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Kunshan and its Water Towns

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Source: China Daily 

Wedged between Shanghai and Suzhou, Kunshan is often overlooked by holidaymakers. Its reputation as a manufacturing hub courting Taiwanese and Japanese company’s to set-up-shop and produce their wares hardly endears Kunshan to tourists. But its superficial modernity belies the fact that Kunshan was an important center of culture and trade when Shanghai was still an inconsequential market town. And this heritage is evident within the city proper and beyond in Kunshan’s idyllic water towns. Indeed hearty travelers will be rewarded with architectural wonders, musical marvels and much between. 

The City

The heart of the Kunshan city is the venerated Jade Peak, one of the only mountains in this otherwise flat region. The stone quarried from within, known as Kun Stone, is one of the revered stones of China. From the peak, one can look out at the cityscape: Kunshan is fed by numerous waterways and has long been part of the Grand Canal network, connecting Beijing with the rich produce of the Yangtze River Delta.

Jade Peak is part of Tinglin Park, a name derived from the nickname of 17th-century scholar Gu Yanwu, a native of Qiandeng, a Kunshan water town. The public garden is filled with locals practicing tai-chi or sipping tea, suggesting a real reverence for tradition. The park is home to several sites of interest, but perhaps most notable is the ancient theater stage where Kun opera is still performed. The local operatic form is said to be the originator of Chinese opera and thus possess the honorary title “mother of all operas.”

Zhouzhuang

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To get a suggestion of why Kunshan produced so many fine artisans and intellectuals most head to Zhouzhang, the largest and best preserved of the city’s water towns. With local fisherwomen serenading tourists as they navigate the winding canals, Zhouzhuang is often dubbed the “Venice of the East.” Indeed like its European counterpart this is an ancient place of business as the wonderfully restored residences, charming temples and plethora of folk crafts illuminate.

Highlights include the Shen Residence, a Qing-era merchant residence that has been lavishly restored to reflect the lifestyle of a wealthy Qing-era family and the Zhang Residence, one of the oldest family homes left in Zhouzhuang. Built in 1496 during the Ming dynasty, this residence belonged to a family of officials who helped overthrow the Mongol regime.

River bridges are also a principle draw to Zhouzhuang. The Twin Bridges are undoubtedly the symbol of Zhouzhuang as Chen Yifei, a notable painter, captured it on canvas for the world to see. The image was ultimately used in the 1980s to front a United Nations commemorative stamp – a potent symbol of two worlds joined, as this was when China was just beginning to reform its economy.

There are also daily performances of popular scenes from Kun Opera at the ancient stage in Zhouzhuang. 

Jinxi

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Jinxi is a smaller water town like Zhouzhuang, but with fewer visitors, making it feel like a more lived-in and authentic. Famous bridges and religious site abound. The sheer number of stone bridges is the principle attraction, and these are best enjoyed with a local boat tour. Boats steered by serenading fisherwomen can be hired from a dock near the Lotus Pond Buddhist temple from where you can explore the Tomb of the Concubine Chen located on an island on a lake.

Those appreciative of the performing arts should gravitate towards the Jinxi Xuanchuan Art Gallery of China to enjoy daily performances of Xuanchuan, a traditional musical style that is similar to Pingtan, but a wider variety of instrumentals. 

Qiandeng

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Source: TripAdvisor

Formerly known as Qiandun, or 'town of a thousand mounds,' Qiandeng, is now the more pleasant sounding 'town of a thousand lanterns.’ The new name recalls the one thousand lanterns, which were used to line the road between this water town and the city of Suzhou. Qiandeng is also the hometown of Gu Yanwu. The residence of this late Ming / early Qing dynasty scholar has been restored and draws numbers of tourists, who also breeze by the iconic pagoda and the massive Jade Buddha of Yanfu Temple.

Highlights include Slate Street, the longest of its kind left in the Jiangnan region at 1.5 kilometers. The Qinfeng Pagoda, the tallest structure in the old quarter, built in 503AD. The One Thousand Lamps Museum which houses a comprehensive collection of lamps, some already over a thousand years old. 


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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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