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    Discovering Shanghai’s Jiangnan Culture Through Ancient Towns

    A new book series aims to showcase China’s ancient Jiangnan culture through the relics, structures, and traditional customs that still endure today.

    Editor’s note: “Ancient Towns in Shanghai” is the first installment in a series of books under the banner “Jiangnan from the Perspective of Cultural Relics” produced by the Shanghai Cultural Heritage Conservation and Research Center and published by Tongji University Press. The book features 11 historical towns, focusing on their origins and cultural connotations. The following is an excerpt:

    Jiangnan, literally “south of the river,” is the name given to the region south of the lower reaches of China’s Yangtze River, and is one of three major cultural brands in Shanghai, holding profound connotations and timeless charm. From historical towns to ancient architecture, Shanghai has long nurtured its unique Jiangnan cultural characteristics. The “Jiangnan from the Perspective of Cultural Relics” series explores this culture from six aspects: old towns, gardens, bridges, pagodas, temples and halls, and traditional residences. The first book in the series, “Ancient Towns in Shanghai,” looks at the essence of Jiangnan culture to better understand the city’s evolution into the bustling metropolis we see today.

    Shanghai’s coastline along the East China Sea began taking shape more than 6,000 years ago, spanning today’s districts of Jiading, Qingpu, Songjiang, Minhang, and Jinshan. In the Qin and Western Han dynasties, around 200 B.C., the area was part of the Kuaiji commandery, with the name “Huating” — now modern-day Songjiang District — first appearing in historical records during the subsequent Eastern Han dynasty, which is when farming and water conservancy activities began to develop in the region.

    The region prospered in the Tang dynasty (618–907), especially in places around the Wusong River, such as Qinglong Port and the urban center of the then Songjiang prefecture, as well as Jiading County to the north. The areas today comprising Pudong and Fengxian districts gradually developed salt fields and saw construction of military garrisons. With rivers serving as the main transportation routes, trading hubs formed, and stores and residences were built along the waterfront, gradually developing into traditional market towns during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

    Most of these market towns were engaged in cotton textiles and rice production, with some becoming regional trade centers, such as Zhujiajiao and Fengjing. Pudong’s market towns profited from salt production, fishing, agriculture, and textiles due to their coastal location.

    The environment and economic structure of these market towns shaped their layouts, urban development, and architectural styles. Trade activities led to the formation of long streets, while the developed water systems resulted in the construction of bridges, docks, and embankments. The integration of urban architecture with rivers, water systems, and fields added a diverse and intricate texture to Jiangnan market towns. Residential buildings mainly exhibited the typical Jiangnan style, with whitewashed walls and gray tiles. Later, due to population migration and commercial exchanges, architectural elements such as the Huizhou horse head wall and folding screen walls began to be incorporated, showcasing Shanghai’s open and inclusive nature. After the opening of the Qinglong Port, building materials used in the West, including colored glass and mosaic tiles, were also introduced and adopted, presenting a cultural characteristic of “fusing East and West.”

    While material civilization was taking shape in the Shanghai area, spiritual civilization in the form of art and literature was also developing. Huating was the birthplace of the literary figures Lu Ji and Lu Yun, while Qinglong was home to renowned artisans and intellectuals such as Su Shi and Mi Fu. The Songjiang Painting School, led by Dong Qichang (1555–1636), dominated the art world in the late Ming era with its open and detached style, profoundly influencing the direction of Chinese painting.

    The city’s culture is also reflected in intangible cultural heritage such as festivals, handicrafts, cuisine, and clothing. The farm song of Qingpu, bamboo carving of Jiading, straw weaving of Xuhang, steamed xiaolong buns of Nanxiang, woolen embroidery of Gaoqiao, and dragon boat rituals of Luodian demonstrate not only the lifestyle, mindset, and aesthetic taste of the Shanghai area in ancient times but also the cultural characteristics of its market towns, which were influenced by agrarian civilization and incorporated elements of maritime civilization.

    Some of Shanghai’s traditional towns have endured, mostly in Jinshan, Qingpu, Pudong, Jiading, and Baoshan. These include 11 well-preserved sites with rich historical value that, since 2015, have been honored as “national famous historical and cultural towns.” In addition to presenting historical context, the towns form an essential part of Shanghai’s urban character and the foundation for its future, playing an important role in shaping the city’s spirit and enhancing its soft power.

    In recent years, the municipal authorities in Shanghai have explored and promoted ways to enable residents and visitors to explore the city’s history and experience its cultural imprints by “reading its architecture.” “Ancient Towns in Shanghai” compiles the historical origin, cultural connotations, and value of these ancient towns, introduces key cultural relics, and combines photos and drawings to objectively present the Jiangnan culture in multiple contexts. It hopes to capture Jiangnan’s ancient towns as well as stories of Shanghai’s past, allowing the city’s charm to be enjoyed around the world.

    Zhujiajiao Town

    Zhujiajiao Town, nestled on the shore of Shanghai’s western Dianshan Lake, is known as the “Pearl of Jiangnan” and boasts many rivers and bridges, as well as buildings and cultural relics from the Ming and Qing dynasties. A prosperous market town, shops of various sizes line both sides of its main streets. Walking in its ancient lanes and alleyways, winding paths lead to large houses where many celebrities and scholars were born and raised.

