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Simply Suzhou

By Raymond Zhou( China Daily )

Updated: 2008-08-18

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 Simply Suzhou

The old town of Suzhou is a world of old houses, streams and bridges.

Suzhou is a city that can induce dreams - dreams of a time in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when artists and retired officials made a leisurely walk in the park an art.

I am not talking about the sprawling new districts on both its east and west suburbs, where high-tech facilities merge seamlessly with well-planned landscapes. I am talking about the 14.2-sq-km old town surrounded by canals on four sides and crisscrossed with so many streams that a comparison with Venice is inevitable.

I love the old town because it does not have any building taller than 10 stories and very few large chain stores or supermarkets. If there were no automobiles on the streets, it would be easier to imagine how the city was created 2,500 years ago. A modern theme park can imitate the architecture, but not the atmosphere of languor and tranquility lulled by high culture, Suzhou style.

Much of what you see dates from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), though. The best surprises come when you veer off a main street and walk across a small bridge.

You will most likely come face to face with a riverside lane paved with slabs. This is how the ordinary people live - or used to live as more residents make their homes out of the old town nowadays. The lane is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. As roads can be slippery when wet, people tend to have a dainty gait. Marching in such an environment is inconceivable.

Bridges in Suzhou are not just a mode of river crossing, but a mood enhancer for romanticizing the mundane. One feels like a fairy godmother with long sleeves sweeping along the stone steps. Marco Polo could be exaggerating when he praised the "6,000 stone bridges" of this city, or maybe he mistakenly added an extra zero to the figure. But the city - within the confines of the old town - is dotted with hundreds of small bridges. A Song Dynasty (960-1279) map listed 314, and 161 still extant.

There is one type of bridge a tourist cannot cross because it is part of a private house. A typical household in the old town has two entrances: One facing the street and the other the river. In the old days, cargo was moved by boats and would dock at any building. Occasionally, a household had a few extra rooms on the opposite side of the river and built a covered bridge to connect both sides.

I got myself onto one such bridge when a friend took me to the Tongdexin Noodle Shop. She said Zhang Yimou, a Xi'an native who is known to eat noodles as a staple, made a special effort to seek out this eatery. We chose "the bridge room", which accommodated only one table.

The noodles were delicious, but the surrounding absolutely divine. The river flowed under it. Droplets of drizzle created circles on the water without a sound. A boat with a man in a straw rain cape on the deck did not make a single splash. It was like a scene from a scroll painting, come alive.

Suzhou is best known for its private gardens. At its height during the Ming and Qing dynasties, it boasted more than 280 such gardens, with 69 still in good condition today.

Unlike the imperial gardens in Beijing, a private garden here is demure on the outside. Whitewashed walls and black-tile roofs appear just like a typical residential building. At the back of some of these residences hide microcosms of Mother Nature.

The Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) is widely believed to be the best specimen. The original builder and owner was a Ming Dynasty official, who, in 1509, after a frustrated career, decided to retire to the life of a recluse. Traditionally, Chinese scholars used the imperial exam to ascend the steps of officialdom, and Chinese officials retreated from politics to the literary and artistic diversions of scholars.

A life in the wild could entail hardships beyond measure. To channel wild nature into a manageable landscape not far from the hub of commerce, yet shielded from the maddening crowd with high walls, could be the best of both worlds.

A Chinese garden is rooted in Taoism: It seeks synchronization of opposites - of black and white, of mountain and water, of worldly pleasure and solitary contemplation, of holding on and letting go, of yin and yang, and ultimately, of the beauty in nature and the beauty in one's mind.

A Chinese garden is dictated by the aesthetics of a Chinese painting. It has multiple layers and multiple focal points. A pond-side pavilion with red pillars may stand out, but it is not the center of everything. As you move closer, its pillars may turn into the foreground while the stone bridge beyond the pond zooms into focus.

 Simply Suzhou

Boating is a pleasant way to explore the old town of Suzhou. File photos

The best way to enjoy a garden is to pause after every few steps and take in the sight from every possible angle. Shift your vision and mentally draw a frame - or use your camera. See how easy it is to get a well-composed picture. Doorways and windowsills become frameworks for your image when you stand close. As you walk, imagine what you see as a series of still photos.

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