Wuzhen Water Town and Chinese Calligraphy

There is always a surprise waiting around the corner!

Turning the corner, I stopped perplexed, wondering whether I was dreaming a little. Had I just gone back in time or was this just yet another surprise China had in store for me? I walked on, curiously looking around, convinced I'd mistakenly walked onto a very well constructed movie set. This was China after all and I'd heard of stranger things happening. Chuckling to myself, I shock my head and tentatively entered one of the buildings, snooping around the corners and the back garden...

Google Maps screenshot A=Hangzhou / B=Wuzhen / C=Shanghai

WUZHEN (乌镇 / Wū ZhènWater Town is tucked way in Tongxiang, in the northern part of Zhejiang Province. It is about a stone's throw from Hangzhou City. I say a stone's throw because considering the size of China, one could almost say Wuzhen is Hangzhou's next door neighbour. I would love to say that you can't miss Wuzhen if you drive from Hangzhou to Shanghai but I can't. While we did drive from Hangzhou to Shanghai, I napped for most of the trip so I'm unable to give any accurate directions.

I can let you in on a secret though. The drive is pretty boring. An empty Chinese motorway really doesn't have much flair. I did look up at the sky for a while, but my quest for a little glimpse of the blue stuff turned out to be fruitless waste of time. Should have known better. Sleeping seemed like a much more sensible option. Besides listening to my tour guide and my driver jabber away in Shanghainese gave me a headache. If there is one dialect that I cannot stand than it's got to be Shanghainese. It makes zero sense but we can tackle that subject in a separate post.

Wuzhen is a curious place. It covers an area of roughly 72 square kilometres so it isn't exactly a small place, yet the narrow streets, traditional houses, canals, boats and the general life style don't really give away much of the town's actual size. My tour guide suggested that I spend at least three hours walking around the town to give me plenty of time to explore everything as well as do some shopping. I gave up after an hour and a half and asked if we count continue our road trip towards Shanghai. Why? I'll be honest with you. I was far too excited at the prospect of meeting the lovely Fiona of Life On Nanchang Lu who fed me delicious street food and MaryAnne of An Impractical Guide To Living In Shanghai who was waiting for her tea delivery.

It took me FIVE minutes to figure out that the poster offered German in addition to English, Chinese and Korean. Fail.

The 'harbour'
Apparently, in ancient times some insane Chinese athletic would use this pole to perform some mad tricks to amuse the crowds. At least that's what my tour guide said to me...
Fancy a canal cruise?
Traditional silk dyeing. These dyed pieces of cloth are hung up on these massive wooden clothing lines (I do wonder how they get them up there?) and left to dry until they continue to make all sorts of clothes out of the finished material.
One of the slightly wider 'main' streets of Wuzhen. There were hardly any foreigners there so I was a bit of an attraction. My Chinese fan club is very devoted and supportive.

An edited version of one of the above photos, I love the colours.

I would not recommend walking along there if you had a couple drinks, you might end up going for an unplanned swim. Not that this is essentially a bad thing, Wuzhen in mid-June is HOT.

An old library. I have been assured that they originally had a lot more books and scrolls in this place but because these pesky tourists always have to touch everything they took loads of it away. Somebody teach those pesky tourists some manners!

The 'main' canal. You can walk along either side or take a boat. Alternatively you could probably also swim but I wouldn't recommend that, who knows what's in that water.

Amazing wood carvings. I still have to figure out what this thing actually is though.

Main square, surrounded by a roofed walk way and benches. I get it, after all that walking, shopping and eating I'd need a rest too. In fact I did have a rest but not for long. It's kind of difficult to find your Zen when there's a ton of people taking photos of you. I do love my fan club but every now and even even a celebrity needs a little rest.

Traditional Chinese Opera building. Unfortunately they don't show performances there anymore but it's a great location for photos.

Whoever can identify how many different materials they used to build his house will get a prize.

Fancy chilling out with a cold drink while somebody else works to get you from A to B?

I've no idea where this path leads to but this bamboo forest looks amazing. It's not nearly as impressive as what I've seen while hiking up Tianmu Mountain but it's still pretty cool.

If you really just want to chill, away from prying eyes, I've the perfect place for you. This beautiful building is situated right along the canal and is perfect to recharge your batteries, watch the world go by and have some food.

