Older than Shanghai, Jiading oozes with history

Getting away doesn't mean going far. On Shanghai's northwestern doorstep, Jiading District offers memorable sites of beauty and historical significance.

A travel experience doesn’t have to mean leaving the city. Each of Shanghai’s districts has its own personality and interesting places to visit.

What better time to take a closer look at Jiading District than during the celebration of its 800-year anniversary!

In 1217, during what were called the “Jiading years” of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the reigning government decided to set up a county named after the era. Thus did Jiading become a thriving center a half century before Shanghai County was created.

Jiading is located in the northwest part of the city, with an area of about 464 square kilometers and a population of more than 1.5 million people. It is about 20 kilometers from downtown Shanghai.

The district is home to a campus of Shanghai University and the Shanghai International Circuit where the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix is held every year. It is also home to a major part of Shanghai’s automobile industry.

But for visitors, the main attractions are more historic. Its two top draw cards are the Confucian Temple and Nanxiang Old Town.

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The Confucian Temple in Jiading, one of the largest in China, houses the Museum of Imperial Examination of Ancient China.

The Confucian Temple

Two years after Jiading County was established, the Southern Song Dynasty authorities decided to build a temple to worship Confucius. It was quite a logical move since Confucianism was highly respected during the era.

Historical records praised the temple as “magnificent and gorgeous, better than those in other places.” Even today the Confucian Temple in Jiading is still one of the largest in China. It served not only as a site for ceremonies of worship but also as a school dedicated to the teachings of the ancient master.

The temple was expanded several times, most recently in the late 19th century. By the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it comprised more than 100 halls and rooms. During the Qing era, Emperor Kangxi and all emperors who succeeded him wrote inscribed boards for the temple. Some still hang in the main hall.

Some of the ancient trees on the temple grounds actually predate the buildings themselves. The oldest tree is a juniper planted during the Yuan Dynasty (1276-1368). The tree is very much alive, though its thick trunk has slanted and needs support.

Shanghai once was home to five Confucian temples. Three remain relatively well preserved. Apart from the one downtown near Yuyuan Garden which is known for its used books market, the other two — one in Jiading and one in Chongming County — have been modified into museums.

The temple in Jiading is now home to the Museum of Imperial Examination of Ancient China. Starting in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), an imperial examination system was held to choose court officials. The system was so all-powerful that it had a finger in every pie of ancient society as well as in the public’s mindset.

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A memorial archway welcomes visitors to the Confucian Temple.

Lu Feiran / SHINE
Lu Feiran / SHINE

Jiading was believed to be a place with a stellar academic atmosphere. The area produced three zhuangyuan, or exam takers decreed champions of the final round, which was usually presided over by emperors; and 192 jinshi, or examinees passing the final round. Jinshi was the ultimate dream of almost all scholars in ancient China because it bode well for the start of a prosperous official career.

The museum displays the entire history of the examination system, which in its day produced what was considered the cream of society. The exams were exercises in blood, sweat and tears for exam takers.

One of the exhibits, for example, lists the names of tongsheng, or those who passed the first round of the exams. They show a 48-year-old man on one list mostly dominated by teenagers. Visitors can imagine how the man must have felt upon finally passing the first round after maybe three decades of trying and failing.

Two parts of the exhibitions are apparently more interesting to visitors than the others. One is the replica of an examination room. It is divided into small cells, with stone chairs and desks, each holding one applicant.

Exam-takers weren’t allowed to leave the cells — except maybe to go to the bathroom — until all the exams were finished, so they took food boxes and blankets with them.

The other part of the exhibit shows tools some exam-takers used to cheat. The examinations required attendees to learn Confucian classics by heart, which was no easy feat. Some of the examinees took risks to make sure they did well. One of the most inventive cheating tools was a thin waistcoat densely inscribed with tiny writing. Even if the examinee did manage to wear it into the cell, it must have been tortuous for him to figure out every character on it.

Address: 183 Nandajie St

Admission: Free

Opening hours: 8:30am-4:30pm

How to get there: Take Metro Line 11 to Jiadingbei Station. From Exit 4 walk about 500 meters to take bus Jiading No. 68 and get off at Tacheng Road by Chengzhong Road.

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The twin pagodas that once flanked the Baihe Nanxiang Temple gate now stand at the entrance of Nanxiang Old Street.

Nanxiang Old Street

The name Nanxiang is now mostly closely associated with a steamed mini-bun called xiaolongbao, but the town itself has a history much longer than the popular dumpling.

Its origins can be traced back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589), when Buddhism was widely practiced in China.

During the reign of Emperor Liangwu (AD 464-549), a farmer dug out a big rock from his land. As soon as it was exposed, a pair of cranes flew above it. Because cranes are regarded as sacred in Buddhism, a monk named Deqi believed that the farm was a holy land for Buddha.

