Suzhou, China’s Cultural Heart (Part 2)
By Monique Burns
I’m in Suzhou, the cultural heart of China, only a half-hour bullet-train ride west of high-tech Shanghai. Led by local tour company More Fun Asia, I and four other women, including two New Yorkers, a Canadian from Vancouver and an American living in London, are exploring Suzhou, the 2,500-year-old city of classical gardens and canals that once attracted emperors and officials as well as artists and poets.
We’ve spend our second evening on Pingjiang Road in Suzhou, which, incidentally, is pronounced “sue-joe.” There, in the rickety wooden balcony of the Fu Xi Teahouse, we listened, rapt, as a brightly costumed diva performed kunqu opera, created during the Ming Dynasty and one of the world’s oldest operatic forms.
The next morning, we’re off on a tea-picking expedition to Dongshan Mountain overlooking Lake Taihu, 30 miles southwest of Suzhou. In spring, the low-lying green hills are covered with the first curled shoots of Bi Luo Chun, China’s finest green tea. Known for its fruity taste and floral fragrance, Bi Luo Chun is also revered for its health properties. Packed with antioxidants, it’s believed to cure virtually everything from cavities and kidney stones to cancer and obesity. But such qualities don’t come cheap–1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of Bi Luo Chun will set you back about $125.
At nightfall, we enter the Master of the Nets Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Created in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, a high-ranking Song Dynasty official who longed for a fisherman’s simple life, it’s Suzhou’s smallest classical garden at 1.3 acres. Yet it’s considered one of Suzhou’s finest gardens, a splendid synthesis of art and nature.
Our visit takes us through eight beautifully furnished halls. In the first, three musicians play. In the second, costumed actors perform a short morality play. In the third, a handsome man and beautiful young woman sing and play ancient stringed instruments, stopping every so often to converse and tell jokes. It’s Suzhou pingtan, an intimate operatic style originating in the region 400 years ago during the Song Dynasty. Officially banned by the People’s Republic of China, pingtan remained a favorite of Chairman Mao and was still performed regularly.
After yet another performance, we find ourselves in the inner garden, where a lone musician plays a bamboo flute beside a central pond surrounded by whitewashed buildings outlined in twinkling white lights. It’s a magical moment, the climax to our visit.
We’ve seen Suzhou’s largest garden and its smallest. So the next morning, we head to the Lingering Garden, considered one of China’s four most famous gardens. Built in 1593 by Xu Taishi, a Ming Dynasty official who was impeached and later exonerated, the garden has 42 pavilions and pagodas, the most of any Suzhou classical garden, some say.
Outside, the undulating landscape, with miniature hills and mountains, is patterned after ancient imperial hunting grounds. Designed by a stonemason, the garden is also known for its limestone rockeries. Phantasmagorically shaped and pitted, the monoliths are highly prized by the Chinese who categorize them according to such qualities as “ooziness” and “translucence.”
Moments after entering the Lingering Garden, we hear a young man, in baggy navy-blue trousers and a flowing white shirt, playing a haunting melody on a bamboo flute as he’s slowly rowed across a pond in a long flat-bottomed boat.
Our walk soon brings us to the Celestial Hall of Five Peaks, named for five manmade limestone mountains in its forecourt, resembling the peaks of central China’s Mount Lu, one-time retreat of Chinese leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong.
Inside, the hall is decorated with fine mahogany furniture, ceramic vases, ink paintings and hanging lamps, all supported by heavy beams and pillars of reddish-brown phoebe nanmu, the same long-lasting wood used to build Beijing’s Forbidden City. Eight young women, in blue-and-white dresses with high Mandarin collars, play traditional long-necked Chinese lutes called pipas.
Strolling through several more pavilions, we finally reach the Auspicious Cloud-Capped Peak. Drawn from nearby Lake Taihu, the 21-foot limestone monolith is one of China’s most famous ornamental stones. Along with two shorter stones, it’s a stunning backdrop for three women in flowing yellow, blue and purple gowns who sing and dance with colorful fans.
By afternoon, we’re on Shantang Street, running alongside a canal lined with shops selling hand-painted scrolls, silk fans and other crafts. Lunch is at Songhelou restaurant. Over 250 years old, it was a favorite of mid-18th century Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong, a prolific art collector and poet as well as a military genius. Like many Suzhou restaurants, Songhelou offers various dishes but specializes in seafood. Among at least a dozen platters are pork-filled lion’s head meatballs, whitefish with water shield (a type of water-lily leaf), and Suzhou’s famous sweet-and-sour Mandarin Fish, carved and deep-fried to resemble a squirrel’s bushy fur.
More delicacies are on offer that evening. Across the lake from the W Hotel, in the trendy Ligongdi restaurant-and-nightlife district, contemporary-style Mei Mei serves a lavish banquet of no fewer than 13 dishes, including shrimp with asparagus and red bell pepper, lotus root with pork, chilled pumpkin chunks, and whole trout.
In only a few days, we’ve experienced many of Suzhou’s arts, including the horticultural, culinary and performing arts. The next morning dawns cloudy, so we head to the No. 1 Silk Factory, at the historic district’s southern edge, to learn about yet another Suzhou art.
