Most of the old towns I visited on the lower Yangtze River turned out to be largely the same boats covered in black awnings floating under arched bridges spanning canals lined with stone houses with tin roofs. black ceramic shingles and wooden windows.
The shops in the narrow lanes sell local snacks, handicrafts and souvenirs.
To some extent, if you’ve seen such a settlement, you’ve seen them all.
Or so I thought.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from Xizha Scenic Area in Wuzhen, a 1,300-year-old water town in Jiaxing City, Zhejiang Province. The colony attracted more than 10 million visitors last year. But I still didn’t expect to be impressed.
I discovered long lines outside several businesses, especially outside a store selling congbaohui, a local dim sum with a rich history.
The snack – a thin sheet of dough wrapped around a green onion inside a thicker layer of twisted dough that is fried with sauces – is said to have been created as an effigy.
The hero Yue Fei, who defended the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) against invaders from northern China, was trapped by Chancellor Qin Hui and killed in prison in Hangzhou in 1142.
A local cook shaped the dough into figures meant to symbolize Qin and his wife, and threw the dough into sizzling oil to show his contempt.
He named the snack “fried Hui”, and it became popular all over the country.
But his name was changed to congbaohui, to circumvent the anger of the powerful chancellor.
Further down the alley, colorful theater posters covered a brick wall.
Stilt walkers made up like clowns brushed past me.
Vertical banners on both sides of the street were printed with profiles of famous playwrights from around the world – the Greek tragic Sophocies (496-406 BC), the British poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Yuan dynasty playwright (1271-1368) Ji Junxiang, Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906), Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Chinese playwright Cao Yu (1910-96).
The banners recalled the Wuzhen Drama Festival, which ended last month shortly after my visit.
Spectators cheered and laughed as they took photos of domestic and foreign artists performing avant-garde plays, Peking opera, crosstalk and kuaiban – a traditional Chinese art form similar to rap – near bridges, in pavilions, on platforms and under arcades.
I stopped when I encountered a group of Chinese children reciting lines in English in front of an old locked house. They were performing a half-hour play adapted from Shanhaijing, a classic collection of ancient Chinese myth texts, telling stories of mythical characters like the Goddess Nyuwa and Emperor Fuxi from the perspective of a young time traveler.
The students came from Beijing Chongwen Elementary School’s Drama Club, said Li Haibin of Well-Et, a performing arts company that organized the students to perform in Wuzhen. They had gone to Wuzhen because they thought the festival would be an opportunity to tell Chinese stories to foreigners.
“I plan to help them participate in overseas theater festivals next year, and Wuzhen is a window for us to get a rough idea of what these kinds of events are like,” says- he.
I strolled through the scenic area, feeling the autumn breeze, watching the crowds heading to the teahouses, and listening to pop songs from the bars.
And I realized that Wuzhen’s special blend of ancient and modern, simplicity and dynamism really exceeded my expectations.
I was, indeed, impressed.