Located south of Hangzhou Bay in the midst of a flat plain crisscrossed by waterways and surrounded by low hills, SHAOXING (绍兴, shàoxīng) is one of the oldest cities in Zhejiang, having established itself as a regional centre in the fifth century BC. During the intervening centuries – especially under the Song, when the imperial court was based in neighbouring Hangzhou – Shaoxing remained a flourishing city, though the lack of direct access to the sea has always kept it out of the front line of events.

For the visitor, Shaoxing is a quieter and more intimate version of Suzhou, combining attractive little sights with great opportunities for boating around classic Chinese countryside. It’s a small city that seems to have played a disproportionate role in Chinese culture – some of the nation’s more colourful characters came from here, including the mythical tamer of floods Yu the Great, the wife-murdering Ming painter Xu Wei, the female revolutionary hero Qiu Jin and the great twentieth-century writer Lu Xun, all of whom have left their mark on the city. Although Shaoxing’s immediate centre comprises a standard shopping street, elsewhere there are running streams, black-tiled whitewashed houses, narrow lanes divided by water, alleys paved with stone slabs and back porches housing tiny kitchens that hang precariously over canals.

Near Shaoxing is Jian Hu, a lake whose unusual clarity has made the city known throughout China for its alcohol. Most famous are the city’s sweet yellow rice wine, made from locally grown glutinous rice, and its ruby-coloured nu’er hong wine, traditionally the tipple brides sipped to toast their new husbands – it was bought when the bride was born, and buried in the backyard to age.

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