Suzhou, China’s Cultural Heart
By Monique Burns
I wander as if in a dream. I am in China, 7,200 miles and a world away from home. Through spring’s early-morning haze, I stroll lush gardens, exploring pagodas and pavilions adorned with Ming Dynasty vases, landscape paintings and mahogany furniture. I cruise rock-girt canals and rivers lined with tiny shops selling mooncakes, silk scarves and Chinese calligraphy scrolls. I cross humpbacked stone bridges with names like “Peace,” “Luck” and ”Celebration.” Climbing low-lying hills, I pick spring’s first green shoots of Bi Luo Chun, China’s finest green tea. In a lakeside restaurant, I savor sweet-and-sour Mandarin Fish artfully carved to resemble a squirrel’s bristly fur. In the rickety balcony of a venerable teahouse, I thrill to the lyrical, high-pitched strains of kunqu, one of the world’s oldest forms of opera.
I have drifted back in time to Suzhou, centuries-old retreat of Chinese emperors and officials, poets and philosophers. Only 70 miles west of Shanghai, China’s ultramodern commercial capital, Suzhou—pronounced “sue-joe”—is one of China’s oldest cultural capitals. More than 200 classical gardens flourished here during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now nearly 60 restored gardens are open to the public, nine of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Earth is only one of Suzhou’s elements. Water covers 42 percent of the city, creating a neat checkerboard of rivers and channels, including China’s Grand Canal, the world’s longest manmade waterway, stretching 1,200 miles from the capital of Beijing south to Hangzhou. The canals of Suzhou–and its six surrounding “water towns–so enchanted Marco Polo, Italy’s great wanderer, that he dubbed the region the “Venice of China.”
There’s plenty of manmade beauty here, too. Suzhou is the birthplace of two of China’s most revered operatic styles, the aforementioned kunqu, and the more down-to-earth pingtan, punctuated with songs, storytelling and jokes. Beside the famous Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Suzhou Museum houses thousands of China’s most prized antiquities. It was designed by noted architect I.M. Pei who grew up on his family’s estate in the equally famous Lion’s Forest Garden. For centuries, Suzhou also has been a silk-making and embroidery center. On the fertile lower Yangtze River delta, it’s the perfect ecosystem for mulberry trees, whose leaves are a silkworm’s favorite dish.
Of ancient Suzhou, much remains to charm visitors. But Suzhou also has an alluring contemporary side. One of China’s fastest-growing cities, Suzhou is home to high-tech industry, multinational corporations, and all the glittering restaurants, shops and attractions that big money can spawn.
I’ve signed on with a local tour group called More Fun Asia, a subsidiary of the well-respected Suzhou Pinglong Culture Communication Co., whose friendly English-speaking guides have a deep knowledge of the region’s culture and history. Leaving Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport in a big white van, I, along with four other women travelers–two New Yorkers, a Canadian from Vancouver and an American living in London–arrive in Suzhou 1 1/2 hours later. The ride takes three times longer than the bullet train, but it’s far more leisurely.
East of Suzhou’s garden-adorned historic center is Suzhou Industrial Park, or SIP, a sprawling complex housing scores of pubs and restaurants, a few luxury hotels and several large shopping malls. Here, too, are high-rise business headquarters as well as various schools and colleges, including the Chinese campus of England’s University of Liverpool.
We’re bound for SIP’s glass-fronted Suzhou Center mall, with its own collection of restaurants and high-end boutiques—not to mention a regulation-size ice-skating rink, imitation ski slopes, and a glassed-in riding ring called the Saga Pony Club. Overlooking Jinji Lake, the Suzhou Center is home to my home-away-from-home for the next five nights, the W Hotel Suzhou, its lavish contemporary design inspired by Suzhou’s gardens.
Nothing, however, can prepare me for my first glimpse of an actual Suzhou garden the next morning. Entering the 13-acre Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou’s largest classical garden and one of nine Suzhou-area gardens classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I’m immediately transported to another time and place. Begun in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty, the Humble Administrator’s Garden is one of China’s four most famous gardens, along with the Beijing Summer Palace, the Chengde Mountain Resort, and Suzhou’s other standout, the Lingering Garden.
Why so famous? Well, experts say the Humble Administrator’s Garden incorporates the best of Suzhou classical garden style. Designed to be miniature landscapes, the gardens offer a harmonious unfolding of four essential elements: water, buildings, flowers and trees, and ornamental rocks, most famously the perforated limestone monoliths drawn from nearby Lake Taihu. For another, the garden was designed by China’s renowned painter, poet, scholar and government official Wen Zhengming, one of the “Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty.”
The Humble Administrator’s Garden also has a dramatic history. Commissioned for his retirement by Wang Xianchen, a Ming Dynasty envoy and an amateur poet, the garden takes its name from the ancient Chinese proverb: “Irrigating gardens …[is] a way for a humble person to manage administrative affairs.” Wang enjoyed the retreat in his lifetime, but, sadly, his son lost the magnificent garden for gambling debts. Over 400 years, the Humble Administrator’s Garden changed hands many times until the Chinese government acquired it in 1949.
