My first encounter with Yangzhou began with a verse from a story written by Yin Yun (AD 471-529) - "I want millions in riches attached to my waist as I ride a crane to Yangzhou."
I imagined Yangzhou to be something like Las Vegas, where a money belt could be necessary, where everything is available for a price. There were extravagant mansions, spectacular magic shows, splendid natural scenery, elaborate artificial gardens, refined cuisine and beautiful courtesans skilled in singing, dancing, writing poetry, playing musical instruments and playing go.
It was only later that I read the entire fable, one of many similar tales around the world. Four young men happen to save an old man, who reveals himself as a god and grants each one a wish. The first man asks to become a millionaire; the second wants to become governor of prosperous Yangzhou, a position like that of Shanghai's mayor today; the third wants to become a god.
The last man, after listening to his friends, combines their wishes, saying he wants to have riches strapped to his body as he rides an auspicious crane, like a god, to Yangzhou. Gods used to be depicted riding white cranes in the clouds.
The fable warns against greed, but also shows how attractive Yangzhou was back then, and how living there could be one's lifelong dream.
There's no indication that the city was as alluring as I had imagined, even before Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (AD 569-618) committed two million men into building the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal. Some say the emperor himself favored the fashionable city, adding a personal reason to the grand construction. It helped unify the country, distribute grain to the dry north and aid in governance.
The canal made the city into one of the most important commercial centers for merchants, scholars and artists. By the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was already known to be the city with the trendiest products, best accommodations, most delicious food and most charming performances.
At that time, the city was reported to have around half a million residents, including hundreds of Persian merchants from today's Iran. Chinese poet Li Bai (AD 701-762), regarded the "god of poetry," wrote, "In the mist and flowers in March, he goes to Yangzhou."
The verse commemorates saying farewell in Beijing to a friend leaving on the canal for Yangzhou. "Mist and flowers" refers to the blossoming of hundreds of flowers and misty weather in March on the lunar calendar.
By the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), after the canal had been expanded a few times and the salt trade was opened to private merchants, the city was described as "heaven" by many who left records.
In the evening, dozens of boats, some with extravagant furnishings, plied the Slender West Lake. Some were tour boats where one could enjoy a few cups of warm rice wine and gaze at the harmonious passing scene of elegant pavilions, as well as natural beauty. Other boats featured graceful courtesans who would dance, play musical instruments and sing about the pleasures in the city.
Many houses along the L-shaped lake shore were upscale brothels and courtesans in beautiful gowns posed on balconies to attract customers. The lake area glittered with lights from boats and houses. Yangzhou was a place that never slept.
In my imagination, the city symbolized money and fun, a place of delightful decadence built by barons of the salt trade who in mansions along the Slender West Lake.
Thus, I was rather surprised on my first visit to the city - its quiet didn't live up to my expectations, especially at night. Most of the places described in old records are now tourist attractions and are closed in the evenings.
I did take a boat tour at night, not on the Slender West Lake, but along an ancient stretch of the Grand Canal inside the city, one of China's best-preserved stretches of canal.
Since the 1980s, the local government has spent millions to relocate polluting factories and crowded houses along the canal. It cleaned the water, planted trees, built parks and playgrounds and installed colorful lights. The stretch is no longer used for transport, except for sightseeing boats, so it was a very quiet tour. It's hard to imagine how congested and boisterous it once was. But there still are people on the banks, a sharp contrast with the quiet canal, beautiful in its simplicity after its mercantile past has been washed away.
At times, the trees and flowers on the banks remind me of verses from ancient poems describing the "flowery" city. The traditional style of renovated old Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty buildings help me imagine the canal's past glory.
After the government relinquished its monopoly on the salt trade, entrepreneurs became fabulously wealthy and built mansions for themselves and their extended families.
Visitors can still get a sense of those times by visiting classical gardens or parts of gardens built by these merchants. Many were near the narrow lake, which was a kind of defensive barrier during the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties.
The elaborate gardens were landscaped with soil dredged from the lake to build hills and mountains; there were streams and pools, rockeries, pavilions, bridges, winding paths, and carved sheltered walkways. Most gardens were destroyed over the years, but many famous ones have been reproduced and new gardens have been built in the classical style.
