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Fengxian – Ocean Outlook, Southern Charm


A marine wetland isn’t just about tourism. Fang Guozheng

FENGXIAN District in the south of Shanghai sits on the northern shore of the Hangzhou Bay. Here the feminine grace of southern scenery and the virile majesty of the ocean come together in happy union. Fields blaze with golden rape blossom against an azure ocean backdrop: it cries out this is southern China.This particular paradise encompasses 720 square kilometers of land and 417 square kilometers of sea within its boundaries.

Footsteps of a Confucian Saint

The name Fengxian means “worshiping the saint,” the saint in question being Yan Yan (506-443 BC), one of Confucius’ 72 disciples and the only one from southern China. In his later years Yan resigned his official post to commit himself to research. On his way back to his home in neighboring Jiangsu, he stopped for a while in Fengxian, a fishing town at the time, to give lectures promoting education and Confucian ideas and ethics. His teaching enlightened local people, and laid the foundation for the Wu and Yue (generally refers to the Yangtze River Delta) culture. His mentor Confucius was quoted as saying: “It was Yan Yan who brought my thinking to the south.”

People in Fengxian built a shrine commemorating his work and passed down the tradition of love for literature and arts that Yan Yan had implanted. In 1726 during the Qing Dynasty the region was promoted to county status, and given its current name by the imperial court in recognition of the sincere local reverence for men of learning and devotion to the humanities.

Blessed with flat lands nourished by rivers and sea in a benign climate, Feng-xian was already home to human life 5,000 years ago. At one of its several prehistoric sites, the remains of a male adult were excavated, together with fragments of pottery, bone arrows, stone axes, jade ornaments and potters’ wheels. More than 4,000 years old, he is Fengxian’s oldest resident so far discovered, and his remains can be seen in the district museum.

After Emperor Qinshihuang (259-210 BC) united China and founded the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), he dismantled all the defensive works at the borders of the warring states he had annexed, and built roads of uniform breadth across his vast empire. One of the roads went all the way from his capital Xianyang to Fengxian, a passage to the sea for a ruler remembered for his acuity and ruthlessness in matters military and political. A stone bridge, inscribed “Old Qin Bridge,” still survives from that time. Some of its ruts are still detectable, made possibly by carriages in the emperor’s procession, finally approaching the end of a journey that took months then but only a few hours now.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the construction of 59 fortress cities along the coast to protect the nation from attacks by Japanese pirates. Fengxian was the site of one of them, but it was laid to ruin by Japanese bombing raids in the 1930s and 40s, with only a 40-meter section of the city wall spared. The wall was rebuilt in recent years, together with the moat below.

The 600-year-old nunnery Wanfoge, or Tower of Ten Thousand Buddhas, stands against the city wall. Folklore has it that in the early Ming Dynasty the daughter of a rich local family shaved her head to become a nun in protest against her arranged marriage, and her remorseful father built a small temple for her. Admiring the girl’s courage and moved by her charitable deeds, more and more people in the area came there to pay their respects. When the fortifications were built in Fengxian in 1386, the temple occupied the spot where the northern gate was planned, and so was rebuilt within the new enceinte.

The stately complex did not escape the vandalism of the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), a time when all religious activities were banned. Its nuns were evicted and its buildings abandoned. In June 1989, the shrine reopened following renovations sponsored by the Shanghai Buddhist Association. Constant repair and expansion since then have made it what it is today. The 10,000 statues of Sakyamuni in its Wanfo Hall have made the temple’s name reflect reality at last. Every year hundreds of thousands of believers flock here from around China, from as far field as Hong Kong and Macao, and from southeast Asia too.

Another Buddhist sanctum in Feng-xian is the Eryan Temple of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), a compact compound of modest size. Everything from the time it was founded has perished over the centuries. Apart, that is, from two 600-year-old gingko trees. With snarled branches and burled trunks, they are still laden with fruit every autumn. The phoenix was said to nest there, inviting immortals from heaven, so a temple was built on the site. A two-ton statue of Sakyamuni looks down on followers in the central hall of the temple. It is carved from a single piece of white jade, a material thought to reflect the elemental and supreme purity of Buddhist beliefs.

