Emperor Qianlong called Zhoucun 周村 the “Leading Village of the World” 天下第一村. It has been called the “Waterless Harbour” 旱码头 for the amount of foreign trade going through its streets. Welcome to the Northeast end of the Silk Road.
The ancient Silk Road carried commerce from the far ends of old world to China. Started with the Han dynasty, when silk was brought to the Middle East through the land route cutting across plateaus of Tibet and Nepal, and reaching the zenith during the Tang dynasty when it reached the northeastern part of China, ending in the ancient city of Zhou Cun 周村.
Before we talk about Zhou Cun, we need to talk a bit about Zibo.
Zibo 淄博 region was the geographic region of ancient State of Qi 齐国 (1122-221 BC). The old capital of Qi was Linzi 临淄 which literally translate to come to Zibo”, and was the largest capital city of that period. It was the last state during the period known as the Spring-Autumn Warring States period 春秋战国 (770-221 BC) to be conquered by Emperor Qin Shihuang to form the first unified country of China, known as Qin Dynasty.
The Silk Road 丝绸之路, prosperous from the Han to the Tang dynasty, is famous for economic and cultural exchanges between the East and the West. The Shandong area, particularly Zibo, was a major center of silk supply. At present, Zibo remains an important a producer of silk and light textile products in China. And Zhoucun 周村 was consider the Northeast end of the Silk Road.
Zhoucun Ancient Commercial City 周村古商城
Zhoucun Ancient Commercial City is located in the middle of Zhoucun district of Zibo, covering an area of 17 hectares. It consists of well preserved ancient buildings surrounded by old pedestrian streets such as Main Street 大街, Silk Street 丝市街, Silver Street 银子市街, and Equality Street 平等街.
Zhoucun was a very prosperous trading town, and major silk and cloth production base. How influential was their status in the silk industry? Even Premier Zhou Enlai commissioned Refosian in Zhoucun to make the first People’s Republic of China flag used for the flag rising ceremony at Tiananmen, that’s how.
Main Street 大街
Entering from the northern end of the commercial city block is the Main Street. It started in Song dynasty and reached its pinnacle during Ming and Qing dynasties. It is 500m long and is the longest of the commercial streets in Zhoucun.
Right after the Chinese archway, the post office from the Qing Dynasty 大清邮局 was one of the few post offices in Shandong Foreign Postal Service at that time, and has now become a postal culture and history museum. BTW it is still a functional China Post, so you can send a postcard home from here with a special postmark.
Right next to the post office are the old locations of SanYi Tang 三益堂 bookstore and Desheng Tang 德生堂 medicine hall. Sanyi was famous for publishing the first edition of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋志异, written by Qing dynasty author Pu Songling 蒲松龄.
And along the main street are branches of two of the top eight silk houses in ancient China. 谦祥益 Qianxiangyi was founded in 1840 in Beijing, but the founder used to work for the Meng family, who founded may other silk houses, including 瑞蚨祥 Refosian in Jinan in 1862. A trivial about Refosian – it was said that Walmart founder, Sam Walton, was inspired by the story of Refosian’s logo, which featured a legendary cicada whose young would bring back food they found to their mother. He built the Walmart empire based on this metaphor.
“Dingjia Cooking Pot” 丁家煮锅 started in the early Qing Dynasty more than 200 years ago (circa 1910), and there were many “cooking pots” that were selling this street food when Main Street was opened.
Think of it as personal hotpots surrounding a main hotpot. Fried tofu, pork intestines, Huizhou meatballs and so on are stewed in a pot of old stock made from chicken and pork leg bones. Too bad I had dinner before I came, so I did not try this seemingly delicious street food.
Another key produce from Zhoucun was rolled cigarettes. Zhoucun was the site of the first mechanical cigarette rolling machine. British American Tobacco used to operate its Chinese assets from here. It’s quite funny to see brands from my childhood etched for posterity on the walls of the shop.
Besides old buildings that have been converted into museums and shops selling souvenirs, some have been repurposed to provide fine dining, like this audio-visual fine dining restaurant, 花舞盛宴餐厅 Flower Dance Restaurant.
Similar to the Petite Chef experience, food presentation has been enhanced with audio and lighting effects to bring you the backstory behind every dish.
Finally on the other end of the Main Street is an archway that marked the old “Waterless” Docks 旱码头. In 1904, Yuan Shikai proposed Zhoucun, Weixian County and Jiaozhou as commercial ports for foreign trade in Shandong. Zhoucun because the most successful on in the north and got its nickname for being a dock without water.
In the next instalment, we will visit the silk dye houses 大染坊 that made Zhoucun famous.
Zhoucun Series 周村特辑
- #1 Northeast End of Silk Road 丝绸之路东北端
- #2 Dye Houses 大染坊
- #3 Zhoucun Pancake 周村烧饼
- #4 Zhoucun Pancake Museum 周村烧饼博物馆
Date visited : Dec 2021