Did you know that China is crossed with many waterways, channels and rivers? If you’d like to see them for yourself, head to Zhujiajiao and dive into its over 1700 years-history! It’s an ancient water town in the Qingpu District of Shanghai, once one of the biggest towns to the south of Yangtze River.
Zhujiajiao’s history can be traced back to the Neolithic era, it has been a trade centre for centuries before it reached peak during the rule of late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and continued to be an important marketplace in the Qin dynasty (1644-1912) too. The nicknames of Zhujiajiao are quite poetic – Venice of Shanghai and the Pearl Stream, both reflecting the abundance of water canals. The number of bridges is proportional – there are 36 of them!
1. Shop at the Bei Dajie
Take a stroll along the main street of the Zhujiajiao – Bei Dajie, or the North Street! First of all, it’s still a picturesque stone-paved old street with houses of white walls and black tiles on the roofs although it has a heavy tourist twist. Secondly, it’s flanked with nice cafes and shops – don’t hesitate to try local fruit tea (I’m not sure whether it’s correct to call this drink tea though) and if you like cooking take some spices home!
Tip: take a look at local craft shops too – you’ll be able to find everything there from hair combs to calligraphy! Not sure whether they are worth buying there though as it’s crystal clear that Zhujiajiao is a tourist spot, so the items might be overpriced.
2. Get some Zhujiajiao’s pearls
You can get a very unique experience of choosing a giant oyster in one of the special stores and get a jewelry (for instance, earrings or necklace) of your choice done right there on the place!
The locals swear that all the pearls are natural but to be honest I have some doubts about this as there are too many perfectly round and big pearls in each oyster cracked. Nevertheless, it was a ton of fun!
3. Try zongzi and other delicacies
Zongzi might be the most famous local food but you can try not only in Zhujiajiao. It’s a portion of sticky dark rice with meat cooked in pork fat and wrapped in leaves. You can spot many locals who make these rice-filled envelopes right in front of you.
Zongzi are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival. There was a legend that many centuries ago poet Qu Yuan after failing (as he thought) to fulfil his duty to his king drowned himself in a river. After that, according to one of the versions of this legend, one of the fishermen dreamed that Qu Yuan came to him and asked to protect his body from fish who were eating it. And then people decided to throw small envelopes of rice into the water to distract the fish. That’s how the tradition of making Zongzi was born.
There are many other delicacies that you can try in Zhujiajiao but I must warn you that you might not like some of the local foods 🙂 So, there are many variations of dumplings, stinky tofu (this name is very appropriate to this dish, hehe) and five-spice tofu, rose-flavored fermented bean curd, meat wrapped in leaves called Zarou, lotus roots, lots of hawthorn teas and caramelized sweets (called tanghulu), which you can find everywhere in Shanghai, fantasy lollipops, chewy Niupi Candy aka Niupi tang and other foods.
Tip: Our guide has strongly advised us not to try scorpios and other shocking foods made for tourists: usually they are not fresh as they stay on the display for a very long time and you might get sick from it.
4. Cross the Fangsheng Bridge
Fangsheng Bridge across the Caogang River can be easily called the main landmark of Zhujiajiao, and it’s definitely the best known bridge out of 36 out there! It’s 70 meters long, quite wide too and has 5 round arches – and originally it dates back to the late 16th century (it was rebuilt around 1812). Name ‘Fangsheng’ refers to ‘’‘setting free’ because there was a Buddhist tradition of releasing animals and live fish on this site as a sign of mercy.
5. Fall in love with Kezhi Yuan
Kezhi Yuan, or the Kezhi Gardens, built in the beginning of the 20th century is a perfect example of a manor with a garden. ‘Keshi’ itself reflects the purpose of the manor: it means ‘farming is carried out together with reading and learning’.
Its owner Ma Wenqing whose family was involved in the salt trade for generations was one of the richest men in Zhujiajiao but it was unclear to us what had happened to him: some sources say that he died there, others – that was forced to flee the country with all the regime changes.
You can explore the living area for Ma Wenqing, his wives and daughters as well as the garden (where you can get a few agricultural insights) and the artificial hill. Take your time, feed carps and explore the magnificence of this place including the five-story pavilion (once the tallest building in this area), Zigzag Bridge and Baifu Pavilion with the bats carved inside (bats symbolize happiness and longevity).
6. Admire the Yuan Jin Buddhist Temple
Yuan Jin Buddhist Temple in Zhujiajiao built in 1341 is no doubt one of the architectural gems of Zhujiajiao. You can enter to see its halls inside but the best view of it is probably from the boat and you can also admire the panorama of the watertown from it too.
Interesting: Possibly, the second most known temple there is a Taoist one called Chenghuangmiao, or the Town God Temple where you can see ‘The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea’.
7. Have a glance inside TongTianHe Pharmacy
I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard about the traditional Chinese medicine, and, although I don’t think one should give it a try (sorry guys, I’m on the evidence-based science side), it was really interesting to see how an over 100 years old pharmacy looked like with all these jars, pots and drawers! The Pharmacy was founded by Mr.Tong from Ningbo city during the rule of Qing dynasty.
8. Take a Boat Ride
And finally, I cannot recommend you enough to take a boat ride – you’re in the Venice of Shanghai, so get ready to take a gondola ride! There are ones for the long distance and some for the short distance, and there are several places where you can get the paddle boat – we got ours near the Fangsheng Bridge. Otherwise, you can take a cruise.
Actually, the views of Zhujiajiao from the water should be amazing in both cases! And you clearly see why Zhujiajiao is compared to Venice – just look at the photos below!
What else to see in Zhujiajiao?
If you have spare time, think about visiting the Qing post office (one of the best preserved post offices of that era in China!), Zhujiajiao Culture and Art museum (near the entrance to the town), Ah Po’s Tea House and the Handcraft Exhibition Hall!
How to get there?
You can get to the Venice of Shanghai by metro, by bus and by taxi.
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Anna | London & Beyond
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