Since the seventh-century Tang Dynasty, Suzhou has been China’s premier center for silk-making and silk embroidery. With a temperate climate and a prime location on the lower Yangtze River delta’s fertile plains, Suzhou always has supported a wide variety of crops, including silkworms’ preferred fare: mulberry-tree leaves. In addition, Suzhou has always attracted ambitious government officials and business leaders who covet rich fabrics for their garments as well as their homes.
The silk industry is still going strong in Suzhou. Among the many items available are wedding dresses. Incredibly, over 80 percent of the world’s wedding dresses are created in Suzhou. You can learn more about the industry at the Suzhou Silk Museum, the Museum of Suzhou Embroidery Art, and the Suzhou Silk Embroidery Research Institute, also home to the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, a Qing Dynasty classical garden and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the No. 1 Silk Factory, established in 1926, displays cover every aspect of silk-making from fat silkworms munching on mulberry leaves to actual weaving on decades-old looms. After that introduction, visitors are ushered through various showrooms. One large room is filled with beautifully made silk tablecloths and runners as well as embroidered silk “paintings,” from miniatures to outsized pieces. In other rooms, silk scarves, shirts, dresses, jackets and suits are sold. Still another room displays silk pillows and comforters, traditionally given to Chinese brides as wedding gifts from their parents.
The pieces are not only beautiful, well-made and reasonably priced, they’re also healthy. Naturally hypoallergenic, silk repels mold, fungus and dust mites. With a chemical profile similar to human hair, it’s said to nourish hair and prevent split ends. And, with moisture-retaining properties, silk is believed to be good for the skin. I find two beautiful gifts for well under $100: An intricately embroidered silk dress for my sister’s birthday and a stylish black Mandarin-style jacket with red and green fabric-covered buttons for a young nephew studying Mandarin Chinese.
By early afternoon, skies clear, and we’re off to Tongli, 11 miles southwest of Suzhou. One of six major “water towns” surrounding the city, Tongli is known as the “Oriental Venice” for its patchwork of canals spanned by nearly 50 stone bridges and lined with Ming and Qing dynasty temples, towers and pagodas.
Here, too, is the Retreat & Reflection Garden, the Suzhou-area’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site garden outside Suzhou’s city limits. It’s also a newer garden, built in 1885 for an impeached official who wished to retreat and reflect on his errors. The 1.04-acre park, also known as the Tuisi Garden, was designed by the painter Yuan Long and has all the features of older, larger classical gardens, including romantic-sounding pavilions like the Gathering Beauty Tower and the Soft Rain Brings Coolness Terrace. At the vessel-shaped Land Boat, whose black-tiled roof sports stylishly upturned “flying eaves,” musical performances are held regularly.
In the heart of town, a fleet of long, flat-bottomed wooden “gondolas” await us and other passengers. Climbing aboard the vessel of Captain Liu, one of several lady sailors, we set off on a 25-minute canal cruise. Skimming along narrow waterways, we pass galleries displaying calligraphy scrolls and landscape paintings, and shops selling local delicacies like mooncakes stuffed with lotus seeds or red-bean paste. We cruise alongside open-air bars and eateries, and beneath bridges with names like “Peace,” “Luck” and “Celebration.” We stop to watch trained cormorants dive for fish. Chinese townspeople going about their daily errands stop to grin and wave at the boatload of broadly smiling Westerners, and we wave back.
Excited and invigorated by our cruise, we only begin to unwind upon entering the Zen-like precincts of Xishantang, an elegant vegetarian restaurant run by local Buddhists. Situated on a peaceful side street, it’s in the 400-year-old house of a former silk merchant. Big, airy rooms, with wood-beamed ceilings, are simply but stylishly decorated in pale blues and earth tones, with spare wooden furniture, Ming Dynasty vases, Buddhist statuettes, and diaphanous curtains that billow in the breezes coming from large open windows.
Xishantang means “Happiness and Kindness,” and the restaurant doesn’t disappoint. Though only a couple of us are vegetarians, we all appreciate good food. Well-seasoned fare–including sautéed eggplant, bamboo-egg soup with pumpkin, potatoes, and bamboo shoots, and spring rolls with bean curd–is served up in pretty lacquered boxes not unlike Japanese bento boxes.
Back at the W Hotel, some of us relax in our spacious contemporary-style suites overlooking Jinji Lake, others sample the spring cocktail lineup as well as craft beers in the hotel’s lavishly decorated WOOBAR, and still others explore the attractions of the adjoining Suzhou Center mall.
By evening, we’ve reassembled for our farewell dinner at nearby Tonino Lamborghini, a stylish five-star boutique hotel along Lake Jinji’s shoreline. The hotel was created by the eponymous scion of the Italian automotive empire whose lifestyle ventures include luxury watches, leather goods, home furnishings–and three five-star hotels in China.
We retreat to LE LAC, the hotel’s tony French restaurant overlooking the twinkling lights of Jinji Lake. Surrounding the hotel are lush gardens with fragrant camphor trees, circular moon gates, waterfalls and ornamental stones. At a specially designed “water table,” with a stream flowing through its center, we enjoy steaks, chops and seafood as we reflect on the perfect blend of art and nature that seems to pervade each and every corner of Suzhou.
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.