Strolling through the charmed landscape, you wonder at gnarled pines, blossoming cheery trees, and acres of miniature trees called penjing, Chinese precursors to Japanese bonsais. You climb manmade mountains, and cross streams and koi ponds over a network of bridges, most notably the Little Flying Rainbow Bridge, the only arched garden bridge in all Suzhou. You wander through a succession of pagodas and pavilions decorated with flower-filled vases, Chinese landscape paintings and calligraphy scrolls, and burnished mahogany furniture.
In early spring, the Hall of 18 Camellias is adorned with a dazzling array of flowering red and pink camellias in blue-and-white Ming Dynasty vases. Often used for kunqu performances, the hall is just south of the With Whom Shall I Sit Pavilion, a romantic name if ever there was one. Indeed, the buildings’ very names conjure up another time and place: The Far Away Looking Pavilion, the Think Deep and Aim High Hall, the Sound of Rain Pavilion, the boat-shaped Fragrance Islet….
Thanks to More Fun Asia, a Tai Chi master and his disciple accompany our small group through the garden. Before the Distant Fragrance Hall, with its broad columned facade and upturned “flying eaves,” the pair demonstrate the slow-moving ballet that makes Tai Chi the most graceful of martial arts. At another pavilion, curious Chinese onlookers gather to watch us try some of the moves ourselves.
Lunch, including shrimp and other seafood specialties, is at nearby Yuanwailou Hotel, popularly known as the Suzhou Garden Hotel for its own meticulously landscaped grounds. Then we board a flat-bottomed wooden boat for our Grand Canal cruise. Some parts of the waterway have closed over the centuries, but 50 miles of Suzhou’s section are still navigable. Gliding slowly along, we cruise beneath ancient stone bridges and pass typical Suzhou dwellings with whitewashed walls, wooden balconies and black-tiled roofs.
We dock at Tiger Hill Scenic Area about 45 minutes later. Suzhou’s top attraction, outstripping even its famous classical gardens, it’s the site of a spring Flower Show and a fall Temple Fair featuring music and other performing arts. Ringed by the Round Hill River, three acres of gardens and woodlands surround a modest 118-foot rise where, it’s believed, a white tiger came to sit on the grave of King Helü of the Wu Kingdom three days after his funeral in 496 B.C.
Atop that famous knoll is Tiger Hill Pagoda, or, more properly, Yunyansi Pagoda. Built as a Buddhist temple in 959 A.D. during the Song Dynasty, the white-brick structure rises 156 feet and weighs 6,000 tons. The country’s oldest octagonal pagoda, it leans north to east, China’s version of Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Getting to the pagoda is half the fun as we thread winding paths, gently moving ever upward. The Dense Pine Trees Hall, named for a Ming Dynasty poem, is surrounded by scores of gnarled black pines. The Potted Landscape Garden of Suzhou boasts hundreds of flowering bonsai-style pingen trees.
Weaving through the landscape, we pass more buildings with evocative names: the Hill Villa of Embracing Verdure, the Tower of Refreshing Breeze, the Cloud Rock Temple Pagoda. At the Hall of the Great Buddha, we find not one, but three, giant Buddha statues, cloaked in dazzling gold.
Heading back downhill, we stop to relax at the Thousand People Rock, a massive boulder topped, in spring, with hundreds of colorful potted poppies. Not far away, at Sword Pond, legend has it that King Helü buried a king’s ransom in bejeweled swords and other treasure. Don’t miss the Zhen Niang Tomb, named for the young woman who took her life after being seduced by an official. Touched by her virtuous nature–and ashamed of his own–he built a stone tomb in her honor.
Tragic romance is the stuff of great opera. Certainly, that’s true of kunqu, created in the Suzhou area during the Ming Dynasty and declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. You can learn more about it at the city’s Kunqu Opera Museum and the Suzhou Museum of Opera and Theatre. Or hear it at the Kunqu Opera Museum or the 319-seat Suzhou Kunqu Theatre. Perhaps the best place to experience kunqu, though, is the intimate setting of an old canal-side teahouse.
After dinner, our small group strolls shop-lined Pingjiang Road, site of Suzhou’s romantic Couple’s Retreat Garden, surrounded on three sides by water. Pingjiang Road is also home to the venerable Fu Xi Teahouse named for the supremely multitalented Chinese god who created music as well as hunting, fishing and cooking.
In Fu Xi’s rickety upstairs balcony, cheek by jowl with Chinese aficionados and curious Westerners, we sip tiny cups of tea and peer at the small stage below. Ms Lv Chengfang, a reigning Suzhou diva, wears a flowing pink robe with long “dancing sleeves” and a bejeweled headdress, her face a white mask accented by bright-pink blush, red lipstick and colorful eye makeup.
With graceful hand movements and a high-pitched yet melodic voice, Chengfang interprets scenes from “The Peony Pavilion.” One of four major plays known as “The Four Dreams,” it was written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu, the Ming Dynasty poet considered China’s Shakespeare. The play tells of a 16-year-old girl who dreams of a lover, dies and encounters him in the Underground. Tragedy turns to joy as the couple are eventually restored to life.
It’s a dramatic finale to our second night in Suzhou. In coming days, we’ll visit a tea plantation and a silk factory, enjoy culinary specialties like sweet-and-sour squirrel fish, and continue to explore Suzhou’s splendid classical gardens.
IF YOU GO
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.