‘Venice of the East’: Charming water villages in China

CHINA is known for many things: sports, politics, economy, military, art, and above all history.

We’ve heard over and over about the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall of China (not to be confused with the great firewall of China), the terracotta army, the giant pandas (the emblem of China), Chinese cuisine, and the variety of teas, just to name a few.

But there’s one thing that doesn’t get enough attention – China’s ancient water villages.

China’s mystical “triangle” of water villages or towns comprises of Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. Hailed as the “Venice of the East”, these villages are surrounded by rivers, lakes and canals, and filled with rich history and well preserved buildings. Locals “commute” by maneuvering hand-controlled boats around the canal systems that tourists can also hop on.

Maybe ditch the bustling city and head on over there instead? The seasons of spring and autumn, in particular, are breathtaking. Just being there will easily transport you back to the days of ancient China, like scenes from a classic Chinese movie.

Here are seven charming water villages to visit:


Arguably the most popular of the lot, Zhouzhang was built in 1086 and lies between Lake Tai and Shanghai. There’s a good reason why it’s more commercialized than the others. Surrounded by lakes on four sides with traditional houses built on waterways, Zhouzhang offers elegant water views – especially from the top of the Quanfu Temple. About 1,000 households live in the well-preserved ancient residences built during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911) and the Republic of China era (1911 – 1949). In 2004, it was listed in the tentative list for Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Take a boat around the village to experience its unique architectural tradition and spend a little time taking in its unspoiled folk custom such as its art and crafts.

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A classic Yangtze River Delta water village with a history of over 1,000 years, the 82-acre (33.18ha) Tongli is surrounded by five lakes, including Lake Tongli. Established in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), it has a network of 15 footpath-ed canals that divides the town into seven islets, and almost every residence is built right by a canal. It has been nicknamed “Little Venice of the Oriental” for its Ming and Qing style architectures, which makes it quite picturesque.

Consider spending a full day there to check out the wedding museum and maybe treat yourself to a session of heat and incense-based massage therapy after.

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About 85km southeast of Suzhou, a major city that’s well-known for its ancient Chinese gardens, lies Xitang. Separated by nine river courses into eight islets, the water village is connected by numerous stone bridges. Xitang is also famous for its harmoniously constructed sheltered waterside streets and narrow stone lanes – the only water town that boasts such unique architecture. Among the many things to look forward to include fishing on a boat with the locals and having a meal on a boat at night. In 2005, the production team for the Tom Cruise-starring Hollywood blockbuster Mission: Impossible III flew to Xitang to shoot some scenes, putting the village on the map for potential tourists.

If you’re planning to spend a night there, take a stroll after dinner to enjoy the village’s particularly romantic night scenery.

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Once a small village called Puli, Luzhi has a history of 2,500 years with many relics and visitors have said that visiting the elegant village is like walking back through time. Among its many relics are ancient residences built in the Ming and Qing dynasties (not reconstructed, unlike other villages) as well as the old maidenhair trees. Luzhi has been nicknamed “Museum of Chinese Ancient Bridges” because of its many bridges of different styles and sizes (big multi-arched bridges, solo-arched bridges, well-ornamented bridges, twin bridges), original to the dynasties in which they were built.

In 2003, the Chinese government published a list of “Ten Famous Chinese Historical Townships”, and Luzhi was featured on the list. In 2004, Luzhi was awarded a Township Preservation Award by Unesco.

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Dubbed the “Pearl of Shanghai”, Zhujiajiao is a great place to visit if you’ve got only very little time to spare in Shanghai. The busiest water village on this list due to the constant in-pouring of visitors, it is well-endowed with waterways, 36 ancient bridges, and traditional Chinese-style residences. If you don’t mind the crowd, jump on a sightseeing boat and spend just a couple of hours there to admire Zhujiajiao’s bubbling streams and small rivers, and beautiful houses with courtyards.

Be sure to check out the “Moon View Pavilion”, a diametric pavilion that is considered the tallest architecture in the village.

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Said to be the highlight of Suzhou, Mudu is the only ancient garden village in China and home to over 30 private gardens from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The 2,500-odd years old village was built where a river was blocked by a large number of wood, hence its name which means “woods block” or “log jam” in Chinese. During the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor visited Mudu six times when he traveled around the country and according to legend, he planted several magnolia trees that exist till this day.

Because of its scenery (Mudu is surrounded mountains) and abundance in natural resources, the village has become popular filming location for China’s television series.

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Nanxun could be the most underrated of the lot as it doesn’t enjoy the same level of fame compared to the other water towns. And that’s good as it has helped the village retain its originality and ambience. Like the other villages, Nanxun is a mix of canals, bridges, ancient buildings, and narrow lanes. But what sets it apart is the architecture, which is a mix of Chinese-styled and Western-style buildings. Stay there for a recommended length of two days to really get the full effect of the quiet and rustic village. Locals are often seen just going about their day, sipping tea while playing cards beside the water, or making Chinese writing brushes.

Hang around and who knows? You may just befriend a local.

Source: Shutterstock