Two hours west of the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai lies the city of Suzhou, which is small only in relative terms – it’s home to more than six million people – but feels very different, as it has managed to preserve the old town at its heart. Enclosed by walls and moats, the grid layout of this area has barely changed for a thousand years. Suzhou itself has existed for 2,500 years and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations for Chinese visitors. It’s famous for its canals, its silk, its tea, its opera and its gardens. I’ve just spent two weeks working in this fascinating place (hardly ever leaving the bounds of the Old City), installing an exhibition in Suzhou Museum, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its new building in 2016. It’s been a wonderful experience and I wanted to share some of the places we were shown by Allen and Alice, who were looking after us.
I’m going to start with some of the parks and gardens that we visited, and I’ll talk about some of the museums in another post, otherwise this’ll end up being incredibly long. Let’s start with the most famous of Suzhou’s many gardens.
THE HUMBLE ADMINISTRATOR’S GARDEN
Nine of Suzhou’s gardens are bundled together as the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest and most famous of them. It covers more than 5.1 hectares, but feels larger thanks to the winding walks and the careful screening with trees and walls of other parts of the garden, which you stumble upon suddenly, framed in windows or round ‘moon doors’ with the perfection and accuracy of a painting. As I know little about gardening and even less about Chinese gardens, the sheer artistry captivated me. I was charmed by the idea of building one pavilion for each season, each carefully chosen so that it would offer the perfect prospect of plants and flowers that looked their best at that time of year. I liked the sheer elegance of a garden where a stroll would be broken several times, to sit and drink tea, to talk with friends, to gaze across a pool while a musician played a zither, or to pass a few moments writing a poem in beautiful calligraphy. This is leisure turned into an art form.
There has been a garden on this site since the 12th century, but the present name dates from the 16th century, when the imperial official Wang Xiancheng retired from his duties and came home to his native Suzhou. He christened this place the Humble Administrator’s Garden as a wry nod to a 3rd century poem, An Idle Life, by Pan Yue, in which the author declares that he is quite happy governing the needs of his vegetables and gardening rather than anything more complicated. For all that, the appellation does sound a bit inappropriate for this maze-like paradise. The painterly quality of the garden design is telling: Wang Xiancheng was friends with the celebrated artist Weng Zhengming, who often came to visit him and produced a series of paintings and poems about the garden in 1533. Unfortunately, though, the family’s ownership of the garden didn’t last long. Wang Xiancheng’s son was a gambler and, one night, he staked and lost the garden in his games. From this point on, it was split into three, and the division is still clearly visible both in the character of the different gardens and in the walls and ‘corridors’ separating the three parts. It wasn’t until 1949, when the gardens were acquired by the Chinese state, that the three parts were reunited, restored and later opened to the public.
THE LION FOREST GARDEN
This seems to be more commonly known in English as the Lion Grove Garden, but our Chinese friends referred to it as ‘Lion Forest’ and that’s how it stuck in my mind. This is a much smaller garden than the Humble Administrator’s sprawling maze of pools and greenery and it’s primarily a rock garden, dominated by stone spires and stalagmites which have been worn by water into interesting shapes. These surge out of ponds and artificial hillsides, turning the path into a labyrinth. Sometimes you can sneak through tunnels or wind your way through crevices; you can climb steps to discover waterfalls or pavilions nestling among the trees. From these terraces, you can look down on the ornate sculpture of the garden, while imagining yourself taking tea, drinking wine or indulging in a spot of calligraphy. I imagine that, if you’re travelling with children, this will spark their interest much more than the larger but more formal Humble Administrator’s Garden. Here in the Lion Forest Garden there’s a greater sense of adventure: even my colleague and I couldn’t resist climbing rock piles and creeping through tiny cave-passages. And the architect I.M. Pei, who would later design the new Suzhou Museum, has written of his own childhood memories of exploring the garden, which then belonged to his relatives.
The garden has a long history and acquired its name in a rather unusual way. When it was first created in 1342, it formed part of a monastery complex and was designed in honour of the former abbot Zhongfen. The rocks, which were thought to be shaped like lions, may have been an allusion to the Lion Peak near Hangzhou, where Zhongfen is thought to have attained nirvana. However, in the years since the 14th century the garden has been restored several times – in the 16th, 18th and 20th centuries – and I don’t know how much of what we see now is original. It was ceded by the family to the Chinese state in 1949 and has been open to the public since 1956: the only classical rock garden that survives, offering an interesting contrast to the green and lush expanses of the Humble Administrator’s Garden a short walk away.
Down in the south-western corner of Suzhou’s old town, there’s a pleasant park nestling in the curve of the ancient city wall beside Pan Men, the only one of the old city gates to survive. The gate isn’t the first thing you see, however, when you enter the site: instead, you see the towering Ruiguang Pagoda. The original structure is the oldest pagoda in Suzhou, dating from the 3rd century, but it has been restored many times over the years and what we see now dates from the 12th century, when the pagoda’s original thirteen storeys were reduced to seven. You can climb almost to the top of the pagoda, which gives good views out across the city and the rest of the park, but much of the climb is via wooden steps that are always on the verge of turning into ladders, so it’s only for those who are firm on their feet. Back in 1978, a couple of boys were playing on the third storey of the pagoda and accidentally broke through into a bricked-up recess in the wall, where they discovered a cache of Buddhist treasures from the 11th and 12th centuries. Chief among them was an intricate wooden reliquary or stupa, embellished with gold and silver, and topped by a pearl, which is now one of the treasures of Suzhou Museum.
