Travel: The province of Zhejiang

Written by Julen Madariaga on April 9th, 2010

I never thought of this before, but when I was asked this week which was my favourite province in China, I naturally answered Zhejiang. I have been travelling there again on QingMing holidays and I have been reflecting what a remarkable place it is.

Zhejiang is the smallest province in the mainland, just a bit larger than the Chongqing municipality. But in this small area it contains some of the most beautiful places to visit in China. From the imperial gardens in Hangzhou to the islands off Ningbo or the beautiful cloudy peaks, it is like a whole China in miniature has been condensed there for the traveler to visit conveniently.


But it is for people watchers that Zhejiang is most remarkable. The almost 50 million people packed there have managed to get the highest GDP per capita of any Chinese province, something even more impressive considering it contains no major cities, and it is usually taken as an example of development through local initiative as opposed to the models in Shenzhen, Shanghai or Tianjin.

The cowboy businessmen of the Wenzhou area are known for turning their villages into the “World’s largest producer of X”, or building absurdly luxurious marinas in places nobody knows. Meanwhile, small towns like QingTian are the home of most of the Chinese diaspora in Spain, Italy, and other countries. The character of the Zhejiangese epitomizes the image of the resourceful and bitter-eating [1] Chinese that we see in the West.


I like to watch the smaller towns and villages in the province because I see in them a reflection of what China might be in the near future. Apart from rich, the inhabitants of Zhejiang seem to be fiercely individualistic. In this town in the center of the province no two houses are alike. Unlike the huge drab apartment compounds seen in other places, the Zhejiangese wants his own personalized palace to paint with his own loud colours. It’s not the hanging gardens of B, but the overall  effect is appealing to the curious eye.


Up in the mountains, there are still many of the old adobe houses hidden in the forests of bamboo. But unlike other provinces, here they all have a well-equipped toilet and flat screen TVs to use with their satellite dishes. “Ah, Spain“, says the peasant where we spend the night, “yes, my cousin just opened a restaurant in Barcelona”. With part of the family in Shanghai and another in Europe, he sounds like a peasant from a different World.


From the beginning I suspected that the little altar he had installed in the dining room was just a show to please young Shanghainese guests eager to photograph relics of the past. My conversation with the owner confirmed there was more to this place than revolutionary fervor. In the end I did my duty as a tourist and took the above picture.


And I say, what do you want in a province where you can go to the forest and eat the trees on the way? Over the weekend, I must have eaten 5 kilos of these sprouts, the main export of our little mountain village. And yet all the bamboo nibbling was worth it when we reached the end of our path and discovered the heavenly sources of the valley stream:

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  1. 吃苦, chiku, literally “eat bitter”, or be able to bear hardship. This Chinese characteristic is at the root of China’s miracle development []

Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr
    Sijia Chen

    I have to start this reply with the correction that Zhejiang is by no means the smallest province in China, small as it is, it’s much bigger than both Ningxia and Hainan. Besides this minor mistake, your observation is surprisingly insightful, (真是当局者迷,旁观者清哪)Zhejiang is definitely a distinct place, in fact I would consider it a remnant of a economy which considered by many economists to be the world’s earliest laissez faire economy and the centre of it, a part of the tradition of Chinese civilization that is rarely mentioned today. Due to a variety of factors, this tradition is preserved in Zhejiang, the most recent ones being the CCP’s choice to pacify rather than to purge the capitalist class like their Russian comrades, and no state investment in Zhejiang, President Chiang’s birthplace, forcing its residents to fight their own way out. Some interesting data here, Zhejiang’s population is close to that of Anhui, but during the Great Famine, it’s estimated that 181,000 Zhejiang people died of starvation, compared to 5,000,000 in Anhui. Zhejiang also has the lowest Gini coefficient in China, due to its highly developed 民营经济 and 乡镇企业.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    Come on Sijia, I am not a newbie. if I write something there is a reason for it. Ningxia is not a province but an administrative region, and Hainan is not on the mainland. Not to nitpick, but Zhejiang IS strictly the smallest province in the mainland!

    Other than that, thanks for the info. I am curious about this laissez-faire tradition you mention of laissez-faire in Zhejiang. To what period you are referring exactly? And do you have any good link/book about it? Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Apr
    Sijia Chen

    By the way, avoid eating too much bamboo sprout, it contains a large amount of fibre, be prepared of a “too smooth” digestion experience. And you looked very handsome in the photo :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Apr

    Glad you love my hometown :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. May

    No major cities? Hangzhou, with a population larger than that of every European city except Moscow, London, and Paris, is not a ‘major city’? Or is this a little touch of the Shanghai snobbery?

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. May
    Julen Madariaga

    I knew that somebody would come back to me on that, so I checked the Wikipedia list of cities to be sure. Hangzhou, in spite of having a larger population than Madrid, is not even among the 10 biggest cities in China. In fact if I remember well it hardly makes it into the top 20 in population.

    “Major city” is a relative term. Many major cities in Europe have less population than secondary cities in China, no surprise there.

    I know you could make a case for calling Hangzhou “major”, it is an important city in many ways. But my point was that the province economy is not relying on one city. Hangzhou is only one of the motors of the Zhejiang economy.

    [Reply to this comment]

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