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May 23, 2011

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Old water town built its reputation on the silk trade

NANXUN Town retains the charm of the way life used to be about 100 years ago. The water town in Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, features traditional Chinese low-rise buildings, narrow rivers and a rich history built on the silk trade.

The town faces Taihu Lake to the north and is only a one-hour drive from Shanghai, making it ideal for a day trip or a weekend getaway.

Nanxun is famous for its ancient canals and arched stone bridges, which make this water town a wonderful place to visit for anyone looking to get away from the hectic city.

What stands out in Nanxun, which dates back about 1,400 years, compared to similar towns in the Yangtze River Delta is that it hasn't moved its residents out of centuries-old houses and into modern apartments. This is intended to show tourists what life has always been like as people will to this day see locals washing their clothes in the canals.

The town boasts some historic structures that are worth investigating. Top on the list is the 400-year-old Baijian Lou, literally the pavilion of 100 apartments, in the town's northeast.

Withstanding several centuries of war and turbulence, the buildings are amazingly well-preserved; stretching 400 meters on both banks of the river, a branch of the Grand Canal, which divides the town.

Walking along Baijian Lou, visitors are always under the eaves of a veranda. There are several tea houses here and it's a nice place to stop for a pot of tea and take in the river scenes.

For those interested in learning more about how the locals live, Baijian Lou is also a good place to lodge at a small inn.

There is no admission fee to the pavilion, but central Nanxun requires a ticket that costs 100 yuan (US$15.37).

It's worth it as this part of the town features several former sites of local tycoons, in which traditional Chinese buildings are coupled with old Western-style structures, such as Jiaye Library - one of four ancient libraries in Zhejiang that has a large collection of historical documents.

At one time, the annual revenue of the town's four richest families equaled that of the town government. No wonder those tycoons spent lots of money on their homes.

Nanxun was once known for its prosperous silk manufacturing industry. The silk industry nurtured a group of prominent figures who played important political and economic roles.

These figures contributed to the outstanding architectural heritage of the town.

Small, exquisite gardens are a special attraction in Nanxun with Xiao Lian Zhuang, or Little Lotus Garden, considered the best.

It was once the private garden of Liu Yong, a senior Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) official and then the richest person in town. The garden is over 17,000 square meters with a large lotus pond in the center. It's a tranquil oasis with rippling streams, many trees and winding paths. In the summer, visitors can see a bunch of pink lotus flowers. Also noteworthy are several calligraphies and plaques hanging in the houses that were inscribed by celebrated calligraphers.

Another tourist attraction is the former mansion of Zhang Shiming, a rich businessman who introduced Western luxuries to the people of Nanxun.

Built in the later years of the Qing Dynasty, the house combines both European and Chinese architectural styles, and at 4,000 square meters was dubbed the largest private mansion in southeast China.

Most of its rooms were constructed and decorated with materials imported from France, such as mosaic glass windows produced more than 100 years ago. The special glass keeps the windows dust free ... forever.

There are only 80 pieces of this glass in the world and 73 are in the mansion, the others are in a museum in France.

The mansion also includes a garden offering a peaceful respite after visiting the house.

Liu Tiqing's Former Residence is another must see. Liu Tiqing was a prominent Qing Dynasty silk merchant. His family ran the most important silk business in China at the time, trading with France and other countries.

Liu Tiqing's luxurious mansion is a blend of European and traditional Chinese-style architecture. A European fountain, traditional Chinese pavilions, red-brick walls and Western style furniture indicate the owner of this mansion was very wealthy and also open to the Western world.

The wealthy town also was home to revolutionary hero Zhang Jingjiang, who was a counselor in the latter period of the Qing Dynasty. Zhang later met Sun Yat-sen, one of the great forerunners of the Chinese republican revolution, and became his close friend. Zhang even helped finance Sun's 1911 Revolution, leading to the end of the Qing Dynasty.

In Zhang's former residence, visitors can see well-preserved letters and photos that show his close relationship with Sun.


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