A few months ago I travelled to the ancient Chinese water town of Xitang, situated south west of Shanghai, in Jiashan County, Zhejiang Province.
China’s Grand Canal was one of the remarkable achievements of the ancient world. Over 1,000 miles of canal were built with some sections dating back to 400 BC. To the west of Shanghai the natural waterways and lakes were harnessed to make the most of the canals, and countless towns spread along the trading route.
There are seven ancient ‘water towns’ still in existence in the vicinity of Shanghai, of which Xitang is one. Nine rivers converge in Xitang, dividing the town naturally into eight sections, although many beautiful bridges link the different areas of the water town together. In the ancient world, Xitang was known as “Nine Dragon Old Pearl”, and “Wind From Eight Sides” reflecting the nine rivers and eight sections of the town. Xitang is truly ancient, dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476 BC – 221 BC) and was a place of strategic importance on the boundary of the Wu and Yue states. The town includes many buildings from the Ming and Qing (but mercifully not yet the Bling) Dynasties. Some of the chase scenes from the film ‘Mission Impossible III’ were shot in Xitang.
Boatmen cruise the waterways of the town, keeping them clear of aquatic plants and debris, presumably as they have done for centuries. Their craft are simple, traditional wooden skiffs which they propel and steer expertly from a standing position along the river with a pole to which wooden blade has been bound, forming a crude oar. They use a pole and net to clear the water, collecting the fruits of their labours in a wicker basket normally placed at the front of the skiff. Invariably wearing a straw hat to protect them from the strong summer sun, these boatmen were an ever-present feature of the two days I spent exploring Xitang.
Shortly after I arrived on the first day, a storm blew up, bringing torrential rain to the town which lasted perhaps twenty minutes. The boatman in this photograph found shelter under one of the ancient and beautiful stone bridges in the town while he patiently waited out the storm.
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