In my last post, I wrote about some of the famous gardens and parks of Suzhou, but here we get down to the really good stuff: the museums which preserve and record the city’s history and handicrafts. We didn’t have time to see all the museums in Suzhou, but those we did visit helped me to put things in context a little better and left me itching to find out more. I’m going to start with the place where I spent most of my time: Suzhou Museum.
Although it was founded in 1960, the Museum as we see it today is only ten years old, and is the brainchild of the architect I.M. Pei, whose family owned the nearby Lion Forest Garden. Its architecture, which you can see in the opening image of this post, is the chief attraction for many visitors. Pei’s design borrows from the white walls and black beams of traditional Suzhou architecture, but reinterprets it in a series of juxtaposed geometric forms. Water is everywhere, and dominates the splendid garden. Here the museum building is reflected in the vast sheet of water, crossed by a bridge, from which you can peer down at the shoals of brilliant orange fish and stately koi carp swimming beneath you. Against the wall, an arrangement of shaped rocks suggests a range of mountains, likewise reflected in the water, and over the top of the wall, you can just see the trees of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The Museum’s own garden is planted with beautifully-shaped mature trees and a bamboo grove, and the whole effect is quite stunning, especially on a sunny day with blue skies.
The Museum was originally housed in Zhong Wang Fu, the adjoining 19th-century mansion built by Li Xiucheng, one of the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion. When the new building opened in 2006, the mansion was restored and offers a lovely contrast of wooden latticed halls and lush water gardens. But the collection has now been entirely moved over to the new galleries, which display examples of Suzhouan craftsmanship from Neolithic times through to the elegant scholars’ accessories of the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are two exhibition spaces: one, downstairs, is currently showing a selection of objects on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing, while the Contemporary Art Gallery on the ground floor will be showing our exhibition of Italian Renaissance Drawings from the British Museum until January 2017. Upstairs there’s a changing selection of albums and scrolls from the collection of Chinese paintings.
There are too many exhibits for me to write about all my favourites, but I thought I’d select just a few to mention here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the famous Lotus Bowl, dating from the 10th century, which was discovered at Yunyan Pagoda on Tiger Hill. This olive-green porcelain bowl looks astonishingly modern, with its very simple and elegant design, with the bowl formed from the fluted petals of a lotus flower. I also loved the jade ornaments from the Cao Family Tomb, dating to the 13th or 14th century. These were tied to a wealthy woman’s belt as a sign of her status, but they also had another function. If she moved at any pace other than the stately glide dictated by her rank, the ornaments would clatter and give her away. Of course there were many, many other things I loved – a jasper three-legged toad; a blue-and-white cricket container; a blue-and-yellow plate contemporary with, and similar to, Renaissance majolica… but the final piece I want to mention in detail is, in fact, a room. This is the Museum’s reconstruction of a Ming-period scholar’s study, which provides some context for the important role played by literati and intellectuals in Suzhou’s history. This room was gorgeously serene – enough to make you wish that you could strip back your own office to such austere elegance.
SUZHOU SILK MUSEUM
In 1276 Marco Polo visited Suzhou and wrote that, among the city’s other wonders, ‘they possess silk in great quantities, from which they make gold brocade and other stuffs‘. Silk has been Suzhou’s lifeblood since time immemorial and there’s a lovely, shiny new museum devoted to the history of the craft. The entrance hall is decorated with reliefs showing the trade on the Silk Road, while the first gallery preserves ancient samples of silk excavated from tombs and shown alongside modern reconstructions. I was fascinated by a red-and-black striped jin-silk reconstructed from an original found in Ji’an in Jiangxi province. This pattern dates from the 5th century BC and yet is remarkably modern and sophisticated. The same was true of other patterns deriving from fragments of the 1st and 6th centuries AD. It made me realise how colourless our view of history is, with no idea of the vibrant, detailed and elegant fabrics our ancestors would have worn.
Probably the most enjoyable part of the Museum was the section where we got to follow the making of silk from worm to weave, literally. A basket of mulberry leaves contains a happy community of silkworms, while pupae nestle on a shelf at the corner of the room. In the next gallery, beyond panels showing spinning and dying, we watched two young people weaving the coloured threads into a pattern on a two-person loom. A man was perched up on top of the loom, making sure that the warp threads didn’t get tangled, while a girl shot a shuttle back and forth, with a different coloured thread attached each time, raising and lowering the warp threads to create a patterned weft. I think that’s right. Forgive me if I’ve got the terminology wrong: I know nothing about the practice of weaving, but it was fascinating to watch the process. Finally there are galleries showing further samples of silk, all the way through from the Ming dynasty up to the Qing period and the Chinese Republic, featuring silk embroidery and cut velvet as well as flat patterned silks. It was a true riot of colour and pattern, and a very interesting glimpse of Suzhou’s ancient craft.
SUZHOU MUSEUM OF INSCRIBED STONE TABLETS
I’ll be completely honest: when our host Allen first told us about this museum, I wasn’t entirely sure how much I’d be able to get out of it. The tablets in question preserve examples of especially fine calligraphy in various historic styles and, while it might be very useful for Chinese researchers, I was afraid that an ignorant Westerner like me wouldn’t be able to perceive all that much difference. However, I needn’t have worried. There was plenty to appreciate aside from the graceful inscriptions. The Museum lies within the precincts of a Confucian temple, which was formerly also a school and was founded in 1035. Our guide told us that, on purchasing this plot of land, the first owner Fan Zhongyan (then Prefect of Suzhou) asked for auspices to be cast so that he could find out if it was a fortunate purchase. He was told that the site was highly auspicious and that those who lived there would gain great knowledge and high office. Deciding to share his good fortune, the generous Prefect shelved his original plan to build his house there, and founded a school instead, so that all the students would share in this luck.
