Zhouzhuang, one of the most famous water-towns in China, is situated in Kunshan City, 30 km southeast of Suzhou. It is noted for its profound cultural background, well-preserved ancient residential houses, elegant waters and traditional lifestyle with a strong local flavor.
In the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.), Zhouzhuang was a part of the fief Yaocheng, called Zhenfengli. Zhouzhuang got its present name in 1086 during the Northern Song Dynasty, in the memory of Zhou Digong, a very devout Buddhist, who donated this piece of land to the Quanfu (Full Fortune) Temple.
The town covers an area of 3600 hectares. Most of its residential houses, about 60 percent of the total, were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, during the period from 1368 to 1911.
Shuangqiao (Twin Bridges): As Zhouzhuang is surrounded and at the same time divided by lakes and rivers, the 14 stone bridges crossing the rivers form eye-catching views in town. Twin Bridges, or the Shide Bridge and Yongan Bridge, in the northeast of the town, are the most famous and have been considered as the symbol of Zhouzhuang. The bridges were built during the Wanli reign (1573-1619) of the Ming Dynasty. Shide Bridge lies east-west and has a round arch, while Yongan Bridge goes north-south and has a square arch. Joining each other after crossing the two rivers, Yinzi Creek and Nabeishi River, respectively, the Twin Bridges look like an old-fashioned Chinese key. In 1984, Chen Yifei, a promising contemporary Chinese painter, exhibited 38 of his canvases in a New York gallery owned by Armand Hammer, chairman of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation. One of his works, Memory of Hometown, which depicts the Twin Bridges, drew worldwide attention to Zhouzhuang. The painting was chosen as the design of the first-day cover of the United Nations' postage stamps in 1985.
Fuanqiao Bridge: Located at the eastern end of Zhongshi Street, Fuanqiao Bridge was built in 1355 during the Yuan Dynasty. The unique trait of the bridge is the consummate combination of the single-arch bridge and the bridge towers used as tearooms, restaurants and stores, as well as a venue to appreciate the water views.
The Shen House: Located at the southeast side of Fuanqiao Bridge, the Shen House was Built in 1742 as a private property of the descendants of Shen Wansan, the first millionaire in the area south of the Yangtze River in the early Qing Dynasty. The whole complex is of the Qing architectural style. It occupies an area of more than 2,000 square meters and has over 100 rooms divided in three sections. The first section includes the water gate and wharf, where the Shens moored boats and washed clothes. The middle section includes the gate tower, the tearoom and the main hall. The bricks of the gate tower are carved with lively and ingenious figures, which either tell historic stories or express good wishes. The tearoom and main hall, where the owner met his guests, are very elegantly furnished. The last section, which consists of several buildings in a different style, is comfortably furnished. In Datang Tower, a colored sculpture of the legendary Shen Wansan is displayed, while precious cultural relics collected by the family are exhibited in Xiaotang Tower and Back Hall.
The Zhang House: It was built by Xu family in the Zhengtong reign (1436 - 1449) of the Ming Dynasty and bought by the Zhang family in the early Qing Dynasty. Located to the south of the Twin Bridges, the Zhang House has more than 70 rooms in an area of about 1,800 square meters. The Ruojing River winding through it makes the Zhang House a dapper and graceful residential house with a tranquil courtyard, a pond and various halls.
Milou Tower: Once called the Des' Tavern, Milou Tower perches next to Zhenfeng Bridge situated at the southwest corner of Zhouzhuang. It is famous for being a rallying place of the literati in old times. Numerous poems, songs and stories about Milou Tower have been widely spread in the country.
Chengxu Taoist Temple: Standing on Zhongshi Street, on the opposite of the Puqing Bridge, Chengxu Taoist Temple, also known as Shengtang Hall, was built during 1086-1093 of the Song Dynasty. After several expansions, it became one of the most famous Taoist temples in the Yangtze River Delta. In an area of 1,500 square meters, there are masterpiece Taoist architectures in simple but majestic style, including the Shengdi and Doumu halls, and the pavilions of Yuhuang, Wenchang and Shengdi.
Besides these historic sights, the local folklore, traditions and legends of this water-town, such as the dragon boat race, the "granny tea" and the Wansan home-style banquet are also indispensable elements of a tour to Zhouzhuang.
(China.org.cn June 24, 2004)