    The land on which the town stands is believed to have risen from the water around 7,000 years ago. The area already had village communities during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.), and in the Song and Yuan dynasties it was home to a marketplace known as Zhujiacun.

    The buildings in Zhujiajiao are mostly characterized by gray tiles and white walls, although a few homes have been renovated since the first half of the 20th century using Western-style tiles.

    Zhujiajiao is known for its farm song of Qingpu, recognized as a Chinese national intangible cultural heritage. It is also home to a traditional boat-rocking activity, the Handalong sauce and fermented pickle shop, a unique form of martial arts, the “bull horn dance,” and straw weaving.

    Fangsheng Bridge

    Initially built in 1571, in the early reign of the Ming dynasty’s Emperor Longqing, and later reconstructed in 1812 during the Qing dynasty, Fangsheng Bridge is the largest, longest, and highest five-arch stone bridge remaining in Shanghai today.

    This grand and delicately designed bridge spans the Caogang River at the eastern end of Zhujiajiao. Its stone carvings exhibit exceptional craftsmanship, and on the east side of the southern end is a pavilion with three inscribed steles.

    Kezhi Garden

    Kezhi Garden is the largest manor-style garden architecture in the ancient town and consists of three parts: the hall, the rockery, and the garden. Its unique layout includes more than 200 buildings and living quarters.

    Chenghuang Temple

    Chenghuang Temple is dedicated to the City God, who is believed to protect the local area and its people. It originally stood in the south of Zhujiajiao Town, beside Xuejia Creek. However, in 1763, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it was relocated to its current location.

    The elegant layout features 12 main attractions, with the main gate, a stage, and a hall, with wing rooms to the sides located in the center. In January 1964, the rear hall and the bedchambers were burned down. By 1985, the pavilions, towers, rockeries, and water ponds had also disappeared, but the main buildings remain relatively intact.

    Former Site of the Qing Dynasty Post Office

    The site was initially established as a private communication station during the time of the Qing Emperor Tongzhi (1862–74). Later, shortly before the end of the 19th century, the imperial court of Emperor Guangxu established a national postal service, and the site began handling all mail services in the Shanghai area.

    The two-story brick and wood structure faces north. It has three bays and features a European-style exterior façade, covering an area of about 70 square meters. Outside the main entrance is a bronze-cast dragon-shaped mailbox, an imitation of the kind used during the Qing era.

    Dongjing Teahouse

    Built in the late Qing dynasty, the Dongjing Teahouse was once the Dagong Fair Rice Store. This brick and wood structure faces north and consists of front and back buildings connected on both sides. Both the upper and lower levels of the south side have six windows with flower-embedded glass, while the north side has a brick-carved ceremonial gate. It has Guanyin gable walls and colonnades front and back, with palace-style hanging ornaments in its galleries.

    Tongtianhe Chinese Pharmacy

    Tongtianhe Chinese Pharmacy is the oldest pharmacy in Zhujiajiao Town. It was established by the wealthy Tong, a merchant family from Ningbo in the eastern Zhejiang province, during the Qing dynasty.

    The building faces west and has an irregular two-story, two-yard layout. It gradually decreases in size toward the east, with small courtyards front and back, covering more than 200 square meters. The storefront facing the street features a tall firewall, with a traditional shikumen entrance in the middle, above which are five golden characters that read “Tongtianhe Chinese Pharmacy.”

    The building has well-preserved traditional counters, medicinal utensils, and medicine cabinets, embodying the traditional style and appearance of an ancient Chinese pharmacy. Many well-known doctors of traditional Chinese medicine practiced here, including Jin Naisheng and Ye Zhilian.

    Handalong Sauce and Pickle Shop

    The shop, established in the early 1900s, has a typical design, with a store in front and a workshop to the rear. This west-facing brick and wood structure today includes a front room, wing rooms, and back rooms, covering 250 square meters. The entrance of the so-called “Sauce Garden” is a large firewall with a shikumen entrance, adorned with a black double gate with iron nails. The colonnades of its two-story, three-bayed wing rooms are connected to galleries in the front and back rooms, forming a corridor, with a second courtyard in between.

    Xi Family Residence

    The Xi Family Residence was built between 1522 and 1566, during the Jiajing period of the Ming dynasty. Later, the family’s descendants relocated from East Dongting Hill to Jiaoli, and by the 1930s, they had reached their 10th generation, with a genealogical record of 27 branches and hundreds of members. Notable figures from the family include Xi Yuqi, the founder of the Shenbao newspaper; Xi Yufu, a newspaper tycoon; and the Qing mathematician Xi Gan.

    The residence faces north, covering a total area of 229 square meters. The surviving parts include the front hall, a brick-carved ceremonial gate, and front and back courtyards. The walls surrounding the front courtyard are adorned with intricate brick-carved patterns, and there is a veranda behind the hall. The pillars of the ceremonial gate feature water-grinded square bricks and are intricately carved with auspicious patterns.

    This article is an edited excerpt from the book “Jiangnan from the Perspective of Cultural Relics: Ancient Towns in Shanghai,” published by Tongji University Press in 2024. It is republished here with permission.

    Editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao; contributions: Strapko Nastassia.

    (In-text images: Courtesy of Tongji University Press)

    (Header image: An aerial view of Zhujiajiao, Shanghai, 2019. VCG)