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Photo: Dave Tacon

Places

Experience Luzhi – one of the beautiful water towns near Shanghai

Nestled between the modern Chinese cities of Shanghai and Suzhou, the tiny water town of Luzhi casts historic ripples across the region.

The late winter sunlight flicks patterns cast by the shifting water against the white-washed buildings above. Cured meat and clean laundry hang side-by-side, swinging in the breeze outside latticed-framed windows. The pungent smell and sizzle of frying fermented tofu wafts through the air, while brightly dressed women sing ancient songs as they steer their boats snake-like with a single bamboo oar.

It’s hard to describe Luzhi — a water town with more than 2,500 years of history in China’s eastern Jiangsu province — without getting a little poetic. In fact, the tiny town, almost equidistant between the megacities of Suzhou to the west and Shanghai to the east, has long inspired romantic writers. Luzhi is, for example, also known as Puli, the pseudonym of reclusive Tang dynasty poet Lu Guimeng, who retired and is buried in the town. Hundreds of years later during the Ming Dynasty, life along the many waterways and ancient stone bridges was immortalized again, this time by an unknown poet, who wrote just four lines that remain ever apt:

Long bridge short bridge with willows; 
Front stream rear stream with lotus; 
People watching banners over wine store risen; 
Seagulls escort the boat to the home of the fisherman

Luzhi, which is listed among China’s top historical towns and boasts a preservation award from UNESCO, only came about after the dredging of the Grand Canal, which first began 2,500 years ago in the Confucian age. Originally ordered by the Wu King to facilitate local transportation, the task of linking the many tributaries of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers was continued by subsequent dynasties, eventually resulting in the world’s oldest and longest (1,776 km) artificial river, still connecting Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south today. When the Shui dynasty emperor started to use the system to transport the nation’s treasures, such as silk, rice, porcelain and salt to his palace, water towns along the route that could process such goods began to boom. 

“The emperor needed these water towns,” says Chinese history expert Lily Wang, who runs tours to the water towns around Shanghai for Bespoke Travel. “On the one hand the water towns served the emperor, but they were also doing their own business and shipping goods to the big cities. Some people made a fortune!”

Photo: Dave Tacon

One such example of the businesses that grew up in the water towns is the Wansheng Rice Mill, a time-honored brand first established in Luzhi in 1910. After decades of swift trade, often at the expense of the poor farmers who paddled long distances to have their rice weighed and priced on the factory’s huge canal-side scale, a museum was erected on the east bank of Nanshi River in 1998. At the entrance is a 1933 article by famed Chinese writer Ye Shengtao, who criticized the store’s wealthy owners for cheating the peasants out of fair pay; his words are still printed in Chinese school textbooks as a warning against the evils of a feudal society. Within the museum building various rooms exhibit ancient tools for rice cultivation and processing, complimented by a pastoral soundtrack of birds tweeting, scathes slicing and buffalo mewing. 

Photo: Dave Tacon

Similar attractions, such as a newly-built but traditionally-styled Jiangnan Cultural Center and pleasure boat tours of the waterways, have been spearheaded by the government in recent decades in a bid bring tourist dollars to sleepy Luzhi. 

Luo Yinhua, who runs the Shen Lian (Holy Lotus) noodle house among a gaggle of snack stores, photo studios and souvenir shops, welcomes the change.

“When I was a little girl we were very, very poor, but now our lives are much improved,” she says, explaining that her family were uneducated farmers. “There didn’t used to be any shops or businesses here,” she adds, tugging at the knot of her tight woolen headscarf as she ushers customers inside.

Luzhi’s newfound prosperity is evident at every turn, but it's done little to dilute the town’s old-world charm. As men squabble over cards on a rickety waterside table and a woman scrubs clothes in the river, cured pig trotters — thought to keep the skin of the women who eat them young and beautiful — glisten with a deep rose hue in the windows of specialty meat stores. Jars of homemade pickles and spicy sauce sell at a premium, while palm-sized crabs writhe in plastic buckets, waiting to be threaded whole onto skewers and deep fried for passing grazers. A wedding photographer’s studio, complete with a replica an chuang(a traditional bridal bed), occupies a storefront overloaded with auspicious red decorations. Staff fuss around a bride as her qipaosilk dress and ornate hairpin are put in place. Everlasting love must be enshrined with a trip back in time.

Luzhi attracts a steady stream of domestic tourists, but their numbers are tiny in comparison to better-known water towns in the region such as Tongli and Zhouzhuang. This confluence of tranquility and trade is the perfect cocktail for Gu Baoyu, a moderately famous artist who trained in Shanghai but moved to Luzhi 22 years ago. In a prime position on Luzhi’s main tourist thoroughfare of Zhongshi Jie, the 63-year-old produces endless local scenes in the traditional ink and wash style. In the shop next door, Gu’s wife, who wanted to be near her husband after she retired, tempts customers in with the smell of her charcoal baked, red bean filled Hai Tang Gaocake, before shepherding them on to her husband.

“I saw Luzhi in a TV show once and saw lots of tourists in boats on the river, so I thought it would be a good place to paint and sell my work,” says Bao, while directing a browser to his popular Luzhi in four seasons series. “Business is good, especially in spring and summer. Very few foreigners come here though.”

For many international travelers, this is part of the charm. While the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai is still home to many wai gou ren (outside people) following a long history of foreign occupation and concessions, Luzhi feels like ‘real China.’

“If you come to a modern city like Shanghai, it’s easy to get bored of the hustle and bustle and start thinking, 'I didn't see much of China. This is just like back home,’” says Lily Wang. “If you want to have a different taste and see what China might have looked like in the Qing dynasty, get a ride to one of the water towns and see the time wind back.”

 

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Last edited: March 26, 2019

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