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November 15, 2017

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A watertown of old bridges, pure and simple

THESE two verses by Ma Zhiyu­an (1250-1321) are among the best-known and most widely quoted lines to describe a tra­ditional Chinese watertown.

The imagery of a small bridge over a running creek harks to the scenery of every watertown in the Shanghai area. Painters like Chen Yifei (1946-2005) have repeatedly drawn this iconic image. In Zhujiajiao, one of the most popular watertowns in Qingpu District, 36 bridges cross its waterways.

One of the best-kept secrets among wa­tertowns in Shanghai is only 30 minutes away from city center by car. Jinze Town, also in Qingpu District, encapsulates the original setting of an ancient canal town, almost untouched by tourism or real estate developers.

Known as the “town of bridg­es,” Jinze is also called the “west gate of Shanghai” because it sits on the southwestern-most section of the city bordering Zhejiang Province.

It is a small, peaceful town, with a his­tory dating back more than 1,300 years. Its seven ancient bridges are distinctive in shape and quite well-preserved.

What saves this jewel is its status as a protected watershed, which rules out most commercial development. The town supplies water to about 6.7 mil­lion residents in Shanghai’s outlying districts, and its water is considered the cleanest in the city.

The protection rules mean that Jinze has escaped the kind of commercial makeover that leaves many watertowns looking identical and sometimes crass.

Jinze literally means “golden water,” referring to its prime location along Di­anshan Lake and an interwoven water system of rivers and creeks. Not only does it boast the oldest stone bridge in Shanghai, but also a royal temple that was once the biggest and most famous in the area.

The temple contains the remains of carved clouds based on paintings of Zhao Mengfu (1252-1322), an ancient painter and calligrapher.

Aside from a rich history, the town has a runway along Dianshan Lake that is popular with joggers, and Jinze has become a favorite site for companies to host team-building sessions based on outdoor activities.

Walking along the waterways of Jinze, one gets the sense of time slowing. Here one can see local villagers living in re­paired old houses built more than 100 years ago. Their lives don’t seem much changed from 30 years ago. Modern structures are as rare as passing cars.

Seven ancient bridges cross the main river, each displaying the distinct char­acteristics of the dynasties during which they were built.

It is an old Chinese tradition for a suc­cessful person to build roads or bridges in his hometown as a tribute to heritage. In ancient China, prosperous merchants or high-ranking government officials often retired to their birthplaces. There, they were expected to take up social re­sponsibilities, such as founding schools, hospitals and temples, and helping the needy.

To certain extent, the number and size of bridges in a town reflects its past glory. During its peak, Jinze is said to have had dozens of bridges and one temple astride each bridge. Many were destroyed during warfare and turbu­lence over the centuries. The ones left standing are a tribute to a golden past.

According to legend, a general of the Eastern Wu Kingdom (AD 220-280) led an army here for defense. Because the area was crisscrossed by waterways, he

Ordered his soldiers to build bridges and set up temples on one end of each bridge to pray for safety and peace.

Puji Bridge, the oldest one remain­ing in Jinze, was actually built in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), an era when the imperial army was defeat­ed by the northern marauders and the emperor and most of his family were seized.

A young prince named Zhao Gou (1107- 1187) managed to escape from his captors and fled from Beijing to Hang­zhou, where he hoped to rebuild the dynasty. However, that never happened in his lifetime.

On his escape, Zhao passed through Jinze. He was smitten by its charm and decided to stay for a few nights. His prime minister, Lu Yihao, was so taken with the town that he vowed to retire there someday.

Lu subsequently built a huge man­sion in anticipation of his retirement and ended up donating it to the monks who founded the Yihao Temple, named in his honor. At its peak, the temple had more than 1,000 rooms and thousands of practicing monks.

Destroyed in war, only a small section of the temple was restored in 1992. It now houses two ancient treasures of the temple — a 700-year-old gingko tree and the relics of stone-carved clouds based on Zhao Mengfu’s paintings.

Zhao, a descendent of the royal fam­ily, was devastated when the dynasty declared by Zhao Gou was eventually defeated by Mongol warriors. He found solace in art and philosophy and frequently visited Jinze, his wife’s hometown.

Puji Bridge is an arched, single-hole stone bridge spanning 27 meters. The bridge is made of purple ore.

About 200 meters away is Yingxi­ang Bridge, famous as a spot to watch the reflection of the moon in the water. Another span, Ruyi Bridge, was built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and is the best preserved of the bridges.

To this day, elderly vi l lagers in Jinze burn incense at the foot of bridges where temples once stood.

If you go

By car: Take the G50 Highway from downtown and turn onto the Huqing­ping Highway. Exit at Jinzhong Road.

By public transportation: Take the Hushang Line shuttle and get off at Jinze station. Metro Line 17 will be completed at the end of the year. When it’s ready, take the subway and get off at Oriental Green Boat, and then take a taxi trip for 20 minutes. 


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