In AD 505, a temple was built there, called Baihe Nanxiang Temple, or Temple of White Cranes Flying South. After that, a town gradually developed around the site.

The temple was demolished in a fire centuries ago, but the twin pagodas that once flanked the temple gate have been preserved. Today they stand at the entrance of Nanxiang Old Street.

First built in the late Southern and Northern Dynasties or in the early Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the brick pagodas are the most ancient of their kind in Shanghai.

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Nanxiang Old Street has evolved into a small marketplace and food court.

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Nanxiang is famous for its steamed dumplings, or xiaolongbao.

Like many other old streets in China, Nanxiang has evolved into a small marketplace and food court. Two of the oldest restaurants serving xiaolongbao, Rihuaxuan and Changxinglou, have a history dating back more than 100 years, almost as old as the dumpling itself.

It is believed that the inventor of the snack was Huang Mingxian, the former owner of Rihuaxuan. In 1871, Huang started to sell xiaolongbao to compete with other vendors selling steamed pork buns. He reduced the size of the buns, made the wrap much thinner and put pork-skin jelly in the stuffing.

In 1900, a man named Wu Xiangsheng opened a snack bar called Changxinglou. Wu’s xiaolongbao were almost as good as those served in Rihuaxuan, and his eatery soon gained popularity. The Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant near the City God Temple in the downtown Yuyuan Garden is a branch of the original restaurant.

Today, almost every visitor to Nanxiang Old Street stops at Rihuaxuan or Changxinglou to have a taste of the authentic dumpling, even if they have to endure long lines during busy hours.

Address: Huntang Lane, Nanxiang Town

How to get there: Take Metro Line 11 to Nanxiang Station. From Exit 1 walk about 500 meters to take bus No. 62 and get off at Yunxiang Temple.

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Shuijie, or water street, adds a transquil atmosphere to Nanxiang Old Street.

Also worth a look in Jiading

The ancient city wall

A city wall surrounding ancient Jiading County was built in 1219, supervised by magistrate Gao Yansun.

The cob wall made of subsoil, water, straw and lime was upgraded to a masonry wall in 1358. Two centuries later, it was strengthened and extended to protect the county from Japanese pirates.

Most of the wall was demolished for infrastructure construction in 1949. Only two sections remain — the South Gate on the east side of Nandajie Street, and the West Gate on the west side of Renmin Street.

Each of the segments is about 120 meters long.

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Guyi Garden

Guyi Garden in Nanxiang Town, first built in the 16th century, was once the private garden of an official named Min Shiji. It became a public park during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The features and structure of the garden are in typical Suzhou style, with waterside pavilions, ponds and terraces.

Bamboo is the most remarkable feature of the garden, and the name is also related to bamboo. It is a take on the expression luzhuyiyi, which means “vast land of green bamboo.”

Address: 218 Huyi Highway

Admission: 12 yuan

Opening hours: 7am-6pm

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Huilongtan Park

Huilongtan in Chinese means “the pond where dragons once gathered.” The five creeks that flow into the 400-year-old Huilong Pond gave it and the park their names.

Located next to the Confucian Temple, the park hold numerous cultural artifacts from four ancient dynasties, including pavilions, stone steles, rockeries and stone pagodas.

On the east bank of the pond, a large quadrate stone embedded in the roots of a tree trunk is one of the most noticeable features of the park.

Address: 299 Tacheng Rd

Admission: 5 yuan

Opening hours: 5am-5pm, May 1-September 30; 6am-5pm, October 1-April 30

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Qiuxia Garden

Qiuxia Garden, which covers 15 hectares, is made up of three private gardens first built in the 16th century — Gong’s Garden, Shen’s Garden and Jin’s Garden.

In its 400-plus-year history, the Qiuxia Garden has survived several wars, including the massacre led by the Qing army in 1645. During World War II, part of the garden was commandeered for a hospital by Japanese occupation forces.

After a thorough restoration in the 1980s, the garden was finally restored to its scrupulously structured and delicately decorated Suzhou style.

Address: 314 Dongdajie St

Admission: 10 yuan

Opening hours: 8:30am-4pm

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Liuyun Temple

Near the original location of the Baihe Nanxiang Temple, which was razed by fire in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Liuyuan Temple, or Yunxiang Temple, was built in 2004.

The new temple is gorgeous, with magnificent structures and sculptures.

It is the most popular site during the Spring Festival in Nanxiang Town, with people coming from all over Jiading to burn incense, worship Buddha and pray for a better new year.

Address: 263 Jiefang St, Nanxiang Town

Admission: 8 yuan

Opening hours: 8am-6pm

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