A statue of Confucius stands in the front courtyard, with a fire burning in front of it. While we were there, we saw a couple of women come to pray in front of the statue and to offer bundles of incense or other offerings. Our guide explained that people come to pray to Confucius in the hope that their children will get good grades in their exams. Beyond the statue, the temple itself houses a large icon of Confucius and images of his chief disciplines on the side walls. The tables in front of the icon house a variety of unusual musical instruments, and on either side of the picture there are racks of bronze bells. We had the very rare privilege of meeting the Museum’s director and being taken behind the ropes so that we could try ringing the bells for ourselves, using little padded hammers. That was great fun, and an honour that we very much appreciated. Another activity, which I highly recommend, is to have a go at ‘rubbing’ replica tablets. Using a wad of padded cloth, you apply ink across the surface of an engraved tablet and then press down a sheet of paper to take a facsimile, in a traditional practice which has been used for centuries to preserve and duplicate Chinese inscriptions. And you can take it home with you!
At one end of the temple precinct, a room houses the Museum’s most important artefacts: four large stone tablets from the Song dynasty. Each is over two metres high and one metre wide, and our guide said they were engraved to help a young king (or emperor?) learn about his country. The most significant is Pingjiang Tu, a map of Suzhou’s old city dating from 1229 and showing the distinctive grid pattern which still survives. It’s the oldest surviving city map in China. The three other tablets date from 1247 and are respectively Dili Tu, which is one of the oldest national maps and shows China in the Song Dynasty, marked with cities, rivers, mountains and the Great Wall; Diwangshaoyun Tu, essentially an early family tree, which shows the lineage of ancient Chinese kings; and finally Tianwen Tu, the earliest surviving astronomical map of the Eastern skies, with over one thousand stars engraved into stone, making up constellations and the Milky Way. Again I was amazed by the antiquity and accuracy of these maps. We admire Renaissance mapmaking for introducing the bird’s eye view of cities, but 250 years earlier in China we have a cartographer making a map of an entire country seen from the air. Astonishing.
SUZHOU OPERA MUSEUM
Now, I’m a complete beginner as far as Chinese opera is concerned – my only experience is watching Farewell My Concubine, which I think we can all agree doesn’t make me a viable critic – so I shall flounder through and do my best here. Suzhou Opera is kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, although I’d love to know more about how it differs from Peking Opera and hope that some wise person can tell me more in the comments. The people in Suzhou are very proud of it and there’s not just a museum devoted to opera, but also several theatres throughout the city, as well as evening recitals in a couple of places along Pingjiang Street. For a Westerner, especially one used to the flamboyant fireworks of Baroque opera, it’s intoxicatingly foreign but aesthetically absolutely gorgeous.
The exhibits in the Suzhou Opera Museum are most meaningful if you read Chinese and if you have an existing understanding of the art. While I appreciated seeing the breadth of the collections – from troupes’ account books to musical scores and libretti – I think most Western visitors will find the most enjoyable part of the Museum to be the performances. These happen on Sunday afternoons at 2pm and run for an hour or so. You won’t be seeing a full opera: kunqu opera sometimes runs to 22 hours, and so the Museum puts on a couple of scenes from a wider work. We saw two sections from one of the most famous Chinese plays, the Ming-Dynasty Peony Pavilion (1598, and thus contemporary with Shakespeare, as someone pointed out to us).
First, the heroine Du Liniang takes a walk in her garden with her maid; among the beauties of the garden, she falls asleep and dreams of a handsome young scholar, with whom she falls instantly in love. When she wakes and realises that she has no way to find her beloved, she pines away and dies. The second section we saw introduces us to the young man, Liu Mengmei, who is contemplating the drawing of a young woman who has recently died – none other than Du Liniang. Meditating on the portrait, Liu Mengmei is convinced that he has seen this beautiful woman before and, as the truth dawns on him (for he, too, had a dream), he prays for her to be reunited with him. Cue a deus ex machina, as the god of the underworld rules that these two lovers belong together, and everyone lives happily ever after. As I said to a friend, it’s like Orfeo, but more upbeat.
Kunqu opera is an acquired taste for Western ears and I haven’t yet acquired it completely. The singing sounds very slow, with some discordant twists of melody, but there were some interesting parallels in performance with the contemporary Baroque style. The romantic hero in kunqu opera sings in falsetto (although Liu Mengmei was a veritable clown, more like Bertie Wooster than one of Metastasio’s tortured heroes), and there was extensive use of very graceful hand gestures. But the most dazzling aspect was the costumes and makeup: the dazzling headdresses, flowing robes and astonishingly long sleeves, which were used as if they had a language as complex as that of fans in the West. I’ve been left longing to know more about the conventions and history of this style, and I hope it won’t be too long before one of the Chinese opera companies comes to do The Peony Pavilion again in London (I missed it at Sadler’s Wells in 2008).
So that’s my experience of Suzhou. There were several museums I didn’t have a chance to visit, and I didn’t manage to wander far beyond Pingjiang Street, but I had an amazing time and learned a huge amount about the city and Chinese history more broadly. I didn’t know enough about China to have any preconceptions, beyond the fact I thought it would be busy, modern and perhaps slightly bleak. Far from it: Suzhou was busy, all right, but its historical centre is a little jewel, and we were looked after incredibly well. It was a super experience and I really hope that work will take me back one day.