Songjiang District in suburban Shanghai, which can be easily accessed by Metro Line 9, is often described as the “root of Shanghai” that boasts a history of some 7,000 years.
Previously known as Huating County that belonged to Jiangsu Province, Huating was renamed Songjiang County in 1914. It was not until 1958 that Songjiang was included in Shanghai, and 40 years later, it became a district.
The Guangfulin archeological site was discovered by local farmers in 1958 when they were digging for a new waterway. The site contained artifacts from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) and included ancient pottery, bronze vases, spinning wheels, cooking dishes, deer horns and pig bones among others.
Archeological remains confirm that for centuries Songjiang has been a comfortable place for living and cultivating crops such as corn, sunflowers, rice, peaches, pears, and grapes. A park, covering 1.3 square kilometers, has been constructed in the area and will be opened to the public in the near future.
Today, Songjiang is divided into old and new parts, with the industrial, agricultural and cultural areas making up the old part while the biggest university town on the Chinese mainland being part of the new one.
“Songjiang has lots of free parks and green lanes — good for both kids and parents. It has space for outdoor activities,” says Teresa Li, 30, an English teacher who is living in Songjiang.
Although it is a bit far from the city center, Songjiang has all the necessities for daily living such as supermarkets (Wanda, Metro, Lotus), restaurants, shops, fitness centers and karaoke clubs that ensure a convenient and easy stay.
“Huge crowds, congestion and the relatively high prices in everything don't appeal to me at all. But if you are looking for all these, Xujiahui is just an hour’s ride by subway,” says American Greg Dubois, 26, an English lecturer at Shanghai International Studies University.
Songjiang’s architectural style is a mixture of Western and Eastern traditions. Take Thames Town for example. The cobblestone streets, the row of two-story houses decorated with green vine, English-language street signs and the Catholic church in Gothic style all remind people of London. Some visitors are surprised by its unusual style but others criticize it for copying the West.
Sheshan Forest National Park is another example of Western and Chinese traditions of architecture and landscape design. With Chinese pagodas and churches in Romanian style, the wild forest zone is a great place for hiking and sightseeing.
The park includes 9 square kilometers of natural landscape with a variety of walking routes, a lake and the highest hill in Shanghai, Sheshan. Of the four parks — East Sheshan, West Sheshan, Tianmashan and Xiaokunshan — the West Sheshan Park is the most popular.
The entrance to the West Sheshan Park is shaded by trees with a stone-laid route running up the hill. Before climbing, rest for a while on the cozy wooden pavilion with a curved Chinese-style roof.
The route is surrounded by old camphor trees. Xiudaozhe Pagoda, literally meaning Monk Xiu’s Pagoda, is known as Moon Shadow Pagoda. This 7-story wood-brick structure is exquisite and elegant despite being around for more than 1,000 years, surviving wars and natural disasters.
It is believed that monk Xiu took part in the construction of the tower, which was built between AD 976-984 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Legend has it that after the pagoda was completed, the monk set himself on fire, considering the pagoda as his last act.
A yin-yang pattern on the ground made of black-and-white stones next to the tower symbolizes the harmony and balance of work and life, science and religion, light and shadow, day and night, man and woman, nature and technology and all other opposite concepts that coexist together.
At the Preacher Tower there is another pavilion with a golden Buddha sitting besides the altar with two red shiny candles. Ethnic music and the smell of herbal candles give a peaceful and sacred feeling. It is a good place for solitude.
On top of the hill stands the gorgeous cathedral, the Sheshan Basilica. The first statue of Madonna, Our Lady or Our Mother, is placed in the small chapel which was created in 1863 by the Jesuit community. The first church of Sheshan Hill was built in 1873 by French architect Leo Mariout and consecrated by bishop Adrien Languillat. Since then Our Lady of Sheshan has become a protector of Shanghai Catholic eparchy.
The basilica, as it looks today, was designed and engineered in 1925 by Belgian and Portuguese Jesuits and took 10 years to complete. The church resembles the Latin cross. Arched vaults and windows, semi-circular forms of towers, pillars, ascending perspective of the building, represent Romanesque style developed in Europe between the 6th and 11th centuries. On a sunny day, the sun's ray penetrates through the tall, colorful windows and shines on the walls, granite columns and patterned floor, just like in a fairytale.
The hall, 56 meters long and 25 meters wide, with wooden benches can house about 4,000 people. It has two altars, devotion to the Virgin Mary with Child at the eastern end and to the Sacred Heart on the left side of the main altar. Both symbolize a strong love of mother to a child, protection, compassion and forgiveness.
Going down the hill, there is a bamboo forest carved with narrow stone roads — perfect for meditation. Occasionally, the sun shines through the leaves.
Near the church is Asia’s oldest observatory. It was built in 1900 by a French Catholic missionary. In the past, the observatory mainly focused on meteorological observations. In other words, it prepared weather reports and defined the precise time for ships to navigate by observing the stars. This information was vital as Shanghai has always been an important trading port for China.
Today, it operates as an astronomy museum and for scientific research. Black hole studies, cosmography, lunar exploration program are the main fields of the work now.
The museum has the oldest telescope in China that has taken around 7,000 photographs of the universe including sunspots, constellations and comets. On the first floor there is an interactive planetarium.
“This is a very important historical site in Asia. It has old equipment and old posters,” says Kirill , a master’s degree student from Russia. “I hope everything can be well protected.”
Despite that, the museum remains popular with visitors because of its history in Chinese astronomy.
Down the hill, there is an observation deck that gives a bird’s eye-view of the area. Zodiac signs and their constellations depicted on the wall remind you of astronomy.