Zhouzhuang, known as Zhenfang Lane in ancient times, is located southeast of the city of Suzhou and to the Southwest of Kunshan. In the Spring and Autumn Period, Zhouzhuang was a part of the King of Wu and called Yaocheng. It was called Zhouzhuang after ZhouDigong donated more than 200 acres to the local Quanfu Temple during the Yuan Dynasty (1860). By the mid-Yuan Dynasty, Wanshan Shen was using its superior geographical advantage to do trade, hence, Zhouzhuang became a distribution center of food, silk, ceramics, arts and crafts in the south of China. It was officially named Zhouzhuang town on the beginning of Qing Dynasty.The ancient town, which has a history of more than 900 years, still retains the style and pattern of its ancient village.
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Zhouzhuang, one painting has been worth RMB$320 million, the amount of revenue Zhouzhuang's tourism industry raked in last year. In October 1984, a Chinese painter by the name of Chen Yifei put 38 of his paintings on display in New York.
One of those paintings, titled "Memory of Hometown" was of Double Bridge in Zhouzhuang, ended up being purchased by Armand Hammer, chairman of the board of directors of Occidental Petroleum Corporation and owner of the gallery. When Hammer visited China one month later, he presented "Memory of Hometown" to Deng Xiaoping and overnight, tourists flocked to Zhouzhuang. Although Zhouzhuang has been around since the Yuan dynasty, around 1086 AD, its tourism industry did not begin to flourish until the 1980s.
Thus, of the 14 stone bridges built during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Double Bridge is the one tourists clamor to visit. Double Bridge, two bridges positioned so they form a right angle over a stream, was first built during the Wanli Reign (1573-1619). The other noteworthy bridge is Fu'an Bridge, which holds the distinction of being the oldest bridge in Zhouzhuang having been built in 1355.
On any given day, there are artists who come from around the world to Zhouzhuang to draw Double Bridge or other bridges, which connect the town. (For people who are not as artistically inclined or forgot their paints at home, scenic paintings of Zhouzhuang are conveniently available in souvenir shops which pepper Zhouzhuang.) The bridges are popular subjects because they complement the whitewashed two-story houses with crimson doors and windows and black tile roofs, which flank the waterways, so well.
"People also come to Zhouzhuang to see traditional Suzhou architecture, which doesn't exist in Suzhou anymore since Suzhou was developed and many buildings were torn down," said Edward Zhu, a native of Suzhou, located 38 kilometers northwest of Zhouzhuang. Although Zhouzhuang is not as commercially developed as Suzhou, it's close enough so that their local dialects are mutually understandable.
Sixty percent out of one thousand or so residential houses in Zhouzhuang were built during the Ming or Qing dynasty. Two buildings in particular attract a lot of visitors.
One is the Shen Ting (Hall of Shen) residence. Built in 1742 by the offspring of the wealthiest trader of Zhouzhuang during the Qing dynasty, Shen Wansan, it serves as an extraordinary example of how the rich lived during feudal China. The two-story mansion has more than 100 rooms. On the first floor, the kitchen, family temple are located behind the halls which were used to receive guests or negotiate business. Upstairs are the bedrooms, decorated with furniture made during the Ming and Qing dynasties. If the furnishings and decorations in it look familiar, it's probably because Shen Ting has been used as the set for several Chinese movies.
The other is the Zhang Ting (Hall of Zhang) residence, built during the Ming Dynasty. It is one of the few well-preserved mansions - Zhouzhuang's oldest mansion - still around in China. Whereas the other houses in Zhouzhuang are built along the streams and rivers, the Ruojing River actually runs through Zhang Ting so that small boats can enter the house through its backyard.
Zhouzhuang is a small enough town so that it can easily be covered in one day, even on foot. But the local tourism bureau has set up a gondola service to give tourists a quick tour of Zhouzhuang for 60 yuan. Unlike Venice where the gondolas serve as taxi cabs, the gondoliers in Zhouzhuang patiently wait their turn at the dock to pick up their passengers. On the weekends, they might make five or six tours around Zhouzhuang.
After a quick tour around Zhouzhuang either by foot or by ferry, it soon becomes obvious from street vendors hawking Wansan braised pork tendons and "qingtuan" - golf ball-sized dumplings filled with sweet bean paste - that these are Zhouzhuang's more famous dishes. As for meals in Zhouzhuang, the Wansan braised pork tendons, white shellfish, steamed shad and whitebait fried with eggs are highly recommended.
Zhouzhuang enjoys four distinct seasons due to its pleasant subtropical maritime monsoon climate. The annual average temperature is ranging from 60.8ºF (16ºC) to 62.6ºF (17ºC) while the lowest temperature is 23ºF (-5ºC) in the coldest January and the highest is 96.8ºF (36ºC) in July.
Articles credited to Venice of the Orient---Zhouzhuang (by Chi-chu Tschang)