Soft, flowing spring looks find the perfect backdrop in Nanxun, a well-preserved water town on China’s ancient Grand Canal.
Photographs and creative direction by Todd Anthony Tyler.
A graceful union of arched bridges, narrow lanes, and sun-dappled pavilions, Nanxun looks like it slipped off the canvas of a Chinese ink painting. Less than 100 kilometers west of Shanghai on the southern edge of Lake Tai, it’s among a handful of water towns clustered around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
Nanxun stands out from the rest, however, for the fact that it is still relatively tourist-free, despite its wealth of well-preserved Qing- and Ming-era villas designed with an unusual mix of Chinese and European architectural styles. It’s a telling reminder of the global reach of the traders who once lived here, and the treasures and sensibilities they brought home from their travels abroad.
Gondolas drift along willow-draped canals, offering a glimpse into mansions and estates built by wealthy silk and salt merchants including Liu Yong. Yong’s legacy lives on at his erstwhile private garden, Little Lotus Villa, replete with bamboo groves, an immense lotus pond, and colorful paifang (memorial archways).
A gondola is also the best way to explore Baijian Lou (“One Hundred Rooms”), so named for the 100 interconnected Ming dynasty row houses—reportedly built by official Dong Fen for his family’s servants—that line the water.
Entrance tickets to Nanxun give you access to both sites as well as Zhang Shiming Jiuzhai, a grand 1905 manor for another wealthy businessman.
Legend has it that stonemasons and artisans toiled for six years to craft the property’s 200-plus rooms, some with quintessentially Chinese flourishes—lattice windows, carved stone doorways—and others distinctly Western in style with French mosaic flooring, Roman columns, and wrought-iron banisters.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Just Add Water”).