Zhaoxing, China: An Ancient Chinese Painting Come to Life

The beautiful town of Zhaoxing, China has sprawling old wooden houses built up on either sides of a riverbank.

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The Zhaoxing river is the heart of the quiet town. A coolness rises from its waters.

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The two biggest occupations in Zhaoxing is taking care of rice crops and indigo dyeing.

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Women drape rolls of indigo-stained cloth on wooden poles, so they can dry in the sunshine.

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Indigo cloth is also hung alongside the river.

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After the cloth has dried, women pound it with a wooden mallet for hours, until the fabric develops a deep sheen. This is the cloth they use for their traditional clothes, which were worn every day in the past, but now are only donned for special occasions, such as holidays and weddings and dance performances.

Sometimes they add oxblood to imbue the cloth with a dark crimson hue. Ever hear about a colour called “oxblood red”? Well, this is really oxblood red.

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(woman pounding indigo cloth. also of note: her hair is pulled back in one of the traditional styles worn by the dong minority.)

One of the charming details of the town is the simple paintings of daily life that decorate the eaves on the drum towers, the paneling inside the roofed flower bridges, and other public places. Look closely at the photo below to see hand-painted illustrations of the indigo dyeing process.

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All in all, the town is sleepy and relaxed.

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More often than not, walking is still the most common means of transport.

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How I found my way to Zhaoxing was . . . unexpected, and the journey to get there was difficult. My reward was finding a place that seemed lost in time, the only other tourists there being the half-dozen French people (and Chinese driver) with whom I’d hitched a ride. But the future is forcing itself on the edges of this gorgeous old town.

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me, zhaoxing.

The photo below shows people on a horse cart passing by a red truck that is in Zhaoxing to “improve” the town. One of China’s biggest failures as a country are these “improvements.” The nation is filled with so many things of historical value that get pulled down and then rebuilt bigger, newer, shinier. Just outside Zhaoxing, when I visited, was a bulldozer, and a razed area of land that appeared to be the rough foundation for a parking lot. It might not sound terribly menacing in itself, but the parking lot is obviously not needed for the  town’s residents. I imagine it is being built to accommodate large tourist buses and facilitate tourism in this currently tranquil town.

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But for now, the town remains calm, serene. Languid as the gentle river that flows through it.

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If you reach the outskirts of town, you’ll find yourself walking between verdant rice paddies, the smell of spring lightly perfuming the air.

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painting of women sowing rice

The Dong people have a long tradition of dance and music which flows through their lives.

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The indigo and oxblood processing that was covered in previous pictures? The end result can be seen in these outfits. The light reflecting against the cloth gives the oxblood leggings and tops a shimmery, coppery hue.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever return to Zhaoxing. My time spent there was so lovely, and this is how I like to remember the town, a quiet place where people end the evening dancing and singing the same songs as generations before.

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