The Ancient Town of Nanxun

2024-04-08 11:40:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter MENG JIAXIN
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Built in 1252 during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Nanxun boasts a rich cultural legacy that has accumulated throughout 700 years.


A beautiful night view of the illuminated and tranquil Nanxun ancient town on June 27, 2023. 

The ancient town of Nanxun is located in Nanxun District of Huzhou City, east China’s Zhejiang Province, nestled in the prosperous heart of the Yangtze River Delta region. 

Built in 1252 during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Nanxun boasts a rich cultural legacy that has accumulated throughout 700 years. From the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Nanxun was one of the most prosperous towns in Jiangsu and Zhejiang due to the wealth it generated by its thriving silk industry and budding market economy. Over centuries, Nanxun merchants who amassed great fortunes from their silk businesses built a number of lavish mansions and elaborate private gardens. Many of these structures have been well preserved to date, particularly those belonging to the Liu and Zhang family, which have become landmarks of the town. 

With its unique historical and cultural legacy, the old town of Nanxun has been recognized as a national 5A tourist attraction. Major attractions in this town include the residence of Zhang Shiming, the Red House, Xiaolianzhuang Garden, Jiaye Library, the residence of Zhang Jingjiang, and Baijianlou residential complex. 

Several boats carrying tourists are passing by historic riverside residential buildings on March 24, 2021. 

Xiaolianzhuang Garden and Jiaye Library 

In the southwest of the town, there is a garden called Xiaolianzhuang, literally meaning Small Lotus Estate. It once was the private property of Liu Yong, the richest merchant in Nanxun during the late Qing Dynasty, and is now known as the largest and most extravagant garden existing in Nanxun. Built between 1885 and 1920, this garden covers an area of 18,000 square meters. 

Liu Yong admired the garden of Lotus Estate constructed by the prominent painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu of Huzhou origin, and he subsequently named his beloved garden Small Lotus Estate. This distinguished garden consists of multiple sections. The large gate at the entrance draws on both Eastern and Western elements. In addition, the gate is a private dock connected with a looping trail dotted with various pavilions around a large lotus pond.

In spring, mist shrouds the water surface, and long, graceful willow branches sweep the grass on the bank. During summertime, the lotus pond is alive with blossoming lotus flowers and green lotus leaves. There are also some structures built in the garden, such as the archway bearing a plaque that was a gift from an emperor, a stele corridor and an ancestral hall. Today, Xiaolianzhuang is listed as a cultural site under state protection.

The Jiaye Library is one of the largest private libraries in China’s modern times. The library and Xiaolianzhuang Garden are separated by a river. The owner of the library was Liu Yong’s first grandson. In its prime, this library housed 600,000 books in 160,000 volumes, including many rare editions and the one-off editions in periods from the Song and Yuan dynasties to the Ming and Qing dynasties.

This building was built between 1920 and 1924. Decorating the front of the building is a large unique looking rock. The hole in the stone can produce a loud whistling sound when wind blows through it, so it became known as the whistling rock.

There are chairs and desks between the shelves where many scholars from China and abroad have read and copied books. In 1949, China’s then Premier Zhou Enlai dispatched troops led by General Chen Yi to protect this precious library. In July 2001, the Jiaye Library was listed as a cultural site under state protection.

The Red House

In addition to traditional architectural designs, there is a European-style building in the town of Nanxun, called the "Red House.” The owner of the house is Liu Tiqing, the third son of Liu Yong. In the late Qing Dynasty, Huzhou merchants generally managed their businesses in Shanghai, which was one of the few cities in China open to foreign trade at the time. These merchants were exposed to new trends when dealing with trade partners from Europe. It was at that time when Western architecture was introduced to their hometown Nanxun.

One red-hued European-style building stands out, nestled amongst the Chinese-style structures. Though hidden in the back of the complex, the Red House stands out from all the surrounding white-walls and black tiles, typical of Chinese-style buildings. It is a rare case for a small town in China to have a Western-styled structure built several hundred years ago, and embodies the inclusivity and open-mindedness of Nanxun.

A woman going about her daily life during a rainy day in the ancient town of Nanxun. 

Home to the Zhang Family

Zhang Shiming, born into a distinguished family, was a noted bibliophile in the late Qing Dynasty. His house was once the largest residential complex in southern China, with more than 240 rooms on a construction area of 6,000 square meters. Because of its unique artistic and historical values, it was rated a key cultural site under state protection in July 2001.

Zhang Shiming’s residence was built between 1895 and 1905, featuring a striking fusion of Western and Chinese elements, such as numerous wood, brick and stone sculptures as well as glass sculptures imported from France. Each door of the side halls is a piece of artwork, adorned with exquisitely carved patterns and scenes inspired by classic Chinese stories. On the floor above the dining area are the ladies’ bedrooms where the windows feature a type of blue glass imported from Europe, decorated with leaf patterns.

The backyard houses a baroque building, constructed in the similar period when the Red House was built. Each of its red bricks came from Europe. The first floor is a lavish ballroom equipped with a dancing area, a makeup room, and a dressing room. Landscape tiles laid around the fireplace are made from fine materials with the highest degree of craftsmanship. Two Corinthian iron columns support the roof. It is said that such Byzantinesque columns are even very rare in Europe.  

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