A watertown low in profile, high in aesthetics

Don't be fooled by a low profile. Nanxun ancient town has managed to escape modern commerical crassness and offers solitude and a cultural experience full of charisma.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The 400-year-old Baijian Lou, literally "pavilion of 100 rooms," is said to have been built by a high-ranking Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) official for his servants.

Of all the celebrated ancient watertowns of China, Nanxun in the city of Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, may not rank high in familiarity, but its low profile doesn’t diminish its special nature.

The history of the town can be traced back to the Neolithic Age, and its current layout and construction have been largely preserved since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Four rivers — the Nanshi, Dongshi, Xishi and Baoshan — formed the shape of cross that provides the framework of the entire ancient town. Row upon row of stores, restaurants and residences lie neatly along both sides of the rivers.

Compared with other ancient watertowns, such as Wuzhen and Xitang, both in Zhejiang, Nanxun seems less commercial and less bustling. It is known nowadays as “the town of poets and culture” because its long history has nurtured many scholars and artists.

One such luminary was Zhang Shiming (1871-1927), a founding member and sponsor of the Xiling Society of Seal Arts, one of the most significant institutions in Chinese cultural history. The society was established in 1904 in Hangzhou, the provincial capital.

Yide Hall, the former residence of Zhang, is located on a riverbank on Nanxi Street. Zhang named the residence in honor of his mother, Madam Gui. It took seven years to complete construction.

Zhang’s grandfather, Zhang Songxian (1817-92), was the wealthiest resident of Nanxun. Small wonder that his family could build such a grand residence, which combined both Chinese and Western styles of construction.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Yide Hall, the former residence of Zhang Shiming, is named in honor of his mother, Madam Gui.

Zhang Shiming lived in the mansion for only a few years before he moved to Shanghai with his wife and children. Madam Gui lived there until she died in 1922. Since then, the residence has remained empty, except for once a year, on the Qingming Festival (tomb-sweeping day), when the family reunites there to honor the ancestors.

After 1949, the residence became a base of the army. In 1975, it was sold to the Shanghai Tea Company as a storehouse.

In 1992, the local government bought the residence for 2.1 million yuan (US$306,077) and restored the structure to its original look. Since then, it became a landmark of the ancient town.

The mansion comprises some 244 rooms. Its interior is crafted with carved beams and painted rafters, especially in the area around the master bedroom.

At one time, it held Zhang’s collection of stone tablets carved with paintings and calligraphy, but most of them were lost during World War II.

The loss, however, didn’t reduce the charm of the residence. Its stained glass, outdoor rockeries and other treasures make it a unique destination.

Another landmark in the ancient town is the Red House. Built from 1905 to 1908, the building once belonged to Liu Tiqing, the third son of wealthy businessman Liu Yong (1826-99).

From the outside appearance of the gardens, the residence looks like a typical Chinese mansion. However, the interior reveals some construction in the Romanesque style. During the late Qing Dynasty, it was fashionable among the upper class to add Western-style elements to their residences.

Because the Romanesque portion of the mansion was built with red bricks, local residents took to calling it the Red House. The former owner amassed a collection of wood, stone and brick sculptures.

Unfortunately, only about half of the original mansion has survived. The rest, including two halls, have been destroyed.

Liu’s father, Liu Yong, owned another luxurious Nanxun garden called Little Lotus Manor. Its construction, which began in 1885, continued for 40 years, spanning three generations of the rich and influential family.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The Little Lotus Manor hosts nearly 100 precious trees dating back hundreds of years. June is the best time to view lotus flowers.

The garden of the manor contained nearly 100 precious trees dating back hundreds of years. June is the best time to visit the manor when the lotus flowers are blooming.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the manor was the family temple, built for the family to honor its ancestors. Two grand memorial archways, granted by two Qing Dynasty emperors to reward the family’s generosity and virtue, were set up in front of the temple.

The temple itself is decorated by carvings with ancient Chinese stories, indicating that family’s achievements were on par with those of famous figures in Chinese history.

After 1949, the manor served as a factory and later a school. Parts of the structure were destroyed during the war and the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).

In the 1980s, restoration work on the manor began. It continued for more than three decades, and indeed is still underway.

In 2005, Nanxun was named a 5A-level tourism attraction of China. In 2011, the local government embarked on a plan to restore the entire town. The project included a database to store the town’s cultural heritage.

Tourists to Nanxun typically buy orange cakes as souvenir. Despite the name, the cakes actually have nothing to do with oranges. They are made of glutinous rice, with rosewater and peppermint.

The cake is cut into small pieces the size of sugar cubes. The flavor is fresh and sweet. Other specialties of the town include salted turnips and artistic paint brushes.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Local residents enjoy morning sunshine by the river in Nanxun.

If you go:

1. By car — Take the A9 Highway to the Nanxun exit. Drive along Wuyue Road to the ancient town.

2. By public transport — Buses to Nanxun run from every long-distance bus station in Shanghai. The trip takes about two and a half hours.

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