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Ancient textile town goes from rags to artistic riches
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Dating back over 2,000 years to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the western suburb of Songjiang stands as one of the highlights of Shanghai's ancient history.

Starting off as a simple administrative county, its bustling textile industry soon gained prominence with the onset of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it provided clothing and bed sheets for the entire nation. Just as prosperous as neighboring Suzhou, the two booming economies collected over half of the country's taxes.

Also famous for its natural beauty characterized by rivers and creeks that run through the city, it is further blanketed by an abundance of hilly terrain and luscious greens. Songjiang also serves as the de facto source of Shanghai's Huangpu River, where three of the country's smaller rivers merge together here to create the vast waterway. It is also the home of Sheshan Hill, which at 99m ranks as the city's tallest peak.

Religious dawn

The highly developed economy attracted people from all walks of life, who brought along with them various cultural influences to help shape the city's religious birth. The early 20th century saw the construction of five places of worship: a Taoist temple, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic cathedral, a Muslim mosque and a Christian church. Grouped together along the main street, these religious institutions ushered in their respective religions.

The 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple Xilin grew to become the most renowned temple in the Yangtze Delta. Its signature mark is its northern chamber tower made of brick and wood that stands at 46 m.

Equally famous is the Mosque, one of the oldest Islamic buildings of its kind in China. Originating from the late 13th century, it later collapsed and was officially rebuilt at the order of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Though its unique architectural style strictly follows Islamic principles, it somehow remains aesthetically in tune with the landscape of the Yangtze River Delta by details commonly found in Chinese gardens.

In the 19th century, about 200 years after Catholicism first took root in Songjiang, several foreign missionaries started working routes along the Yangtze Delta. By the 1870s, more than 100,000 people in the city claimed to be Catholic, praying under the roof of the city's cathedral.

But as more pilgrims migrated to Sheshan at the beginning of the 20th century, the cathedral was torn down to build a newer, bigger one that could accommodate the growing number of followers. Designed by Spanish-Chinese priest Ye Zhaochang, it took a decade to complete, combining various architectural styles with Roman arches, Greek columns, Gothic spires, an Israeli bell tower, and Chinese floor patterns and rooftop tiles.

Every May, pilgrims from across China make their way to the cathedral for prayer, climbing up Sheshan Hill from its south gate. The trek includes passing a series of 14 pavilions that detail the life of Christ.

Needle pulling thread

The advanced textile industry gave rise to Gu Mingshi's famous embroidery in Songjang, an art so intricate and unique it has been listed as a national intangible cultural heritage since 2006.

In the Ming Dynasty garden home, Gu and his family, who reveled in arts and literature, befriended many aristocrats, artists and writers, many of whom influenced his work. But unlike other craftsman, Gu's household made embroidery purely for their own enjoyment, not to sell to others. Though only a few of their pieces remain today, they all have high aesthetic and historic value; many replicate paintings by ancient masters.

The women in Gu's family would start by embossing a painting onto a piece of silk to create a background of vivid, layered rich colors. With various needles and many different colored threads, they had a creative knack for intertwining the two into one mesmerizing product.

In the early 20th century, Gu Yulan, a descendant of Gu's, revived the ancient craft, bringing it back into the mainstream by teaching Songjiang locals the art that had been over the years passed down to successive generations. To this day, the city remains a respected center for the traditional art. Many masterpieces created by Songjiang locals have received international awards, and are often given as national gifts to visiting foreign leaders.

(China Daily September 23, 2009)

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