Bustling Shanghai is built in a huge marshland created by the mighty Yangtze River and its hundreds tributaries.
Therefore, the area is abundant of small and larger towns build literary on the waterways. Zhujiajiao is the most popular of them all and really easy to be reached from Shanghai on public transporation.
Zhujiajiao, the “dazzling pearl” of Dianshan Lake (淀山湖), is 1700 years old.
There are several attractions in the town that you should visit, but I believe the best way to enjoy your break is to just wonder around the shaded willow trees alleys, the old houses with the green courtyards, the small canals and streams, the beautiful cafés and bars by the water, the tiny souvenir shops, the traditional boats sailing on, the street vendors selling all kinds of food, the old stone bridges standing across the rivers and canals, the many Ming-Qing architectures flanking both banks of the Dianpu river, the old cobbled streets stretching through the whole town.
Zhujiajiao is China at its best, full of charm and enjoyment; it is exactly what you have imagined this vast country looks like and what you have always dreamed to visit.
A wandering writer of China, San Mao, once was deeply attracted by the bridges, streams and residences arrangement here and was moved by the breathtaking scenery. The quiet town of simple but full of pictures and original flavored streets of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1636-1911) is an eminent film location.
A bit of history.
Zhujiaojiao’s history can be traced back to the Neolithic Age, as a large quantity of historical relics of the era were found around Dianshan Lake.
The market of the town had already formed during Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Zhujiajiao was thriving and officially set up as a town during Wan-li’s (萬曆)Reign (1572-1620).
In Qing Dynasty, it became a trading center in the area, and later during the same dynasty, it became the first business town and a famous collecting and distributing center for agricultural products among the surrounding towns.
Today, the past prosperity of this ancient town can still be seen.
Wan Li Emperor
Wan Li Emperor (1572-1620, the 14th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty) was an unhappy monarch generally looked upon as a dismal failure. As the Dictionary of Ming Biography notes of Wan Li’s reign, “extravagance, corruption, and ineptitude had become so normal that post-Ming historians have consistently attributed the collapse of the dynasty in the 1640s to trends that developed in Wan Li times, specifically blaming the emperor himself.” But if Wan Li was inept, he was also intriguing. He was the longest-reigning emperor of the Ming Dynasty – and the only emperor in Chinese history to go on strike. Yes, for nearly thirty years, Wan Li refused to attend his own audiences, meet with his officials, or read the memos they sent him. Instead, he watched palace eunuchs play ball games and oversaw the construction of his tomb; some historians also believe he indulged in opium. But, despite his dereliction of duty – or, the exhibition argues, because of it – the Wan Li era was a time of social dynamism, scientific achievement, artistic creativity, and comparative openness to the West. It was Wan Li who allowed Matteo Ricci, the renowned Italian Jesuit, to live in Beijing (and be buried there when he died).
Owing to Zhujiaojiao’s favorable natural environment and convenient transportation, lots of merchants gathered here and developed the cloth industry, making it a major town in the south of Yangtze River.
Rice industry developed during the Ming Dynasty, and continues to be of much importance even today. All trades here were thriving and many other industries, like handicraft, also developed here earlier than in other parts of China. Wine shops and tea houses were open day and night and many peddlers from other places used to come here to trade.
Arriving at Zhujiajiao.
There are two easy ways to arrive here from Shanghai.
A. The most hassle-free way to arrive in town is by Metro Line 17, which since the beginning of 2018 takes you directly from Shanghai to Zhujiajiao. You have to get off at Zhujiajiao Metro Station (朱家角站) (see map).
After exiting the station, head north on the Zhuxi Road for about 200m, pass the first bridge and turn right on the Xiangningbang Road. Walk there till you find the first restaurants and cafes: you are in the old town now … feel free to wonder around.
B. Alternatively, on Shanghai's Pu'an Road (near People's Square, behind Shanghai Concert Hall-see map) you will find the buses that will take you to Zhujiajiao. Once there, look for a bus route called Huzhu Express Line (HuZhu GaoSu KuaiXian - 沪朱高速快线). Be sure you get on the right one, otherwise you'll end up on a 2-hour bus trip. A bus employee will pass by to sell tickets once the bus departs (12 RMB per person, one way). This express bus takes one hour to get to Zhujiajiao and should leave every 30 minutes; but since there's no fixed schedule, just jump on the first one you find. The bus stops about a kilometer away from the center of the town (see map).
After you get off the bus, follow the crowds and in 10 minutes you will arrive at the (southeast) entrance Gate (there is another one, at the north side of the town) of the ancient town. There you'll find a tourism office.
Have in mind that they do not charge for entrance ticket to the town (there is a confusion among tourists), but what they try to sell to you are different packages that give you access to various attractions depending on how long you want to stay (prices vary from RMB30 to RMB80). We didn't buy any tickets and just wandered around the town for about 5 hours.
Bridges are something of a star attraction of Zhujiajiao, which sports no less than 36 stone bridges. Most of them are only a few meters long and broad enough for a pushcart. Many of them are very old, dating back as early as the Ming dynasty.
