Entering the town, I paused for a moment to wait out the rain under a covered walkway. For a little while it seemed like I was the only one there. But then I spotted some local residents across the canal, going about their daily chores. Some were hanging up laundry or sweeping the sidewalk, while a few others were just sitting and having a chat. It was just like a scene from an old photograph. Had I not just walked through modern Nanxun’s gritty industrial center, you could’ve convinced me we were back in the Qing Dynasty, sometime during the zenith of the town’s silk trade. 

Nanxun, just outside the bustling city of Huzhou, is only one of several ancient water towns in East China. Yet, for some reason, it remains one of the least-visited. This is what drew me here in the first place – the chance to experience a Chinese “AAAAA Scenic Spot” without the large tour groups and kitschy souvenir shops. And aside from a couple of tour groups I ran into later in the afternoon, I really did have much of Nanxun all to myself.

With no shortage of picturesque scenes, historical landmarks and tranquil gardens, there’s a good reason why the few who know about Nanxun call it one of China’s best kept secrets.

Nanxun Huzhou China

Canals, Silk Worms & Elephants

Nanxun was one of the wealthiest towns in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 AD), largely due its role in both the production and trade of silk. A few thousand years ago, China was the only place in the world that produced silk. Even after the country began to export their goods throughout the world via the Silk Road, the means of silk production remained a closely guarded secret.

In time, though, some other world powers got their hands on some much-coveted silk eggs. Though the secret was out, and China no longer maintained a monopoly over global silk production, the wealthy continued to turn to China for high-end, luxury silk. The same holds true even today, with China still controlling over three quarters of the world market.

Towns like Nanxun, as well as neighboring cities like Suzhou and Hangzhou, were, and still are, major silk production hubs. They’re also strategically located close to China’s Grand Canal, the man-made 1,800 km waterway that stretches from Beijing all the way down to Hangzhou. During the Qing Dynasty, business was going so well that Nanxun was even home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the entire country. These families were known as the “four elephants.” Their opulent houses and gardens, most of which were built using a unique blend of Chinese and Western architecture, are presently maintained by the town and open for visitors. 

Nanxun Huzhou
Locals still make good use of Nanxun's ancient canals

Nanxun's Historical Landmarks

Nanxun is still a living residential town where normal people live and go about their daily lives. As a visitor, though, you’ll need to purchase a ticket for ¥100 Yuan to walk along the ancient canals. That ticket will also grant you access to all of the historical landmarks detailed below. All in all, you can easily explore most of what Nanxun has to offer in a single day-trip. From nearby cities like Hangzhou, the town is easily accessible by public bus.

Baijian-Lou: Pavilion of 100 Rooms

Coming from the city bus station, the first section of Nanxun Ancient Town you’ll encounter is Baijian-Lou. This is also one of the oldest parts of the town, said to have been built during the Ming Dynasty around 400 years ago. You’ll notice that all the structures here are interconnected. Supposedly, the area was meant to house the hundreds of servants of one of Nanxun’s old powerful families.

Baijian-Lou is one of Nanxun’s most scenic sections, yet also one of its quietest. Evidently, the local tourism authority doesn’t expect many people to arrive by bus, as even the ticket booth here was vacant and shuttered up during my visit. Don’t get too excited, though – there are strict checkpoints and ticket booths as you get closer to the center of town.

Nanxun Bajian-Lou

The Former House of Zhang Jingjiang

Nearby the Baijian-Lou houses is the former family home of Zhang Jingjiang. Not only were the Jingjiangs one of the powerful “four elephants” of Nanxun, but Zhang would turn out to one of 20th century China’s most influential and divisive figures.

As a student, Jingjiang studied abroad in Paris, a popular destination for Chinese students at the time. There, he and other Chinese youth formed anarchist student groups, largely influenced by European radical ideologies. Members of the ‘Paris group,’ as it was referred to, along with the ‘Tokyo group’ (another popular study-abroad choice) would eventually play a major role in fueling anti-Qing Dynasty sentiment throughout China.

In Paris, Jingjiang later founded a firm called the Ton-ying company which dealt in expensive Chinese silk and art. Eventually, he’d become acquainted with revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, and used his immense wealth to finance many of the attempted rebellions against the Imperial family.