Beyond the pagoda there’s plenty to see, with a large pond, pavilions, bridges and trees. I was amused to discover a gondola tucked away in one corner of the park, which was presented to Suzhou by the city of Venice (naturally, the two are sister-cities). But if you strike further south from the pagoda, you come to the towering city wall, first built around 2,500 years ago, although what we see now is 14th century. On the top of the wall stands an impressive gatehouse – now used as a photo studio, where visitors can dress up as Chinese generals or ladies (I was tempted). The gatehouse looks down into the outer ward. If an invading army made it through the first gate, they’d be funnelled into a square yard where archers, standing around the walls, could fire down on them. Only after braving that could they attack the inner gate and reach the city itself. Beside the land gate, there’s a water gate – less a military gate than a way to regulate the flow of water entering Suzhou’s canals. Two great wheels on the wall would have been used to raise or lower the water gate, presumably something like a portcullis, to open or close the flow from the outer moat. Unsurprisingly, the area just inside the gate has been colonised by souvenir-sellers.
Some way beyond the north-western corner of the old town, and now surrounded by the busy streets of modern Suzhou, lies the scenic park of Tiger Hill. It’s focused, as you might expect, on the titular hill, which was the burial place of King Helu of Wu (the ancient kingdom which took Suzhou as its capital) in about 496 BC. There are all sorts of wonderful legends about this hill: the king was buried with his treasure beside the Sword Pond, where 3,000 ancient blades are said to have been buried, but his tomb has never been found; a white tiger magically appeared after his burial to guard his grave; a thousand craftsmen who were involved in building the tomb were murdered by order of the king’s son, giving their name to the large expanse of rock now called Thousand People Rock. It was hard, on a brief and busy visit (on the first day of the National Holiday) to understand exactly how these stories related to the things we saw, but fortunately Tiger Hill is such a splendid place that you can enjoy it perfectly well without the legends.
From the car park, you climb up a flight of steps to a temple where a large golden statue of the Buddha sits, flanked by disciples. Here the path diverges and you can choose whether to continue along the main road or to climb, as we did, up through a parallel series of pavilions and gardens. In one of the pavilions that we passed, a beautiful woman in historical costume was playing a zither – presumably part of the holiday entertainment. Further up the hill, we discovered the broad expanse of Thousand People Rock, and from here we climbed further to the summit of Tiger Hill and the Yunyan Pagoda. This pagoda, finished in around 961, was once at the heart of a large temple complex dating from the 4th century, but which was largely destroyed in the Second World War. The pagoda itself is all that survives, leaning markedly to one side (at an angle of 3 degrees, 0.9 degrees less than the tower at Pisa), which has earned it the affectionate nickname The Leaning Tower of China. It’s of particular interest in the context of Suzhou Museum, because one of the collection’s great treasures – the Lotus Bowl – was discovered in a bricked-up shrine within the walls of the pagoda.
From here we made our way down again, towards the sound of martial music, which led us to an open-air stage with a performance of folk-dancing and acrobatics. Thanks to the holidays, the crowd was immense and so we presently left again and climbed down to the Bonsai Museum, a series of serene gardens with displays of beautifully tended trees. Finally, we had just enough time to seek shelter from the hot sun in the bamboo forest, before heading back to the car. We just had a couple of hours there, but if you had a very good guidebook or a local friend, you could easily spend an entire day wandering through the different levels and tracking down the sites of various legends.
Our hotel was just round the corner from this long pedestrianised canalside street, little wider than an alleyway in places. If you’re staying anywhere in the surrounding area, this should be your first port of call of an evening as it’s packed with restaurants, street food stalls and shops selling all kinds of Suzhou handicrafts. Most of the places to eat either have English translations on their menus, or photos that you can point at, so you won’t be entirely at sea if you can’t speak Mandarin. It isn’t easy to explain special diets, but if you’re willing to just plunge in and try anything, it’s enormous fun. On one night at Pin Von, about two hundred yards down on the right hand side, we found ourselves squeezed onto a table with three Chinese friends. Although we couldn’t communicate, we made a point of smiling a lot and sharing our food, which meant that I finally did end up sampling a chicken foot. I regret to say that I’m still not a convert.
The shopping on Pingjiang Street is pretty affordable by Western standards and you can pick up all sorts of lovely things. There’s a marvellous shop about fifty yards down on the left, selling various flavours of tea as well as teacups and teapots, while further down on the left you can find woodwork, silk and shops crowded with irresistible knickknacks. Most shop-owners speak a little English and those who don’t will often turn to translation apps on their phones. I went slightly berserk buying sets of tiny tea-bowls, because I love the shape, and also managed to do a good portion of my Christmas shopping. Even if you don’t want to buy, it’s lovely just to spend a while wandering up and down to get a flavour of Suzhou, people-watching and marvelling at the scooters which persist in weaving their way down through the crowds. Be aware, though, that the Chinese eat early. Peak restaurant time is around 6:30pm and, if you come much after 7:30pm, you may find places emptying out and starting to close.
So, that’s an introduction to the outdoor spaces of Suzhou. In the next post, we’ll go inside some of the museums we had the chance to visit.