The town develops around the main canal (Diapu River) where you’ll find the iconic Fangsheng Bridge (放生桥) built over it. Fangsheng Bridge is the most visited attraction of the town.
Fangsheng Bridge, which links the north and south part of Zhujiajiao, is a 70-meter long, 5.8-meter-high, five-arched stone bridge, dating from 1571 (rebuilt in 1812). The central arch is decorated with a stone relief of eight dragons surrounding a pearl, and the pillars at the ends are sculpted into lions.
The bridge is also known as the "fish bridge", a famous tourist trap that goes on at one of the ends of the bridge: they tell you to buy a goldfish to release it into the water, but then they catch them again a little further down and sell them again... so don't fall for it.
Certainly, this is the most photographed part of the town: stand at the top of the bridge and admire the boats coming and going and the rooftops of houses and restaurants.
Kezhi Garden (课植园) is a hidden away treasure, located at the northern part of the city, next to the north entrance and ticket vending point. Built in 1912, the design of this traditional garden incorporates both Chinese and European elements.
The garden belonged to Ma Weiqi (马维骐), whose family were salt merchants, one of the richest families in Zhujiajiao Ancient Town.
The garden's name – ke (课 meaning to learn) and zhi (植 meaning to plant) – is an allegory for the importance of studying and farming.
It consists of three parts: the main hall, the garden and an artificial hill area. The most iconic landmark of the gardens is a five storey building with a pavilion on its roof, the tallest structure in old Zhujiajiao.
The wars and revolutions of the decades, that followed its construction, brought much destruction to the garden and its buildings. In 1956 additional old structures where torn down to make room for teaching buildings of the Zhujiajiao Middle School that had come to occupy Kezhi Garden. It was not until 1986 that the garden became a protected structure and renovation to return it to its original style was started. Finally, in 2003 the middle school was relocated.
There is an entrance fee of RMB20. The Chinese opera "Peony Pavilion" performs here once a week.
The area around Kezhi garden is one of the most beautiful in the town. Lavish vegetation, traditional boats, small cafes atmopsheric bars. Relax from your long walks and enjoy your cold beer in one of the many multicolor bars.
The North Street (Bei Dajie - 北大街), "a mile-long street with a thousand shops", is the most well-preserved Ming-Qing Street in Shanghai area.
The North Street with its old style shops and decorated red lanterns is a vigorous ancient street that no other can match in the country. Strolling leisurely along the stone-paved old street, you’ll be immersed in the busy commercial feeling and explore the art shops and century-old merchandise shops.
Lots of little restaurants and street food vendors welcome you with stimulating aromas. We tried every single delicacy except the crispy grasshoppers and scorpions.
Recommented dishes and snacks: meat wrapped in leaves (扎肉), steamed pork dumplings (肉馅烧卖), roast soybeans (炙毛豆), braised pettitoes (红烧蹄髈), dark-rice zongzi (阿婆粽) and rose-flavored fermented bean curd (臭豆腐).
Zhujiajiao was flourished with Buddhism and Taoism in ancient times.
Yuanjin Buddhist Monastery (圆津禅院) was built in 1341 during the Yuan Dynasty. Originally the temple used to house the statue of Chenzhou Holy mother. Travelers can explore this peaceful monastery by visiting the Maitreya Hall, the Hall of Three Saints (Amitabha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Mahasthamaprapta), Yongyue Well, the Yuantong Treasure Hall, and Qinghua Pavilion.
You can climb up to the third floor of Qinghua Pavilion to have the panoramic view of Zhujiajiao old town.
While it’s smaller and less glamorous than some of the other similar temples around China, Yunjin Monastery is renowned within the devout Buddhist community for having been visited by legendary dignitaries who have left behind precious works that celebrate their faith. There's an entrance fee to the monastery - RMB10.
The main charge of Town God Temple is to guard the wellness and happiness of the local people. Two stone lions welcome visitors at the entrance of the temple. Entering into the temple, you’ll see a screen wall with “The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea”.
Inside the temple, visitors can admire its three treasures: the old performance stage, a big abacus and the hundreds-year-old gingko tree.
Do you know the history and development of postal service in China? Paying a short visit to the Qing Post Office (大清邮局) which is the only one well-kept Qing-dynasty post site in Shanghai area, you will learn all about the thousand-year long post and postal service of China. It was first set in 1903 and in the exhibition hall, you can see different kinds of Qing post cards and letters written on bamboo, which represent the living condition and folk customs of different social strata.
In the street, where the post office is located and around it, there are several tea and coffee houses.
We had our coffee and tea (just after arriving at the town) at the "Ancient Tea House" next door to the post office. The Ancient Tea House has a nicely decorated and relaxing interior, but if the weather permits it, have your tea immersed in the comfortable sofas at the covered veranda, which is build over the canal. The feeling is great as sitting there you can dream of past times.
The people at the place were very nice and the tea was served in the traditional chinese way.