With its centre riddled with classic gardens and picturesque canals, the ancient city of SUZHOU (苏州, sūzhōu) is justly one of eastern China’s biggest tourist draws. Whereas most Chinese cities are busy building themselves up from the inside out, parts of central Suzhou remain remarkably quaint and calm – no mean feat in a city of over six million. As if greenery and waterways were not enough, Suzhou has also long been famed for its silk production, making it one of China’s best places in which to shop for said commodity.
Just forty minutes from Shanghai by high-speed train, many choose to visit Suzhou on a day-trip, though to do so would be something of a mistake unless you’re pressed for time, for it’s only in the evening that the true soul of the city can be appreciated. Those who stay the night will see the soft light of innumerable paper lanterns dappling the canalsides, whose paved lanes make Suzhou one of those rare places that looks fantastic in the rain. Additionally, those who fight their way through the industrial areas surrounding the city can make their way to one of several smaller canaltowns, or the majestic lake of Tai Hu.
Lying within a rectangular moat formed by canals, the historic town’s clear grid of streets and waterways makes Suzhou a relatively easy place in which to get your bearings. The traditional commercial centre of the city lies around Guanqian Jie, halfway down Renmin Lu, an area of cramped, animated streets thronged with small shops, teahouses and restaurants, though savvy travellers are now heading to Pingjiang Lu, a canalside street which is fast becoming a local version of Beijing’s Nanluogu Xiang, blending a traditional vibe with modern cafés and galleries.
Among the Chinese, Suzhou is one of the most highly favoured tourist destinations in the country, and the city is packed with visitors from far and wide. This can make for a festive atmosphere, but it also means that you are rarely able to appreciate the gardens in the peace for which they were designed. The most famous ones attract a stream of visitors year-round, but many of the equally beautiful yet lesser-known gardens, notably Canglang Ting and Ou Yuan, are comparatively serene and crowd-free; the best strategy is to visit one or two of the popular gardens before 10am and spend the rest of the day in the smaller gardens.
He Lu, semi-mythical ruler of the Kingdom of Wu, is said to have founded Suzhou in 600 BC as his capital, but it was the arrival of the Grand Canal more than a thousand years later that marked the beginning of the city’s prosperity. The silk trade too was established early here, flourishing under the Tang and thoroughly booming when the whole imperial court moved south under the Song. To this day, silk remains an important source of Suzhou’s income.
With the imperial capital close by at Hangzhou, Suzhou attracted an overspill of scholars, officials and merchants, bringing wealth and patronage with them. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo reported “six thousand bridges, clever merchants, cunning men of all crafts, very wise men called Sages and great natural physicians”. These were the people responsible for carving out the intricate gardens that now represent Suzhou’s primary attractions. When the first Ming emperor founded his capital at Nanjing, the city continued to enjoy a privileged position within the orbit of the court and to flourish as a centre for the production of woodblock and the weaving of silk. The business was transformed by the gathering of the workforce into great sheds in a manner not seen in the West until the coming of the Industrial Revolution three centuries later.
Until recently, Suzhou’s good fortune had been to avoid the ravages of history, despite suffering brief periods of occupation by the Taipings in the 1860s and by the Japanese during World War II. The 2500-year-old city walls, however, which even in 1925 were still an effective defence against rampaging warlords, were almost entirely demolished after 1949, and the parts of the old city that still survive – moats, gates, tree-lined canals, stone bridges, cobblestoned streets and whitewashed old houses – are disappearing fast.
Gardens, above all, are what Suzhou is all about. They have been laid out here since the Song dynasty, a thousand years ago, and in their Ming and Qing heyday it is said that the city had two hundred of them. Some half-dozen major gardens have now been restored, as well as a number of smaller ones. Elsewhere in China you’ll find grounds – as at Chengde or the Summer Palace outside Beijing – laid out on a grand scale, but the gardens of Suzhou are tiny in comparison, often in small areas behind high compound walls, and thus are far closer to the true essence of a Chinese garden.
Chinese gardens do not set out to improve upon a slice of nature or to look natural, which is why many Western eyes find them hard to accept or enjoy. They are a serious art form, the garden designer working with rock, water, buildings, trees and vegetation in subtly different combinations; as with painting, sculpture and poetry, the aim is to produce for contemplation the balance, harmony, proportion and variety which the Chinese seek in life. The wealthy scholars and merchants who built Suzhou’s gardens intended them to be enjoyed either in solitude or in the company of friends over a glass of wine and a poetry recital or literary discussion. Their designers used little pavilions and terraces to suggest a larger scale, undulating covered walkways and galleries to give a downward view, and intricate interlocking groups of rock and bamboo to hint at, and half conceal, what lies beyond. Glimpses through delicate lattices, tile-patterned openings or moon gates, and reflections in water created cunning perspectives which either suggested a whole landscape or borrowed outside features (such as external walls of neighbouring buildings) as part of the design, in order to create an illusion of distance.
Among the essential features of the Suzhou gardens are the white pine trees, the odd-shaped rocks from Tai Hu and the stone tablets over the entrances. The whole was completed by animals – there are still fish and turtles in some ponds today. Differences in style among the various gardens arise basically from the mix and balance of the ingredients; some are dominated by water, others are mazes of contorted rock, yet others are mainly inward-looking, featuring pavilions full of strange furniture. Almost everything you see has some symbolic significance – the pine tree and the crane for long life, mandarin ducks for married bliss, for example.