If you ask, almost everyone has heard of Shaoxing rice wine, the ubiquitous Chinese cooking wine.
But would everyone know Shaoxing is an actual place and not just a brand? A really beautiful place with canals and bridges and parks full of old ladies in red tracksuits doing tai chi with swords (see above) – and a thriving wine industry, vibrant food culture, and a pivotal place in Chinese literary history.
Shaoxing (say shao – to rhyme with cow – shing) is barely two hours’ by train from Shanghai and makes one of the best foodie weekends away from the city. Or literary weekends, if that’s your thing.
I wanted to combine both of these interests and spent an overnighter in Shaoxing with two gorgeous foodie/photography girlfriends just before I left Shanghai to come back to Australia. Here’s what we managed to pack in to just 24 hours in Shaoxing (a lot!), but the small city hold enough interest for several days of contented wandering, eating and drinking amongst its many canals and back streets.
1. Experience Shaoxing Wine
The obvious place to start on your journey of discovery of Shaoxing is the Yellow Rice Wine Museum, dedicated to Shaoxing’s most famous export.
An impressive looking edifice, once inside we discover that 98% of their budget has been spent on the building and exterior, and the interior is rather dark and drab. I had hoped the museum would tell me everything I wanted to know about how yellow rice wine is made, and the differences between the various types. Sadly there was little information about this (see instead the brilliant CCTV series Bite of China: here with English subtitles, from 33:37) but there was some really cracking Chinglish in the captions.
‘Wine became a must of human comity and banquet, meanly bibulosity and swizzling often occurred.’
Bibulosity! Wonderful word!
So you mean people actually drink Shaoxing wine? Why yes. Shaoxing wine (properly called shaoxing haung jiu 绍兴黄酒 or Shaoxing yellow wine) can be every bit as refined and complex as a red wine.
Sadly for most of us the Shaoxing wine available in Chinese supermarkets around the world is rubbish. In many countries the wine is salted to circumvent strict liquor laws and taxes, thus rendering it undrinkable but legal for sale in a supermarket. Does that make any sense? No.
Real Shaoxing wine is smooth and mellow, amber gold with the barest hint of sweetness, served warmed in tiny cups or rice bowls with food – hairy crab, salted beans, dried mustard greens, fatty pork – all of which it pairs with beautifully.
Shaoxing wine is made from glutinous rice and is fermented using yeast and aspergillus oryzae. The result, after at least six months of fermentation, is an amber-coloured mellow wine with an alcohol content of less than 20%. The wine is further aged in huge rough sealed stoneware jars for several years, and the colour changes from amber through dark gold to dark gold-brown.
In a lovely tradition, Shaoxing fathers would bury a decorative red bottle of rice wine soon after the birth of their daughters, digging it up in time to celebrate her wedding many years later. This wine became known as hua diao 花雕 or ‘flower engraved’ because of the appearance of the jars (see below) but the wine is really no different from any other aged Shaoxing rice wine. Sometimes it is also called nu’er hong 女儿红 or ‘daughter red’.
The easiest way to taste different Shaoxing wines is at one of the many wine shops lining Cang Qiao Jie, where you can taste before you buy or just sit and enjoy some wine and aniseed beans.
Shaoxing Rice Wine Museum 绍兴黄酒博物馆
557 Xiada Lu, Shaoxing 绍兴黄酒博物馆 市区下大路557号
Admission 60 yuan per person including a small bottle of Shaoxing wine
2. Lu Xun Memorial Museum
‘Suddenly, I saw in my mind’s eye a marvellous golden moon hanging in a midnight-blue sky over a seashore planted endlessly with dark green watermelons. A boy, around ten or eleven years old, a silver chain around his neck and a pitchfork in his hand, was stabbing at a fierce looking dog darting between his legs. The boy was Runtu.’
From My Old Home, 1921
One of China’s most beloved literary sons, Lu Xun (1881-1936) was born in Shaoxing and spent all his early life there. His fluid, deceptively simple short stories tell of China in a time of massive change – the fall of the Qing Dynasty and rise of the Republic – through the eyes of provincial people grappling with events in their daily lives that seem to speak of a much greater upheaval occurring around them.
I first visited the Lu Xun Memorial Museum in 2009, having no real idea of who Lu Xun was, or why he was important enough to have an entire museum devoted to him. What struck me on that first visit was the quiet and thoughtful reverence of the normally loud, bustling and camera-wielding Chinese tourists.
An older Chinese man stopped our large family group and asked “How do you know of Lu Xun?” I admitted I knew nothing of him, and felt ashamed, but he seemed glad that we were there at all.
I resolved to discover more about the man and read his works. In 2009 Penguin Classics published Lu Xun’s complete fiction, translated by Julia Lovell, and a copy was put into my hands soon after. But I failed to read a single page until we started our Great China Roadtrip and that, as they say, was that. Some of the most wonderful and meaningful short stories I have ever read.
