The city of Suzhou, situated on the shores of Lake Taihu in Jiangsu Province near the Yangtze River, is and has long been one of the key cities of the rich Yangtze River Delta. Due to its favorable location and many sites of interest, Suzhou is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of China.
With more than 489 sites of cultural significance that benefit from protection by either under the national, provincial government, or city government, Suzhou ranks third in the nation in terms of the sheer number of destinations of cultural importance, being surpassed only by the cities of Xi'an and Beijing, the capital of China.
The city of Suzhou is known above all for its garden culture. A prosperous city even as it was being founded, Suzhou gave rise to enormous personal wealth that was translated into elaborate private gardens, many of whose histories can be traced back to the origins of the city and are among some of China's best and most exquisite. The height of Suzhou garden art was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.
By the end of the Qing Dynasty, there were more than 170 gardens, mostly private and many sumptuous, in Suzhou. Today, more that 60 of these gardens are preserved intact, 19 of which are open to the public. Some of the more famous ones include Lingering Garden, the Garden of the Master of Nets, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, all in perfect states of tranquility and visual brilliance, though usually as a result of intensive restoration.
As well, much of Suzhou is built on a maze of canals. The streets and canals form an intricate web of traffic lanes, though the canals are no longer used for traffic to the extent that they were previously in older times. Buildings are laid out in rows facing a narrow street, with their backs to a canal. This unique arrangement spawned an age-old local expression that continues to this day: "little bridge, running water, and the household." Suzhou garden art is a comprehensive design that strives to make the most aesthetic use of building- and landscape architecture, whereby buildings, plants (copses, flower beds, lawns, etc.), stones, walkways, and water all come together in topographical harmony.
The city of Suzhou owes its creation to a prince who usurped power with the help of an accomplice who recommended a competent assassin. The accomplice, after the assassin had completed his mission and murdered the king on behalf of the prince, was then assigned the role of chief architect of the city that would eventually be named Suzhou. But the city’s dramatic history started in ancient times.
The area corresponding to present-day Suzhou once belonged to the Wu state during the relatively peaceful Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC) period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty(770- 221 BC). The Eastern Zhou Dynasty was ruled by a series of weak leaders, and therefore its princes, who were in fact the various relatives of the rulers of the aforementioned dynasty, all vied for power and ended up carving the dynasty into small principalities, or states. During the first part of this period of weak rule, the states coexisted more or less peacefully (the princes all recognized the nominal rule of the Zhou Dynasty over their respective states), albeit with the occasional incidence of intrigue and royal murder.
Then it came around that Prince Guang, coveting the wealth and power of King Liao of Wu, decided to have the king murdered. The prince turned to a friend, Wu Zixu, who himself earlier had to flee the neighboring (and rival) Chu state on accusations of a royal plot. It is said that the charges against Wu Zixu were false, but had he not fled, he would certainly have been put to death in the best, just-in-case manner that was characteristic of the period.
Humble Administrator Garden
Wu Zixu recommended a competent agent for the task, which was carried out, and Prince Guang then became King Helü in 515 BC. Meanwhile, Wu Zixu was put in charge of designing the new capital of the Wu state, the capital that would eventually be known as Suzhou. The new capital prospered, and its residents became immensely wealthy; it was this group of upper class that built the large, elaborate gardens which would become model gardens throughout China and eventually throughout the world.
Later, Wu Zixu was soon again called upon by King Helü in 506 BC, who decided that the time had come to overthrow the Chu state. For Wu Zixu, this would be sweet revenge over the state that had forced him to flee for his life. After a series of offensives against the Chu state, King Helü and his "lieutenants," Wu Zixu and Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War,” finally prevailed.
Some years later, the Wu state would itself suffer the same fate as had the Chu state. It was the Yue state that defeated and usurped the Wu state, and the son of King Helü, King Fuchai, who ascended the Wu throne in 495 BC after his father, was compelled to commit suicide (he "fell on his sword," as was the custom both in China and Japan in those times). These were both bitter fates, although also perhaps poetic justice, for the Wu state and for the son of the prince who had some years earlier ordered the death of the then King of Wu.
