China: Water Towns of the Yangtze River Delta – Nanxun
Time Out Shanghai lists Nanxun as their favorite water town – the least commercial and the most interesting. So I caught a bus from Suzhou to Nanxun.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Suzhou was at the heart of China’s Silk production. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1368), Nanxun had taken over the production of the finest raw silk. Silk made the town wealthy. According to some reports, the four wealthiest residents (The Four Elephants) were wealthier than the emperor. The four Elephants were the Liu, Zhang, Pang, and Hsing families. Some accounts add the Yueh family as a fifth “elephant” astronomically wealthy family.
With this wealth came large, ornate houses and gardens. The major attractions in Nanxun center around these grand houses of the famous figures of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Walking West Street…and East Street
At 10 I am still mostly alone of the cobbled streets. The A huge student group arrived at the same time I did. They filled the otherwise quiet streets with the shouts and laughter of youthful enthusiasm. Thankfully, I haven’t seen them since they arrived, though.
I walk slowly taking in the sights of a village just waking up. An old man sits on the bench and gazes across the river. Several women squat on the steps that lead down to the water washing clothes. I pass several cafe’s hoping they are open. they are all closed. a couple of souvenir shops have their doors open and their wares displayed, but the shopkeepers lounge lazily on the steps, sometimes checking their phone, other times eating breakfast. It is clear that no one expects customers just yet.
I cross the main road into the “East Street.” A sign informs me that this is the “Northern Scenic section. A man at a gate checks my ticket. If it didn’t cost 100 yuan per day to be here, I would stay a week! One website claims that you do not have to pay the 100 yuan if you are staying inside the historic quarter. Since I’m not staying in the historic quarter I have no idea if that if that is true.
Here the bridges are taller. Their elegant arches form perfect circles with the reflection in the still canal water. The sound of construction drifts across the water of the canal. The sound of construction – the soundtrack to China.
The One Hundred Rooms of Baijian Luo
One of the most picturesque areas of Nanxun Ancient Town is the canal called the 100 Rooms River or 100 Rooms Corridor. This section of tightly packed houses was constructed around 400 years ago near the end of the Ming Dynasty.
The canal is called “100 Rooms” because of the small houses closely arranged one after the other on both sides of the canal. These were originally tenement rental properties.
Today tourists walk the narrow pathways on either side of the canal dodging the laundry hung to dry under the covered arcade and the tables put out by tiny restaurants hoping to sell breakfast.
I duck under some socks hung out to dry, and then pause to take a photo of some herbs placed in drying baskets on the canals edge. Nanxun is more than just a tourist town. It is still alive – her residents living very much as they always have.
Liu’s Former Residence
The Qing era house of Liu Tiqing is one of the most photographed places in Nanxun. With a Chinese-style front facade and a European-style back facade, the house holds a unique mish-mash of eastern and western style architecture. This blend of eastern and western styles throughout the town is one of the things that makes Nanxun Unique among the water towns.
I wander through the light rooms with floors covered in tiles arranged in geometric patterns. Some of the rooms have western style furniture with large, ornate picture frames. Other rooms are more Chines in style. From the ornate wood latticework of the Sober house patio to the rounded arches and red brick of the “Scarlet wall and peaceful pathway” the west and the east merge beautifully. There are only a handful of tourists in the house and I don’t see them except for those times our paths cross as we move from room to room.
The Jiaye Hall Library
One of the newest buildings in Nanxun,Liu Chenggan built the Jiaye Library between 1920-24. The building itself is less interesting than others in town. The building sports western facade, but more traditional interior hall.
A large garden borders one side of the library. While the library was impressive, the garden was untamed and magical. Trellises covered in pink blooms cover meandering pathways. Ornamental river rocks with holes large enough to walk through provide small, garden sized thrills.
Former Residence of Zhang Shiming
Zhang Shiming was the grandson of one of the Four Elements ( the four Richest men in Nanxun). In 1905 He used some of his inheritance to construct the large house. Like the former residence of Liu, this house blends Chinese and Western architectural styles creating a blended beauty. Some consider this house to be one of the finest in Nanxun.
Other Sights in Nanxun
You also won’t want to miss Former Residence of Zhang Jingjiang, the Guanghui Taoist Temple, and Nanxun’s most famous garden – the Little Lotus Villa.
China Travel has the ultimate guide to Nanxun. The article is a bit long, but it is accurate and informative and gives a detailed history of the town and its sights.
This article from Time Out Shanghai visits each of the water towns discussing their strengths and their weaknesses.