I didn’t expect much of Wuzhen (乌镇), the well-branded water town in Tongxiang City, Zhejiang Province, when I headed there on a hectic weekend for an old-style wedding ceremony. The town is a tourist hot spot, so I assumed it would be too noisy for me to relax.
I arrived in the late afternoon, as the wedding ceremony was just about to begin. A wedding boat (喜船 xǐ chuán) decorated with red silk knots awaited the bride and groom, both dressed in traditional Chinese red wedding suits, with a bridal veil covering the bride’s head. The new couple boarded a boat, waving to the crowds on the bank as they left the dock. The boat drifted beneath several stone bridges before it stopped at a bank where a bridal sedan chair (花轿 huājiào) awaited the bride. Surrounded by blaring horns and gongs, the bride in her sedan chair passed through a narrow alley before stopping in front of the Festive Hall (喜庆堂 xǐqìng táng), a place where the couple is to perform formal bows (拜堂 bàitáng). The bride stepped out of the sedan chair, accompanied by her bridesmaid, while the groom led the way.
Crowds of people poured into the ancient hall to witness the wedding ceremony. I was pushed to the back of the crowd and could hardly catch sight of the couple. It was impossible to tell the wedding guests from the tourists. As the new couple made their traditional bows to heaven and earth, then to both parents and to each other, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman in the crowd:
“Are they shooting a TV drama?” the man asked.
“It looks like it,” the woman replied.
“No, it’s a real wedding,” I corrected. “The bride and groom are my friends.”
“Cool!” the man marveled. “How about we redo our wedding ceremony in the same way as this?” he joked to his wife.
After performing the bows, the couple walked into the bridal chamber (洞房 dòngfáng) while swarmed by the crowd. The groom lifted the veil covering the bride’s head with a chopstick-like hook scale (喜秤 xǐ chèng) and the two drank jiaobeijiu (交杯酒), which requires the couple to intertwine arms and then drink from their respective cups. It reminded me of a scene in a Zhang Yimou’s movie like “To Live” (《活着》). The groom, who grows up near Wuzhen, decides to hold his wedding ceremony in a water town to experience the way the ancient people got married. With ancient wedding chambers, stone bridges and waterways, Wuzhen provides a perfect setting for the event.
When night fell, the bustling water town gradually cooled down, except for a bar at the foot of a bridge. I took a boat to escape the noise and got lost in the sound of paddling and the shadows cast across the water’s surface. The boat moored at a local inn that looked like something you might find in a kung fu movie. On the first floor sat two or three tables and a few benches. A menu was nailed on the wall and the inn owner was sitting behind the bar. Just up the steep stairs on the second floor was a cozy bedroom with a window that overlooked the stream that stretched across the village.
The next day found the town shrouded in a curtain of steady drizzle, marking the beginning of the rainy season here, the Jiangnan area known as “plum rain” (黄梅雨 huáng méiyǔ). I killed time by sipping tea and savoring local dishes while enjoying the misty drizzle under the eaves of a small restaurant with two other friends. One friend recited a line from a Tang poem, “Stealing half-a-day’s leisure from a busy life” (偷得浮生半日闲), which perfectly described my mood.
That night, I jumped onto the high rail train and headed back to Beijing. In my mind were snapshots of Wuzhen, the city I had predicted would be too lively for proper relaxation. Instead, I felt like I had traveled back in time.
Photos by 人和视觉
Interested in more water towns? Read about one without crowds here!