Many Bridges, Many Tales

The abundance of waterways has spawned a family of bridges in Fengxian. According to Qing archives, there were more than 260 bridges in the region then: of these, 130 or more still survive, most of them built of slate. Understated in design, they seem to be silent observers of human emotions in the tides of time.

The oldest is the Tongjin Bridge from 1216 in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), 510 years before Fengxian County was established. But the two gingko trees nearby are even older; both over 1,000 years old and 28 meters high, their lush crowns shade and cool the slim stone arch in summer. The bridge and gingkos, symbolizing longevity, often feature in local paintings.

Tanqin (Plucking the Zither) Bridge is a memorial to tragic love. Miss Qian, the youngest daughter of a local official, could play the instrument beautifully, and Han Zhong was a young man of similar sensibilities but humble background. The two would often meet at the bridge, and play music together. The girl’s father was dead set against the relationship, and Han had to leave for the capital to take the imperial examination in the hope of winning a court post. But while he was away his sweetheart was forced to marry the son of a better-off family, and soon died in despair. Returning to this sad news, the heartbroken Han took to playing the zither every night at the scene of their trysts. His music was so sad that even the moon retreated behind the clouds with compassion.

The Jifang Bridge, dating back to 1578 in the Ming Dynasty, is a triple-arch stone affair resembling that of the famous West Lake in Hangzhou. It is a showpiece of Ming bridge building expertise and craftsmanship, with its tight junctions between the pier and deck elements, and an intricately patterned parapet. Locals also call it the Candy Bridge. Old folks say there used to be a rickety bamboo bridge here, which would swing with every step. One day a scrap dealer who traded candies for domestic waste swore: “Once I have the money, this bridge has got to go!” A few days later, while doing business around the villages he was offered two lumps of black-looking metal, which, on closer inspection turned out to be gold nuggets. With this windfall, the scrap dealer honored his word. He bought materials and hired workers to build a stone bridge over the river. At its completion, he told the crowds gathered around: “This is for the benefit of everyone here, and has to be maintained by our children, and by our children’s children.” At his wish the bridge was named Jifang – “inheriting a virtuous deed.”

These rock solid commemoratives are all river bridges of modest span compared to the two colossal and recently completed cement-and-steel structures that give improved access to downtown Shanghai. Modern conduits accelerate the flow of people and cargoes that stoke the local economy’s high-octane growth.

Ocean Resort

Emperor Qinshihuang was an enlightened ruler in one respect – constructing a broad highway to Fengxian so as to enjoy its sublime ocean scenery. Two millennia on he is yet to be proved wrong.

The top marine resorts in the district are the Crystal Waters Golden Sands Park and the Fisherman’s Dock, both well appointed with yachting, horse riding and golf club amenities plus villa-style hotels. At Crystal Water Golden Sands Park, covering 680,000 square meters of water surface and 70,000 square meters of beach, tourists can try high-energy sports including paragliding, surfing and powerboat racing, still uncommon in China. These facilities invite people to commune with the sea, rather than standing apart as passive spectators.

The meeting of the tidal Yangtze and Qiantang rivers here has produced compact grainy sand, firm beaches and safe bathing. The sandy beaches provide a stage for entertainment of all kinds. On the less visited sections, you can actually drive a car, feeling the thrill of racing along the strand. The beach also provides the large open skies and base, rare in cities, for flying kites. Since the 1990s the district has hosted a dozen national and international kite-flying competitions.

For kids the tidal beaches are a treasure map for living creatures. Scouting for soldier crabs or chasing shoals of tiny fish keeps them happily occupied for hours.

Fisherman’s Dock is home to many popular tourist spots, including the Longteng Tower, the East Sea Guanyin (Avalokitesvara, or Goddess of Mercy) Temple, the Qin Dynasty Museum, the Conch Museum and the Peking Opera Costume Museum.

The Peking Opera Costume Museum houses the private collection of its founder Bao Wanrong, who has spent almost all the family fortune and his life savings acquiring over 1,000 items, equivalent to the wardrobes of several troupes. On display are wigs worn by such opera legends as Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) and Xun Huisheng (1900-1968), reminders of their on-stage glory. Some of the exhibits were made by Mrs. and Mr. Bao themselves, now both in their 80s. The lavish use of embroidery and ornamentation in Peking Opera costumes calls for much time and patience in execution. But the Baos genuinely revel in the work; they once spent more than a year stitching countless spangles on a blue robe for the female role.

