Wuxi must have been transformed beyond recognition in recent decades. One Chinese website devoted to images of mid twentieth-century Wuxi reveals a whole street selling bamboo wares, a three-kilometre long rice market, a district of kilns for pottery-making and an incredible fifty major ferry docks for boats on the Grand Canal. It was a city of narrow alleyways of whitewashed houses, with intricate wooden latticework on the upper stories, a street where entertainment often took the form of traditional Chinese opera performed on a wooden stage. Very little of that city now remains; the modern city is an industrial powerhouse with rows of multi-storey apartment blocks housing the resident population. But if you want to a glimpse of the lost world of Old Wuxi, there are still a few traces along the arm of the Grand Canal which stretches from Nanchan Temple to the Qingming Bridge. This now-gentrified district is central Wuxi’s premier historical attraction.
The first attraction in this district is the Nanchan Temple, one of central Wuxi’s two remaining temples. Set in the heart of downtown Wuxi among the hubbub of traffic, it is a colourful addition to a city drowning in concrete. Attractive from outside and in, the outer walls are a striking mustard-yellow. Even more noticeable is Miaoguang Tower, the ancient bell-tower besides the temple. Dating back 900 years to the Sung Dynasty, this nine-storey, brick and timber tower was almost destroyed in the final years of the Cultural Revolution. Today it is hung with colorful prayer flags, a sign of the revival of religion in modern China. Inside the temple boasts massive incense burners and a large prayer hall featuring massive deities. Colorful altar cloths hang down from the ceiling, embroidered with dragons and phoenixes. Unless you want to climb the bell-tower, a visit to the temple is free, which makes a pleasant change from most tourist sights in China.
After visiting Nanchan Temple, the obvious next move is to wander down Nanchan Lu, the road which forms the core of Wuxi’s gentrified old town. Although much of the tourist literature on Wuxi will mention that it dates back 2500 years, what you see on display here is a restored neighborhood from the Qing Dynasty. Here you will former houses, wine taverns, artisan’s workshops and warehouses converted into cafes, restaurants and souvenir stalls. Authentic old stone and timber buildings are mixed with some concrete reproductions, but overall the effect is pleasing, and this is one of the more attractive “old streets” in Jiangsu. Most people come here just to drink overpriced coffees and green teas, but for people looking for a more educational experience, about halfway along Nanchan Lu is the Silk Museum, housed in a handsome old stone building. Apart from this, you could always rent one of the boats for a ride along the stone-lined canals.
At the far end of the “old street” is the districts most celebrated attraction, the Ming Dynasty era Qingming Bridge. Dating to the late sixteenth century, it is the largest and best-preserved stone arch bridge in Wuxi. At over eight metres tall and over forty-three metres long, it is both impressive in its size and elegant in its design. It is named after the Qingming Festival, often translated in English as “Tomb-Sweeping Day”, but for Chinese tourists its name also recalls the most famous of all Chinese scroll paintings, the magnificent Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Sung Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan. There is one particular panel of this five-metre long silk scroll which shows a teeming bridge scene. Everything about this panel- the barges in the canal, the bustling streets filled with merchant’s carts, and the graceful arch of the bridge itself- must have been similar to the scene in this part of Wuxi during the Ming Dynasty. Chinese travellers are said to be mindful of the scroll when gazing upon the Qingming Bridge here.