Finding China Part 3 – Wuzhen

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A short bus ride from Tongxiang, Wuzhen is an ancient town – or, probably more accurately, a collective of ancient districts – built on a collection of islands surrounded by canals. While undeniably a major tourist attraction that must pull in a significant income for the local economy, it is, even so,  a living town in its own right, with some 12,000 permanent residents calling it home. While aspects of it do feel somewhat like a living museum, nevertheless, there is a buzz and a vivacity that brings the place to life. Wuzhen is characterised by narrow labyrinthine streets – (no cars here) – and of course, the canals that serve as the arterial byways through the place with shops selling local crafts. And, not least, by a dizzying variety of places to eat and take in the smell of cooking.

On the day we visited, it was raining (it rains a lot in spring in Hangzhou) and the wet roofs and stone streets glistened with burnished grey steel hues; the effect being not entirely unattractive, adding a certain calm serenity. Near the central quarter of Wuzhen, bordered by restaurants and tea houses, a  a number of the canals open into a lagoon across which is a striking and distinctive covered bridge. There, within the lagoon, a myriad of teeming koy carp were milling and jostling for the food being thrown to them by the tourists. Away from the frantic scramble for food that saw the carp almost climbing on top of each other, my eye was caught by the sight of a larger, slow-moving lonesome specimen some distance away. It seemed to be too dignified to be involved in all the vulgar scrummaging going on and appeared content to cruise in isolation not far from the madding crowd. It’s solitary presence made an impression on me as its surprisingly vivid orange back occasionally broke the surface of the green-grey placid water.

As I recently reflected back on the visit, I found myself recalling these motifs and so decided to try and capture something of the still atmosphere of the water, the fish and the bridge in one drawing. The resulting image, above,  is an imagined assimilation  of  these themes. I wanted to forge a connection in my mind between the fish and the bridge (water and land) and, by extension, onwards to memories of the people we were there with; and to do this without being too literal or busy.  Eventually, I realised that if the orange of the carp’s muscular back and it’s contrast with the green water could be echoed in some way then I’d have the means of making the connection. I recalled that one of the Chinese volunteer students had a cheerful orange umbrella which really sang out against the steel-grey surrounding and then, in my mind, right at the end,  it all fell into place. The place, the people, the time, the atmosphere – all linked with a small accent of orange.