Jiangnan, meaning “south of the river” refers to the region of Eastern China just south of the Yangtze River. This area includes Shanghai, the southern part of Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and the northern part of Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. It is traditionally an area of merchants and artisans, and so has some of the most beautiful gardens and canal towns in all of China. The areas dialect, known as Wu, is a soft and elegant dialect of Chinese, which preserves more classical grammar and vocabulary than Mandarin. Some of China’s greatest luxuries have call this area home, such as tea, silk and porcelain. Marco Polo even referred to this area as “above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou”.
The great thing about this area, is most places are easily accessible as day day trips from Shanghai, although I would recommend staying the night in a traditional guest house to really feel the local environment. To learn more about China, check out some of my top recommended books.
While Shanghai is not “typical Jiangnan”, it is most likely to be your first stop on a trip to the area, being the largest city and having one of the main airports in China, as well as being the main hub for transport. The city itself has a lot to offer, there is much more to it than just a modern metropolis. Built around Huangpu river, one on side you have The Bund, a haven of colonial architecture, with many banks and upscale hotels and restaurants built by western imperialists at the beginning of the 20th century. On the other side, you have Pudong, the modern face of China. Huge glass skyscrapers and neon lights. Delving further into the city you have cultural areas such as Xintiandi and Tianzi Fang which are built in a blend of Eastern and Western design. These areas were traditionally home to artists and writers, as well as Shanghai’s notorious 1930s gangsters. What many people don’t know is that on the outskirts of the city are some very beautiful canal towns, accessible within 1 hour of the city centre, such as Jinxi, Qibao, Zhujiajiao and Fengjing.
The city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province is what you think of when you imagine China. Old whitewashed building built around canals where small boats ferry people around the town, and beautiful gardens where poets and scholars would gather. Suzhou is the historic
centre of the whole region and the dialect spoken here is regarded as the “prestige dialect” of the Jiangnan area. many crafts can be found here, such as silk, sandalwood fans, embroidery and snuff bottles (which are painted from the inside).
Suzhou is also very close to Lake Tai, another scenic area with many small villages and towns around. The famous Bi Luo Chun green tea is grown here. There are many canal towns nearby, such as Wuxi, Tongli and Zhouzhuang.
Situated on the side of the legendary West Lake, Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in China. Provincial Capital of Zhejiang, Hangzhou is a centre for culture and Buddhism in China. Indeed there are many old temples all around the West Lake, as well as countless pavilions and teahouses. You could spend days just wondering around the perimeter of the West Lake, or hiking in the hills and still not see everything. Long Jing, the most famous and prized green tea in China is grown here, and no visit is complete without sampling a pot of it.
The capital of Jiangsu province, and also the capital of China during the Ming Dynasty, as well as during the Republican period (early 20th century). Nanjing has the charm of the typical Jiangnan style, while also having many Imperial relics, such as the Ming Dynasty Tombs, the ruins of a large palace complex, and also many sites related to the early 20th century, such as the Mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen, founding father of modern China, and the moving Memorial for the Massacre of Nanjing which details Japanese atrocities as well as pays respect to the dead. The city is a must see for Chinese history buffs, and is also a pleasant and laidback place for others, with enough sites to keep you entertained for several days. Unfortunately it seems to be off most people radars.
Putuo Shan 普陀山
An island off the coast of Zhejiang province, Putuo Shan is regarded as the earthly abode of th Boddhisattva Guan Yin and is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. On the surface the island is fairly commercial, however it is easy to get off the beaten track and find many smaller secluded temples, where the monks and nuns are very welcoming. The island gets very few foreign tourists, so you need some basic Chinese at least to get around. If your Chinese is fairly decent, you can really get a lot out of visiting here, as many temples will allow you to join in services or meditation, just try your luck and ask around.
A much less visited, but highly interesting place is the region of Taizhou, in southern Zhejiang province. A well preserved old town with few tourists, and its own “southern Great Wall” make this a unique destination. The nearby mountains of Tiantai are full of important Buddhist and Taoist sites, as well as beautiful hikes in remote mountains. The rural areas surrounding Taizhou have many beautiful old villages, which are a good chance to see many rural customs and festivals rarely seen in China nowadays.