Wuzhen Town has a proper shopping street where you can buy loads of intriguing things. Naturally they have the typical tourist stuff but they also have traditionally dyed silk clothing, beautifully designed fans, old postcards, sweet shops full of traditional Chinese sweets (Some of them are made right in front of your eyes and you can try all of them. In fact you won't really escape the shop owner without trying so be prepared.), enough tea to last you three lifetimes and a ton of other things that I couldn't possibly begin to list her. There's also a proper food street with one restaurant next to the other and the restaurant owners will shamelessly use all of their charm to get you to come inside to eat.

If you really don't want to eat, you will have to be sneaky about otherwise you will find yourself inside the restaurant after the owner opened the door for you and pushed you inside and once inside a waitress will walk you to a table and push a menu into your hands so quickly that you won't even have time to gather your thoughts. I managed to zig-zag in-between all the shop owners to avoid being escorted inside but only just about. I must credit my guide also, he managed to fend quite a few restaurant owners off. I tell you now, with all the delicious scents wafting at you from every corner and every window as well as all the food that they cook right outside the restaurant and before your eyes, you will get weak. You will want to give in. You will give in. I honestly don't know how I managed to hold out but I like to tell myself that I had my mind firmly set on Shanghai dumplings.

Like I already mentioned, if you want to spend money in Wuzhen you will have no problem doing so, the shop owners will be happy to help you out. I did some shopping (mainly sweets and some presents) but I didn't exactly go crazy...up until I found a shop where you can buy hand-written scrolls with stunning Chinese scenery (think Huangshan, etc) or classic Tang Dynasty poetry. The shop owner will also write you a customised scroll if you have a proverb, poem or idiom you are particularly fond of. He will also write your English name in Chinese characters or simply write your Chinese name, should you have one.

福 (fú) blessing, good fortune
I love this character, it's one of my favourite Chinese characters though I can't quite explain why. Whenever I see it, I just have to take a photo.

The scroll shop instantly intrigued me. I have a very big soft spot for Chinese characters in general, but especially for calligraphy (书法 / shūfǎ). I have yet to dip my toes into writing Chinese characters the traditional way using a brush and ink but I cannot wait to get the chance to do so.

Sometime last year I watched a truly amazing video on Chinese calligraphy on YouTube after somebody posted the link on Twitter but for the life of me I cannot find it now. The beauty of it brought tears to eyes and even though I appreciate Chinese characters very much I fell in love with them all over again watching that video.

So. Long story short, after a little hesitation (I did want to go on to Shanghai) I eventually gave in and went over to the scroll shop. The owner and his wife greeted me with poor English and I responded in Chinese. They both smiled and we chatted for a while. I mentioned that I would love to have a scroll with my Chinese name on it. The owner asked me what my name was and I told him. At first he didn't get it, so I spelled it out for him: (韩国的韩,香港的香,浮萍的萍). He told me he thought my name was very beautiful and that suited me perfectly (What a charmer!). He also asked me whether I could write it, so I did. He laughed when I said that I can only write using traditional characters and said it didn't matter, he could read it.

After his wife helped me to pick out a suitable scroll, the owner suggested to write a poem for me instead of simply writing my name. I asked him if he could come up with a poem that quickly and he laughed and asked me to give him a minute.

This is what he came up with:

Hányuànjǐng zhǎng xīn
Xiāng chuán wàn lǐchéng
Píng qīng bié yǒu tiān
Lìzhì cáiyì jīng

My teacher and I spent an hour trying to translate this poem, finding the right words in English wasn't all that easy. This is the translation we eventually agreed on:

The garden of the Han's is forever lively,
The scent spreads a thousand miles away,
Her purity, beauty and talent,
Are exceptional.

Translating the words isn't especially difficult as such, but I insisted that we produce an English translation that makes sense. Let's just say that while translating Chinese is fun, it also gives you a headache if you can't make sense of the intended meaning. I love it when I look at a Chinese sentence and just know the meaning. When I have to translate it to understand what it's supposed to mean it sometimes just wrecks my head.

Before I show you an actual photo of the scroll, I just want to say that I'm not actually particularly happy with the writing. I asked the owner whether he would be able to write it using traditional Chinese characters. Considering that the guy specialises in scroll writing this was a fair enough question. He assured me that he could and that it wouldn't be a problem. I was a bit distracted while he was writing, otherwise I would have noticed it sooner, but what he actually wrote is in part neither traditional Chinese nor simplified Chinese because he didn't get the stroke order right. While the scroll isn't completely ruined, I have learned my lesson. Next time I want a scroll written in traditional Chinese I will go to Taiwan!