Following the eventual overthrow of China’s final dynasty, the country was in turmoil after Sun Yat-Sen’s rival, Yuan Shikai, took control of the country. Jingjiang would become mentor to a rising Chiang Kai-shek, offering both financial and political aid. In the chaotic political climate of the era, both Jiangjiang and Chiang-Kai-Shek would shift back and forth between the left and right wings of Chinese politics, and the two would also have a falling out over personal matters.

Zhang Jingjiang Exhibit
Zhang Jingjiang Nanxun

As a first-time visitor to China, it was interesting to see how the exhibit touched upon this fascinating historical figure. While he was a close associate of Sun-Yat-Sen, whom modern-day China continues to celebrate as a hero, Jingjiang was also a mentor to Chiang Kai-Shek – Mao Zedong’s arch-rival. Ultimately, the relationship is somewhat brushed over and described as a product of “historical conditions.”

Guang Huigong Taoist Temple

Heading further into the center of town, I came across the Guang Huigong Taoist temple. After reading about the complex political backstory of Zhang Jingjiang, it was a good opportunity to give my mind a brief rest.

The temple is fairly typical as far as Taoist temples in China go. But if you’re new to Taoist temples in general, here’s a brief overview:

You may have heard of Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching. Though considered the founder of Taoism, no such religion or group existed in his day. The organized religion of Taoism we know today was established some several hundred years after his lifetime. Thus, it’s possible to make a distinction and between ‘philosophical Taoism’ and ‘religious Taoism.’ Taoist temples in China, of course, are associated with the latter.

In both atmosphere and appearance, Chinese Taoist temples are fairly similar to Buddhist ones. However, you’ll notice that instead of a statue of Buddha, you’ll generally find a trio of Taoist deities referred to as the Three Pure Gods, or San Qing. 

Like with Buddhist temples, the atmosphere of Chinese Taoist temples is open and laidback. I hung out for awhile at Guang Huigong to wait out yet another downpour, before moving onto the next landmark.

The Red House

The Red House Nanxun

“The Red House” is nicknamed after the red bricks used in its construction – and no, not the song, as it was built between 1905 and 1908! The residence belonged to Liu Tiqing, one of the richest men in China during that period. Tiqing was known for a lot of things: he was a wealthy provincial official, an industrialist, a prominent silk trader, a successful real estate investor and a collector of cultural relics.

This is one of the most obviously Western-inspired buildings in Nanxun, taking major inspiration from Romanesque architecture that was so fashionable among the Chinese elite at the time. But the residence also follows some traditional Confucianist architectural conventions as well, as it’s divided into a South, Middle and North section.

Inside you can find a little museum, but almost all of the information is in Chinese only. Interestingly, there is (or at least was) a modern photography exhibit on display in one of the rooms.

The Former Residence of Zhang Shiming

The former residence of Zhang Shiming, founder of the Xiling Society of Seal Arts and member of one of Nanxun’s “four elephants” families, is perhaps the town’s most famous home. The opulent mansion comprises of hundreds of rooms and took seven years to build. But Shiming abandoned it after only a few years when he moved to Shanghai. Like the Red House, Shiming’s residence was influenced by Western architecture, though in this case it’s more French than Roman.

Today the house is owned by Nanxun’s local government, and has been maintained to appear as it would’ve looked back in Shiming’s era. 

The Little Lotus Manor

The Little Lotus Manor was built by Red House owner Liu Tiqing’s grandfather, Liu Yong. It was such an ambitious project that it took 40 years to complete (1885 – 1925), revealing how the “four elephants” continued to contribute to Nanxun’s landscape over several generations.

In addition to its large lotus pond, the manor also features a temple, and a memorial archway, and a private garden. Parts of the manor were destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960’s and ’70’s, during which the Communist leader worked to destroy remnants of China’s past – especially anything to do with the former wealthy elite. 

Today, in stark contrast, the modern Chinese government is keen on preserving and restoring many of the country’s historical landmarks and scenic towns. Nanxun itself is one of many such examples. The Little Lotus Manor, in fact, has been under restoration since the 1980’s.

Little Lotus Manor

Jiaye Library Hall

Finally, near the end of your visit (assuming you walked from the bus station), you’ll come across the Jiaye Library Hall. Constructed in 1920 by a man named Liu Chenggan, the large library is said to contain hundreds of thousands of books and important historical documents.

