Ancient History In Shanghai – Wait, What? Part One

Preparing to visit Shanghai? If you envision a multicultural, modern metropolis with fantastical skyscrapers, you would be correct. However, there are still some ancient historical sites hidden within this sprawling city with the tenth highest population density on earth.

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Yu Garden – The dragon wall surrounding the third region of the gardens is the most incredible. Titled “Dragon Crossing the Clouds,” the ornate head and claws are a masterpiece. On close inspection, there is a small toad tucked beneath the dragon’s chin – an unusual and whimsical detail. In Chinese mythology, the dragon often represents auspicious power and luck, while a toad represents longevity.

The entire Yu Garden compound consists of more than 30 halls and is divided into six regions by tall white walls. Each region is separated by “dragon walls;” iconic rolling gray-tiled ridges of scales ending with an ornate dragons head. Yu Garden occupies an area of about five acres.

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Enter Yu Gardens (also known as Yù Yuán Garden in Shanghainese – either of which means “Garden of Happiness”) which is much more than just gardens. There are many beautiful historic buildings throughout which also beg to gain your attention.

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Contrary to what my local host told me – that the buildings were built by a rich man to house his many qinglou nv zi (which literally means Green Mansion Girl – in its original context, this refers to someone who is more classy, a courtesan rather than a prostitute, quite similar to a geisha).  Yet with all of the romantic pathways throughout the gardens, it is easy to imagine these lovely, young courtesans swaying down the paths on their lily feet (note – this refers to the old barbaric practice of footbinding in China).

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While not as salacious, the history is equally as fascinating. Originally built in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty it was created by Pan Yunduan as a comfort for his father, the minister Pan En, in his old age. Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying. Pan Yunduan planned it’s construction but his appointment as governor of Sichuan postponed final completion until 1577 – nearly twenty years. The garden was the largest and most prestigious of its era in Shanghai, but eventually, its expense helped ruin the Pans.

During the late Ming Dynasty, it became very dilapidated with the decline of Pan’s family. In its 400 years of existence, Yu Garden has undergone many changes.  In 1760, some wealthy merchants bought it and spent more than 20 years reconstructing the buildings. During the Opium War of the 19th century, it was severely damaged. The garden you see today is the result of a five-year restoration project which began in 1956. It was opened to the public in September of 1961.

And, with a great way to end the day, we went to Kommune Cafe in the arts district for cocktails. If I remember correctly, this restaurant was started by a couple of foreigners (Australians, Russians, I can’t remember) but it was a great place. Shanghai is truly a unique, diverse and international city

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The best part was this sign in the nearby restroom (if you can call a hole in the ground a restroom).

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Poor Shep – this must have hurt!

What to Drink in Shanghai – the beer is warm. I suggest sticking with cocktails which have ice in them – ice being rarely served in China. The Bloody Mary at Kommune Cafe was excellent.

What to Read Before You Go – I highly recommend the book Snowflower and the Secret Fan. It is a wonderful historical fiction novel that chronicles two friends as they endure the agony of footbinding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, their loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood.

Although set in Modern times, this is a must read on Chinese cuisine. I absolutely loved this book!

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