preserved lanes are Zhou's and Kuai's.
The Zhou family is listed as the first of the eight, with Zhou Yuanli being a minister during Emperor Qianlong's reign. Kuai was listed as the fourth, with more than four alleys named for the family.
More than 60 meters long with lots of doors inside, the dark alleys can change your ancient town trip into a treasure hunt.
Wandering into Xinkuaijua Lane (literally the alley of new Kuai's family), it looks like a dilapidated, bottomless hallway of an apartment building at first glance.
The magic happens when someone opens one of the doors. Sunlight shines in, as behind the doors are not rooms but each of the doors is an entrance to a Chinese traditional courtyard. People talk under colorful fruit trees and blossoming flowers, and each yard hosts several family houses and there are doors to other alleys.
An interesting detail of the dark alleys – they are always uphill, both to represent the vision of a better future and the more useful function being to drain water.
The best way to know an ancient town, is to eat with locals, learn about their traditional handcrafts for a living in the past decades, and read its history from the old things.
Less than 30 kilometers away, Lili's local snacks are quite different from the famous Tongli ancient town.
The two special ones are youdunzi (油墩子) and spicy chicken feet.
In Shanghai, youdunzi refers to fried turnip cake – turnip shavings mixed with tiny prawns and other ingredients and deep fried. Under the same name, Lili's youdunzi is a special treat – a fried sticky rice cake with red bean paste or pork fillings – a traditional snack in this area of the country.
It is a unique breakfast for the folks here and at 7am every morning, there is always a long queue, waiting for the first pot of youdunzi.
The sizzling sound of youdunzi being fried wakes the thousand-year-old town, signifying the vibrant essence of life.
The town's spicy chicken feet (lajijiao, 辣鸡脚), are also totally different from the chicken feet you may have tried in Guangdong restaurants. It is a cold dish, sweet with a hint of spice and a touch of sourness.
For 100 years, the drink to cool down in summer here is not the popular bubble tea, but a very distinctive Suzhou-style mung bean soup – add green beans, glutinous rice, shredded orange peels, white gourd sugar, and candied dates into cold boiled water or peppermint water.
The aftertaste of peppermint is just like the refreshing air after rain in the ancient town.
Many say an ancient town is a living history book of the area.
Walking along the over 4,000 meters long historic river bank left by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the 256 wharves and 352 carved stones used to rope the boat cable tell the stories of a once thriving watertown.
Old hand skills have been passed down by generations, with the masters still weaving bamboo and making Chinese steelyard scales in this small town.
The one thing that is different is that the everyday items of long ago have become art pieces today.
Mitch Dudek, an American lawyer working in China, started collecting a wide variety of folk art and antiques from this area dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties more than 40 years ago.
The Six Arts Museum was founded in Lili to exhibit his collections – over 100,000 items of ancient Chinese folk art.
The "Six" in Six Arts refers to the six senses. As the largest folk museum in the Yangtze River Delta, it is also one of the most unique museums, as the exhibits are not protected by glass cases or windows, but you can approach and physically touch them.
Wandering through the histories hidden in the ancient town, rather than being a trip to escape urban life becomes more about finding the one you would wish to be in stories of the past.
Separated by only 60 kilometers, you can enjoy the fast-paced modern life of Shanghai and the slow life of Lili ancient town under the pear blossom trees, both in one day.
If you go:
To get there, drive to Lili Tourist Center (127 Renmin Rd N in Wujiang District, Suzhou 苏州吴江区人民北路127号).
Visitors can take the Bus Shifanqu Line 2 at the Oriental Land Station of Metro Line 17 to Lili ancient town.