Suzhou Tongli Ancient Town
However, before King Fuchai lost his crown (and also his head) to the ruler of the Yue state, he forced the trusted ally of his father, Wu Zixu, to himself "fall on his sword." This was a matter of court rivalry between Wu Zixu, who had offered counsel to King Fuchai regarding the danger posed by the King of Yue, and Bo Pi, a high-ranking minister who was one of King Fuchai’s favorites. Bo Pi insisted that the King of Yue posed no threat, and that it would therefore be foolish to wage war on a peaceful neighboring state. King Fuchai preferred the advice offered by Bo Pi, who, it later was revealed, was in the services of the King of Yue.The Wu state was conquered and ceased to exist as a separate political and cultural entity by 473 BC.
Suzhou's Cultural Heritage
The Wu culture produced a rich tapestry of cultural influences that would shape the city of Suzhou beyond the cultural period defined by the Wu state proper. The city of Suzhou produced many literary geniuses and influences down through history, names such as Lu Ji from the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316); the politician Fan Zhongyan and the poet Fan Chengda from the Song Dynasty (960-1279); the dramatist Feng Menglong from the Ming Dynasty; Tang Yin and Wen Zhengming of the Wu Painting School, both of whom were scholar-artists during the Qing Dynasty; and the scholar and political activist Gu Yanwu; the renowned philologist Yu Yue; and Zhang Binglin, also known as Jiang Taiyan, a philologist, literary critic, and anti-Manchu (anti-Qing-government) agitator.
Suzhou was also known for its ballad singing traditions, its story-telling arts, and its theatrical dramas also known as Chinese operas (although official and technical Chinese operas such as the Hong Kong film, “Farewell My Concubine,” are of a specific genre distinct from Western operas. The Chinese Opera of Suzhou and the Kun school of opera (also known as Kunqu), dominated the culture of central China for roughly the first century of the Qing Dynasty, with some overlapping with the previous Ming Dynasty period. The ballad songs, story-telling arts, and Kunqu Opera were the 3 pillars (or "flowers," as they were termed) of Suzhou culture.
The Kun school of opera grew out of the efforts of a local Suzhou musician by the name of Gu Jian, who combined the music style that was typical of Central China of that period with the elements of theatrical drama. The Kunqu Opera, which, in its Ming and Qing heyday was the fully-blossomed romantic opera of the royal court, was later replaced in popularity in the mid-18th century by Jingxi, or Peking Opera.
The embroideries of Suzhou are also infamous, and, together with the needlework traditions of Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan Provinces, was known as the "Four Famous Embroideries." The Suzhou tapestry method is done using fine silks and gold thread. Other famous art traditions that helped to keep Suzhou on the cultural map were the city's sculptures, Song Dynasty brocades, jade and rosewood carvings, and of course Suzhou's classical gardens.
When in Suzhou, be sure to pay a visit to the Suzhou Museum, which has a vibrant collection of historical and cultural artifacts from China's ancient and as well as more modern past. The collection includes revolutionary records, stele carvings, folk customs, drama and verse, Suzhou embroidery, silk cloths, ancient coins, Buddhist artifacts, and an exhibition on Suzhou's classical garden style.
Present-day Suzhou is a modern, bustling metropolis with many nooks and crannies that allude back to its ancient past, adding flavor to the city. Greater Suzhou has a population of some 6 million inhabitants, 2 million of whom inhabit the city's center and its immediate area.
Despite its immense size, Suzhou is not a city of only steel, glass, and concrete, but also of greenery, thanks to its many classical gardens. In 1981, the central government recognized Suzhou, along with Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guilin, as a Chinese cultural and historical treasure trove to be protected by the state. This means that the future development of these cities must proceed in a manner such that progress does not compromise their cultural and historical integrity.
In December 1997, UNESCO added Zhuozhengyuan Garden (The Humble Administrator’s Garden), Liuyuan Garden (Lingering Garden), Wangshiyuan Garden (Garden of the Master of Nets), and Huanxiushanzhuang Garden (Embracing Beauty Mountain Villa) to the World Heritage List. They combine to be considered the best, most comprehensive set of private gardens to represent the ancient garden culture of the city of Suzhou. These green retreats have since been appreciated the world over for their grace and beauty.