Outside, four Dutch wind turbines, each as tall as a 20-story building, come as quite a surprising contrast. Churning in the salty breeze against a backdrop of azure sky imperceptibly blending into the sea, they add a modern zing to this area of pristine natural views, while supplying it with clean energy.

The Bay Forest Park, with over four million trees, is the largest manmade forest in Shanghai. Its broad expanse of green, the bountiful oxygen it generates and the variety of wildlife it nurtures bring added life and vitality to Fengxian.

Agro-Tourism on the Rise

In cities any attempt to maintain inner peace and ease is often lost in the hurly-burly of traffic or the feverish pursuit of material comforts, be it a better house or a better position. It’s in the countryside that people are exposed to the fundamental elements of life and the values they represent. Fengxian offers plenty opportunities for those aspiring to such experience.

The Shenlong Bio-Park encloses an area of 118-plus hectares, 75 percent of that being forest. It consists of numerous farms and parks with recreational, educational and agricultural functions. The Avian Zoo, for instance, is home to 87 rare species of birds from around the world. Peacocks unfold their splendid tails at unexpected moments; pairs of mandarin ducks (a symbol of love and romance in Chinese culture) fondly preen their partner’s feathers; visitors look on as cranes strut by, heads high and sleek, the bearing that made this bird a symbol of the gentleman in Chinese literature. The park also offers performances by trained birds; in one act they distribute candies to the audience.

Other attractions include the Hares’ Woods, Pheasants’ Island and fruit-growing areas for strawberries, peaches, pears, grapes and dates. Many visitors are embarrased to know so little about the growing habits of fruits so long included in their daily diet. After an information session, they can pick the fruit personally, taking their harvest back home. After visiting the checkout of course!

The Urban Vegetable Garden, upward of 330 hectares, is located in Haiwan Town on Hangzhou Bay. It features a farming museum and fields growing 200 kinds of vegetables, all run with the latest agricultural technologies and yielding bumper crops bordering on the magical. Among the most jaw-dropping spectacles are a 1.8 meter-long towel gourd, a pumpkin weighing 150 kilograms and one tomato plant that sprawls for 60 square meters and bears more than 10,000 fruits. Many visitors are also surprised to discover the artistry used in modern growing conditions: the rainbow of vegetables planted on walls resembles oil paintings in a sitting room, but with a greener dimension!

In the experimental farming section, detectors track the development of vegetables, uploading the information to the Internet so that people can respond to their cyber-gardens’ needs from home.

Fengxian offers other country-style attractions. The Yuhui Green Garden, for example, runs a winery, where visitors can create their own wine. At the Shiwaitaoyuan (Peach Garden Wonderland) in Qingcun Town, those with nerves of steel can sled down steep grassed slopes. The rural communities are bastions of tradition and storehouses of old customs which often find expression in folk festivals. Fengxian has celebrations throughout the year to mark high tide, changes of season, and the blooming of rape crops to name just a few. Things regarded as trivial, or totally overlooked by pressured city dwellers are elevated by country people with parades and feasts – both handy pretexts for a break from routine and a communal get-together.

Future Fengxian

Plans for the future Shanghai figure part of the district for an 84 sq km economic hub that will accommodate modern industry and provide enough job opportunities to support a projected population between 750,000 and one million. This development, named Nanqiao New City, will become a link between Pudong and the southern wing of the Yangtze River Delta, no doubt a potentially sharp stimulus for the political, economic and cultural development of Fengxian.

Besides its state-of-art industrial, commercial and residential facilities, the New City will be graced with a 4.78-square-kilometer central park in the shape of a fish. Three lakes will represent the eyes, tail and fin of the fish, elements being linked by a body outline composed of the Jinhuigan River and Punan Canal. The park will have a variety of clubs, hotels, shopping streets and leisure facilities. The central idea of the design is that the New City will transform the fruits of economic growth and industrial modernization into a better life for its people.

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us