Shaoxing, a 2,500-year-old city dubbed the “Venice of the East” in Zhejiang province, has kept its vigor and vitality, with the scent of rice wine carrying on the wind and boats bobbing on the water.
In the old streets, the narrow lanes are paved with granite and the two-story houses have quaint, grey-tiled roofs. Slip powder walls and bamboo platform doors give me the illusion that I am in an old movie.
Walking along these streets has the ability to calm you down and restore your soul. One can enjoy a cup of green tea by the window of a teahouse by the river, or sit in a black covered boat bobbing on the river, listening to the boatman sing in the local dialect.
Such boats exist exclusively in Shaoxing. They used to be utilized as a means of public transportation to carry passengers and goods. Rich people used them to travel and hold grand wedding ceremonies.
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Home of a literary giant: LU XUN
Black covered boats have also been described in local writers’ novels. Chinese literary giant Lu Xun, a Shaoxing native, wrote about jumping into a boat without his mother’s permission when he was young, and rowing to a neighboring village with friends to watch Shexi, an annual opera performance.
The stage where the opera once played still stands, and no one can doubt the place that Lu has in the hearts of the people of Shaoxing.
Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (1881-1936), a leading figure of modern Chinese literature. He abandoned medicine for literature, and devoted himself to saving people’s minds rather than their bodies. His works influenced China’s democratic movements in the 20th century.
His former residence has been kept as it was when he lived there. Lu spent his childhood and adolescence in the residence until 1899 when he left to travel elsewhere for further study.
The whole neighborhood is preserved, including the streets, markets, residences and river ways. Even today, children still play on the flag stones, women are still bargaining in the market stalls, and men are still talking about trivial matters in the restaurants.
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Sitting on the boat to Shenyuan Garden, the boatman asks if I know the three “blacks” and three “vats” of Shaoxing. “If not, don’t tell people that you’ve been to this city,” he says.
He explains proudly, the three “blacks” refer to the black cover boat, black felt hat and dried black vegetable, and three “vats” refer to vats of wine, dye and sauce. These six things symbolize Shaoxing as a whole.
The boat moves smoothly through the water, passing under stone arch bridges, drawing ripples on the peaceful surface of the water.
Shenyuan Garden, which used to be the private garden of a rich businessman, is a perfect place for lovebirds, not only because of the attractive scenery but also because of its history as the spot a poignant love story took place between a patriotic poet, Lu You, and his ex-wife, Tang Wan, in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).
Lu and Tang were deeply in love but were separated by Lu’s mother. Years later, they met each other in the garden. Lamenting their past happiness, Lu wrote a poem, Chai Tou Feng (钗头凤), to mourn their love. The poem is carved in the wall and is widely known.
Shaoxing is not only famous for its rivers but also for its mountains. The Donghu Lake is a perfect place to appreciate both. The man-made lake and a green rocky hill excels in its unique-shaped cliffs and caves.
Since the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), this area has become a quarry, supplying stones for building the city. Years of excavation turned the mountain into 50-meter-high cliffs, and a pool came into existence due to underground work.
Take a boat and point it in the direction of a small hole on the foot of the hill. A different world gradually opens up. The mountain is hollow with a hole at the top allowing light to enter.
The well-shaped cave is the result of much hard work and drudgery by past generations. Those laborious workers dug and removed millions of tons of stones by manpower. Amazed by their perseverance, I feel like I am a frog in a well when looking up at that circle of sky.
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By YANG Yuqing
Published on China Daily website