Jiangsu's Water Towns

The Jiāngnán area of eastern China refers roughly to the Yangzi delta region and encompasses southern Jiāngsū, western Shānghǎi and northern Zhèjiāng. It is a land of water where, over thousands of years, people have learnt to live with, and on, the area’s lakes, rivers and streams.

From as early as the 11th century, a network of towns connected by watercourses had developed, while from the 13th century on, during the Song dynasty, these ‘water towns’ really began to thrive. They became important trade routes for silk and other goods, transforming Jiāngnán into one of the most prosperous areas of China. With prosperity came sophisticated town planning and architecture, and the towns’ distinctive whitewashed houses, charming arched stone bridges and weeping willows growing gracefully along neat canals, inspired romantic poems, featured in exquisite works of art, and became home to some of China’s most influential and affluent people.

Nowadays, while much of the region has succumbed to modern development, the ancient centres of many water towns, such as Tónglǐ and Zhōuzhuāng, remain charmingly intact. Despite many having become tourist hotspots, they retain their nostalgic beauty and are especially appealing early in the morning or late at night. Many of the towns still house a significant population of residents who have maintained their waterside lifestyles, still using the rivers to wash clothes, catch food and for transportation. Most of these residents are elderly, however, and like many developing areas of the world, it’s unclear how long these traditional ways of life will continue. Visit soon to catch a glimpse of these ancient lifestyles and maybe just fall for the wistful charms of Jiāngnán’s water towns.