By Ju Chuanjiang and Du Shu (China Daily)
Zhoucun, once an ancient bustling town, is now a tourist destination in Shandong province.
Although it has been a town for hundred of years, Zhoucun, a jurisdiction of Zibo in Shandong province, is still called a village.
The town of 320,000 is known as the biggest "village" in China.
At 9 am every morning, the town awakes to sounding gongs. Several people, dressed in traditional Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) costume, parade along a narrow, stone-paved north-south road.
"It is an old custom passed on for hundreds of years," says Zhang Na, a local tour guide, adding it symbolizes smooth business.
According to history, earlier in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhoucun was known for its handicraft industry and commerce. This eventually led the town to develop into an important marketplace in northern China in the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Qianlong praised it as the "No 1 Village in China".
Walking through its lofty alleys is like stepping back into the village's ancient business atmosphere.
The old taverns, antique shops, and painting and calligraphy stores all hold the architectural styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Flags and banners flutter in the wind as buildings of gray tiles and blue bricks stand tall on both sides of the main street.
"It is rare to see such a well-kept ancient fair in north China," says Wang Zhigang, a reporter from Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao.
Zhoucun also used to be a famous inland harbor, known for all the goods found within this village without a canal.
With one of the oldest free trade zones in Chinese history, its favorable tax policy lured businessmen across the country. In its prime, the village had over 5,000 shops and firms.
A monument at the crossroad of the main street is inscribed with the words "free of tax" - to encourage business development.
The slurry-dye industry was the village's main business in the late Ming Dynasty, when the town held over 40 slurry mills and more than 70 dyeing mills.
The Dong Lai Sheng silk store - filled with ancient spinning wheels, weaving machines, a dye tank and piles of colorful cloth - was one of the biggest stores in the village.
Today, there are still many shops on Silk Street that sell fine silks and cotton cloth.
After the Opium War (1839-1842), businessmen from Shanxi, Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian were drawn to the village for its potential. Customers came from home and abroad - hailing from Russia, Japan and India.
"So, it was said the little street made greats amount of money," says Zhang.
According to historical records, a large number of bills and coins used in its ancient banks demonstrated the village's rising, development and prosperity.
"In 1921, the number of large scale exchange shops rose to 108 with total assets of 6 million taels of silver," says Zhang.
Zhoucun is not only proud of its developed business, but also of its rich cultural heritage.
Its age-old printing house named San Yi Tang printed the first version of Liao Zhai Zhi Yi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which is a collection of weird tales with magic, devilry, vampirism and other fantastic themes written by Qing Dynasty novelist Pu Songling (1640-1715).
"Pu was once a teacher in Zhoucun. He often placed a stand selling tea drinks on the street and collected anecdotes told by businessmen from the whole country when he created Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio," says Zhang.
Zhoucun also enjoys a good reputation for its delicious clay oven rolls. The mouth-watering golden rolls topped with sesame seeds date back roughly 1,800 years to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
In 2001, Zhoucun was listed as one of the most significant tourist destinations in Shandong. The local government has invested approximately 2 billion yuan ($290 million) in developing tourism in the village.
The ancient village is witnessing a series of face-lift projects. The old stores along the main streets are being repaired and maintained to ensure the original characteristics of the ancient village are kept intact.
"It will enable the tourists to experience the authentic Shandong commercial culture and traditional folk custom," says Zhang.
(China Daily 06/19/2008 page19)