Today the lake park covers 1,000 square kilometers and both walking and boating tours afford scenes of different aspects of it.
The lake is a famous moon-appreciation spot where intellectuals and poets watched the orb in its changing phases reflected in the water. Poets particularly worshipped the moon for its changing phases that they linked to emotional ups and downs.
Tang Dynasty poet Xu Ning wrote, "Out of all the splendid moonlight scenery in the world, Yangzhou has two thirds." He referred to the Slender West Lake area.
Wu Ting Bridge, or Five Pavilion Bridge, is one of the best spots for moon gazing. The bridge is named for the five pavilions built above it.
The stone bridge has 15 arches.
The grand and rough stone arches in the lower bridge and the refined wooden pavilions above create an intriguing scene suggesting a blossoming lotus from a distance. Thus, it's also known as Lotus Bridge.
This combination of bolder northern Chinese style, as in the arches, and the delicate southern style, as in the pavilions, is present in nearly all Yangzhou gardens, setting them part from the famous Suzhou gardens.
The classical Suzhou gardens and compounds in other southern Chinese cities were mostly built by retired government officials. They said they searched for spiritual peace and designed their gardens to recreate natural beauty and to be places for writing poetry, painting and appreciating the moon and flowers.
Yangzhou gardens, like the famous Ge Garden by the lake, were mainly constructed by wealthy merchants who wanted to show off their wealth, demonstrate their taste and hold parties where they could also do business. The aim was not solitary leisure, or a gathering of a few kindred spirits to appreciate nature, but social networking that would earn even more money.
Ge Garden was built in 1818 by Huang Zhijun, head of the salt traders association and one of the wealthiest men in the region. The garden is famous for many types of bamboo. The plant is associated with virtue, resoluteness, honor and modesty - the qualities of a refined man. An ancient saying goes, "It's better to eat without meat than to live without bamboo."
The name Ge also comes from bamboo, as the character looks like three bamboo leaves; it also is half of the character zhu, which means bamboo. It is considered one of the best gardens in Yangzhou for its clear display of the four seasons through artificial scenes.
For example, in a shady corner of the garden that never gets sun, the ground is covered with white stones to represent snow. A high adjacent wall contains 24 openings, creating the sound of wind in winter.
Wang's Small Garden, not far from Ge Garden, was built by salt trader Wang Zhuming (1860-1928), who became the manager of a salt trading house at the age of 30. As salt trading and canal transport became difficult during times of conflict and railway expansion, Wang's children left Yangzhou for Shanghai and took up real estate and retail. That shift was typical for salt traders then.
The Wang mansion was built according to strict hierarchy, as family members and servants were assigned rooms of different size, with different decor, depending on their positions. Areas for men and women were also strictly divided, as in the garden's triangular Boat Hall, which was shaped like a boat. Understandable for a salt trader on the canal. The boat's bow was designed as a public area for women in the family to gather and learn poems, play musical instruments and go. Women's leisure activities were limited.
The Lu Mansion, one of the largest salt traders' mansions and one of the most typical, is divided into nine areas containing more than 200 rooms. The entire mansion was made of the best wood and contained ornate, painted carvings decorating pillars, beams, window frames and other elements. The best craftsmen were hired.
The renovated mansion is now a restaurant featuring the private menu of the Lu family.
Location: Sitting on the northern bank of the Yangtze River, it borders the provincial capital of Nanjing to the southwest
Population: 4,414,681 (2010)
Historically it is one of the wealthiest of China's cities, known at various periods for its great merchant families, poets, painters and scholars.
Some of China's most creative and eye-catching dishes come from the Yangzhou school of cuisine called Huaiyang. It is China's eight major culinary styles.
The city is famous for its public bath houses, lacquerware, jadeware, embroidery, paper-cut, arts & crafts. It was awarded Habitat Scroll of Honor in 2006.
Yangzhou is also very famous for its toy industry (especially stuffed animals). Many tourists from neighboring cities travel to the city for its good-quality and low-priced toys.