This time I too, joined the lines of reverent pilgrims as we trailed past Lu Xun’s study and his ancestral home. Those who have read Lu Xun’s works will get a great deal of enjoyment from the museum and associated dwellings, but it may hold limited interest for those with no knowledge of the writer or his work.
The sanwei (three tastes) study where Lu Xun took lessons as a boy: Reading reflects three kinds of tastes in our everyday life – some reading is simple and satisfying, like rice, some reading is sumptuous and rich, like a banquet, and some reading we need only in little doses, like seasoning.
Lu Xun Memorial Museum 绍兴鲁迅纪念馆
235 Luxun Zhong Lu, Shaoxing 绍兴鲁迅纪念馆 鲁迅中路235号
Admission price varies depending on how many sites you want to see: 140 yuan gives you all-inclusive entry to the Lu Xun Memorial Museum, Lu Xun’s ancestral home, Lu Xun’s former home, the Sanwei Study, and nine other sites.
3.Wander Shaoxing’s Canals
Shaoxing is latticed with ancient canals and you can walk the length of many of these between rows of traditional black-roofed whitewashed houses. Start with the canal alongside Xiada Lu after visiting the Shaoxing Rice Wine Museum, then head south to the Cang Qiao Jie canal. It’s a wonderful way to see the oldest parts of Shaoxing and walk between sites.
You can also take a traditional black-awning boat up and down the canals encircling the old city (the jetty is located near the Jishan Gate in the south-east corner of the city).
4.Visit Fushan Park
I can never pass up the opportunity to walk through a Chinese park, and Fushan Park – just east of Cang Qiao Jie historical street – is delightful.
On the morning we visited there were groups of tai chi practitioners, musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, huddles of old men playing weiqi 围棋 or chinese chess, and women singing in the cold morning air. Lovely.
5. Eat Shaoxing Snacks
Although no trip to Shaoxing is complete without trying as many of the local foods as possible, first time visitors might be deterred by the local habit of decorating the outsides of houses, gates and doorways with drying pieces of fish, duck, sausage and flayed pigs’ heads.
Shaoxing is famed for dried, preserved and fermented foods including the abominably famous stinky tofu. Not surprisingly, there are also a lot of snacks you can eat with wine, known as xia jiu cai 下酒菜or ‘downing wine dishes’.
Aniseed beans: hui xiang dou 茴香豆 A type of soft, chewy salted broad bean served as a bar snack alongside Shaoxing wine. These were made famous by Lu Xun’s boozy character Kong Yiji, whose standing order at the Unversal Prosperity bar was always ‘Two bowls of wine, warm, and a plate of aniseed beans’.
Stinky tofu: chou doufu 臭豆腐 Eat at your peril. Much better both with and after Shaoxing wine.
Drunken dried fish: zui yu gan 醉鱼干 Deliciously chewy, salty, and a little sweet, pieces of dried fish are then soaked in Shaoxing wine to make them tender. Terrific.
Taidiao dates: These are dried jujubes (Chinese dates) soaked in local tai diao wine – dark and sweet, and with a taste of dried plums. A delicacy. (see picture below right)
Pork Belly with Dried Mustard Greens: gan cai men rou 干菜焖肉 I can’t believe this an acquired taste for some – cubes of glossy, fatty pork belly are cooked together with Shaoxing wine and salty, pungent dried mustard greens – a local specialty, seen below left in the dried form, and cooked with pork belly. It’s a spectacularly tasty dish that hits all the right notes for me – complex, salty, with a touch of sweetness from the pork, and great texture.
You might well wonder why there aren’t the requisite number of Life on Nanchang Lu photos of these snacks, after all, it’s not like me to eat something without photographing it first.
But forgive me – my time in Shaoxing was amongst my last few days in China and for once I just put the camera down and savoured what I was eating. Something I highly recommend from time to time.
Instead, here are some artful shots of all that air-dried meat and fish. Enjoy.
Getting to Shaoxing
Train is by far the most convenient way to get to Shaoxing from Shanghai and high speed D trains run every half hour through the day from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station. The 220km trip takes two hours.
Fares 68 rmb ($10.30) one way
Where to Stay
The Xian Heng Hotel is right in the centre of Shaoxing and a short walk from canals and the Lu Xun Memorial Museum. As an added bonus, next door is the restaurant of the same name (established 1894), which serves some of the best local food in Shaoxing.
Essentially a 5 star hotel with 3 star prices, doubles from 600 yuan/night including breakfast.
Xian Heng Hotel
179 Lu Xun Zhong Lu, Shaoxing
(Take care! There are two Xian Heng hotels in Shaoxing, this is the original. The other is on Jiefang Nan Lu, also good, but not as central)
Please note: I pay for all my own transport, accommodation and meals everywhere I go.