This happened to be the only place in Nanxun where I encountered a large tour group, though it likely had something to do with the timing.

Around Town

In addition to the historical homes and gardens, just leisurely walking along the scenic canals will be one of the highlights of your time in Nanxun. If you want to, there’s even the option to take a boat ride through town, passing under Nanxun’s trademark arched bridges. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, you’ll also come across plenty of restaurants and coffee shops built in the traditional style (just don’t expect many English menus!) Clearly, a lot of thought and effort was put into making even the more modern establishments fit together with the traditional atmosphere.

Overall, I was very impressed with Nanxun, especially with how well-preserved and clean everything was. While seeing old house after old house can get somewhat repetitive, the experience opened my eyes to an aspect of Chinese history I’d not been aware of. 

I can’t say for sure how the town looked and felt back in the Qing Dynasty, but things at least felt like not a whole lot has changed. Let’s hope that Nanxun can hold onto its quiet, rustic charm by remaining a secret for just a little while longer.

Nanxun Bridge

Additional Info

Getting to Nanxun from Hangzhou is pretty straightforward. First you’ll want to take a taxi to the Hangzhou North Bus Station. Outside the bus station, find the ticket seller window and tell them where you want to go. It’s always best to have the name of your destination in Chinese saved somewhere on your phone. Nanxun written in Chinese looks like this: 南浔

The bus ride costs ¥43 Yuan and takes around 90 – 120 minutes.

Getting back to Hangzhou is slightly more tricky, as the local Nanxun bus station lacks any English signs and it’s not obvious at first where the ticket seller is located. Walk through the station and you should find it close to the entrance. Be sure to have the Chinese characters for Hangzhou (杭州) saved on your phone as well, just in case.

The last bus back to Hangzhou from Nanxun departs at 16:50.

The entrance to Nanxun Ancient Town from the bus station is an easy walk. As soon as you exit the station, though, you’ll be approached by taxi drivers who imply that the sightseeing area is far away. There are two entrances to the town, though. The most common entrance that organized tours stop off at is a couple kilometers away, but there is another entrance within close proximity to the bus station.

Be careful, though, not to make the same mistake that I did. I’d read that to get to the Ancient Town area, you simply have to walk across the bridge that’s “next to” the bus station, go straight for awhile and then turn left.

Coming out the station, I saw a bridge straight ahead (east) and thought this was the one I was supposed to walk across. I then walked straight for a while and turned left, only to end up in a dingy warehouse district that was clearly not the place I’d come to see.

It turns out that the bridge you’re supposed to take is the one that takes you south. The bus station is right by an area where two small rivers intersect. Just next to the bus station is a series of steps which you can walk up to the other bridge which eventually leads to the historical district.

Normally, I would say “just use Google Maps,” but this is China, where Google is banned! Apple users have the luxury of using Apple Maps in China, but as an Android user, I could only use the local app Baidu, which is in the Chinese language only. While I did have a VPN, it was acting especially faulty that day. Anyway, just remember that you want to head south, and not east, from the bus station.

To get to Nanxun from Shanghai, you can take a direct bus from the Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station. Tickets cost ¥50 and the journey is about 2 hours one-way.

It’s always best to have the name of your destination in Chinese saved somewhere on your phone. Nanxun written in Chinese looks like this: 南浔

The entrance to Nanxun Ancient Town from the bus station is an easy walk. As soon as you exit the station, though, you’ll be approached by taxi drivers who imply that the sightseeing area is far away. There are two entrances to the town, though. The most common entrance that organized tours stop off at is a couple kilometers away, but there is another entrance within close proximity to the bus station.

Be careful, though, not to make the same mistake that I did. I’d read that to get to the Ancient Town area, you simply have to walk across the bridge that’s “next to” the bus station, go straight for awhile and then turn left.

Coming out the station, I saw a bridge straight ahead (east) and thought this was the one I was supposed to walk across. I then walked straight for a while and turned left, only to end up in a dingy warehouse district that was clearly not the place I’d come to see.

It turns out that the bridge you’re supposed to take is the one that takes you south. The bus station is right by an area where two small rivers intersect. Just next to the bus station is a series of steps which you can walk up to the other bridge which eventually leads to the historical district.

Everywhere mentioned in this article is easily reachable by foot, and you can see everything within 4 or 5 hours.

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