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The River Towns of Kunshan

The city of Kushan, nestled between Shanghai and Suzhou, is oft overlooked by its larger neighbours. This is a shame as it had been a source of great influence in ancient China, nurturing many musical forms, notably Kun Opera (the mother of Chinese operas), carving kun stone (a prized precious stone) as well as harvesting a bounty of food shipped up the Grand Canal to feed Beijing. Today the city is largely a manufacturing base for Taiwanese and Japanese firms, but its traditions remain well preserved in the ancient river towns that still surround it.

Zhouzhuang

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Source: China Daily

This is the quintessential, beautifully maintained regional river town often dubbed "The Venice of the East". The town’s iconic Twin Bridges painted by Chen Yifei, became an image used in the UN Post Office stamp collection – the coming together of two differently shaped bridges in a harmonious way, symbolic of China’s diplomatic efforts during the 1980s. This put Zhouzhuang on the map, attracting dignitaries like Jimmy Carter and Jiang Zemin and turning it into a tourist town par excellence.

This inevitably means Zhouzhuang is quite crowded with visitors determined to enjoy a riverboat ride and sample local snacks from the plethora of tourist-friendly cafés that have emerged in recent years. But it’s still a must visit, particularly if you’re interested in Jiangnan architecture as over 60 percent of the buildings visible in Zhouzhuang are preserved Ming and Qing dynasty constructs. These dark-tiled, whitewashed homes were designed primarily with merchants in mind; a shop out front and living quarters in the back. That said, not all homes were owned by traders. A variety of writers, statesmen, adventurers and poets lived here as well. Notable residences include the Zhang’s residence and Shen’s residence, now living museums explicating the story of ancient river town life.

Jinxi

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The name Jinxi translates to “embroidered brook.” It is derived from the Shihe River, which zigzags from north to south, splitting this scenic water town in two. For locals, the watercourse has always been regarded as a centrepiece of local life. They associate its winding form with the shape of the dragon: the mouth represented by the river’s southern ingress, the dragon claws the river’s four side streams, with the Tomb of Concubine Chen forming a pearl inside the dragon’s mouth. Wubao Lake, where the tomb is situated, is the largest expanse of water visible from the old district. A stone dam creates Lingtang Pond, where water chestnuts are harvested, while Lotus Bridge, with its long, covered causeway, circumvents Lotus Pond on the approach to the iconic Lianchi Buddhist Temple.

For many it’s the masonry of Jinxi that makes it so alluring. There are 26 well-preserved stone bridges crisscrossing the river. The granite-reinforced banks that follow the 12-kilometer watercourse date all the way back to the Song dynasty. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Jinxi was a regional centre of brick and stone production. Outside of town, one can still visit 15 of the original 72 traditional kilns that were used to churn out bricks used in road and building construction all across villages and cities in the Jiangnan region—and not least, the very streets and buildings of Jinxi itself.

But perhaps Jinxi’s biggest selling feature is how relaxed it is. There are several lovely teahouses like Wang Ji Cha Guan and Cha Yi Ji Wu where you can sip some fine green tea and take in the vibe of a town seemingly unchanged for eons.

Qiandeng

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The hometown of famous scholar Gu Yanwu, this ancient river town predates Kunshan’s most celebrated personage by over a thousand years. To get an idea of the history here you needn’t look far. The first thing that strikes any visitor is the Qinfeng Pagoda, which literally towers above the eaves of the surrounding whitewashed Ming and Qing-era residences. Qinfeng is the tallest structure in the old quarter, reaching some 39.5 meters into the sky. It was built in 503AD and is part of a Buddhist complex that includes Yanfu Temple, which dates back to the Liang dynasty and houses the world's largest white jade Buddha.

There are some great museums in the town each telling an aspect of Qiandeng’s rich history. Of note is a museum bearing a comprehensive collection of historic Chinese lamps. The town’s name, Qiandeng, meaning “One Thousand Lamps,” was earned in the Ming dynasty with the completion of a road from Suzhou claimed to be illuminated by exactly 1,000 lamps. The highway may be enlarged and electrified but the extraordinary lamp collection takes one through the ages, imbued with artistry, and justifying Qiandeng’s namesake to this day.   

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