With its centre riddled with classic gardens and picturesque canals, SUZHOU 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 around 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 those who stay the night will see the soft light of innumerable paper lanterns dappling the canal sides, whose paved lanes make Suzhou one of those rare places that looks fantastic in the rain. Additionally, beyond the industrial areas which surround the city are several smaller canal towns, and the majestic lake of Tai Hu.
Gardens, above all, are what Suzhou is all about. Some were founded during 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, mostly in enclosed areas behind high compound walls.
Chinese gardens do not set out to improve upon a slice of nature or to look natural: they are a serious art form, the designer working with rock, water, buildings, trees and vegetation in subtly different combinations. As with painting 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), 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.
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 – meaning 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. Prices for many of these sights are slightly lower in the off-season.