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Tongli Highlights


In addition to its charming water scenes, Tongli is home to Tuisi Garden, aka the Retreat and Reflection Garden (Retreat Garden, for short), which can be favorably compared to the famous gardens of nearby Suzhou. Tongli is also known for the Former Residence of Chen Qubing in Shangyuan Street whose highlights include Baichi Tower as well as Haoge, Blue Emerald, and Green Jade Halls. The Former Residence of Chen Qubing has received the highest tourist rating – 4A – by the Chinese authorities, and has received official state protection under the country's patrimony commission (note that Chen Qubing (1874-1933) was one of the three founding fathers of the so-called Nanshe ("South Society"), the largest literary society of the late Qing Dynasty – early Republic of China era, and all three South Society founders were also members of the revolutionary (and forbidden, therefore underground, during the Qing Dynasy) organization founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Tongmenghui ("Chinese Revolutionary Alliance").

The most prominent ternate bridges are: Taipeng ("Peace"), Jili ("Luck"), and Changqing ("Glory"), which were constructed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It has for centuries been considered good luck to cross these all three of these bridges "in a row", i.e., in succession, and the tradition is still practiced by the citizens of Tongli to this day, who regard ternate bridges as a symbol of good luck and happiness, and believe that they dispel calamity and misfortune. It is said that if you go over Taipeng Bridge, you will be healthy throughout the year; if you go over Jili Bridge, your business will prosper; and if you go over Changqing Bridge, you will be forever young, and blessed with a long life.

A special daily ceremony is enacted, to which tourists are invited, where the individual, who dons a red costume – itself signifying good luck – is carried across the three bridges in succession in a Ming period sedan chair, and where two musicians lead the way, one playing a tune on a lusheng (a reed, or wind, instrument unique to China, with numerous bamboo pipes) while the other keeps beat with a drum. The ceremony stems from an ancient Tongli wedding ceremony where the bride was transported across the three bridges in the same fashion.

Another unique attraction in Tongli is its Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture. There are other Chinese cities with similar museums (for example, Shanghai), but it is rare to find such a museum in a small town like Tongli, and even rarer to find one in a "watertown", all of which bears witness to Tongli's open-mindedness. However, the musuem's subject matter is treated more from of a scientific perspective – though sometimes purely from the perspective of curiosa – than from an erotic perspective, and represents the sustained efforts of Professor Liu Dalin of Shanghai University to collect these many artifacts under a single roof, from diverse sources across China.

The exhibitions are divided into sections, each with its separate theme, such as Sex and Evolution, Sex in Literature and Art, and The Sexual Oppression of Women. The artifacts/ relics range from the explicit such as tomb paintings, devices for sexual stimulation, and figures with exaggerated sexual organs to the more implicit such as furniture designed to enhance the art of love-making. There is also the educational dimension, such as an exhibit that features porcelain figures which parents would discreetly place in the bottom of the dowry trunk with the aim of letting the bride discover how it was done, in case the groom was inexperienced or just too shy. In all, there are over 1200 such articles on display in the museum.

A more detailed description of Tuisi Garden and Tongli's three mansions (Gengle, Jiayin and Chongben Mansions), each of the latter consisting of numerous halls that surround a garden, is offered here for the interested reader:

Gengle Mansion was built during the Ming Dynasty, though its exact date of constuction is unknown. The enormous hall complex, including living quarters and a garden, was built by a Ming Dynasty official, Zhu Xiang, who styled himself Gengle and who declined a promotion as the result of having designed a famous bridge, Baodai Bridge, choosing instead to live the life of a recluse in Tongli, hence the name of the hall. Gengle Mansion comprises 52 houses distributed among 5 courtyards. One passes through three gates to reach the innermost of the 5 courtyards.

The garden naturally contains a pond, Lotus Pool, and a rockery made of grotesquely shaped (eroded into strange shapes) stones from the bottom of nearby Lake Tai. Bridges span corners and elongated stretches of the pool, in the style of the famous scholar gardens of Suzhou, with trees and buildings strategically placed so as to conceal the complete dimensions of the garden, a factor that gives the illusion of a much larger garden, as was the custom when constructing a scholar garden. Also in the garden stands an old pine tree that is over 400 years old. Some of the prominent halls of Gengle Mansion are: Mandarin Duck Hall, Huanxiu Hall, and Sweet-Scented Osmanthus Hall. Gengle Mansion has survived the rise and fall of several Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. It has been classified as one of the 8 best attractions of Tongli.

Jiayin Mansion, built in 1922 during the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949), is nevertheless built in the Ming Dynasty style, in keeping with the same style in whch Gengle Mansion was built. Jiayin Mansion faces Chongben Mansion across a waterway. Jiayin Mansion was built as the residence of a local scholar by the name of Liu Yazi (1887-1958), a friend and colleague of Chen Qubing (see the above reference (Attractions > Introduction) to Chen Qubing). Liu Yazi, also one of the three founding fathers of Nanshe ("South Society", the late Qing Dynasty – early Republic of China literary organization) wrote the preface to an influential article by Chen Qubing on the subject of the reform of Chinese theatre. The article was published in 1904 in the Chinese magazine, Ershi shiji dawutai ("The 20th-Century Grand Stage"), which was a short-lived media arm of Nanshe.

Jiayin Mansion is characterized by high, white outer walls and by inner walls clad with wood paneling that is ornamented with exquisite carvings. Above the main doorway is a section of roof with upturned eaves, reminiscent of the style of the Huizhou architecture of southern Anhui. A handsome but unimposing garden forms the center of the mansion complex.

Chongben Mansion, constructed by a wealthy Tongli merchant (Chong Ben) in 1912, has 4 courtyards and numerous buildings made of a combination of brick, stone and wood, with interior wood paneling on which are carved scenes from classic Chinese literature, including images of cranes and vases, both considered auspicous, the latter because the word for "vase" in Chinese is the same as that for the word "peace" (many Chinese words and numbers are considered lucky because their name is homonymic with another word that denotes a positive attribute such as luck, wealth, long life, etc.).

A special feature of Chongben Mansion is that each row of its buildings is situated at a slighly higher elevation than the preceeding row of buildings (i.e., the rows are "stepped"), which was the owner's way of expressing the hope, if not conviction, that each generation of the Chong family would attain greater success than the previous.

Tuisi Garden was constructed between the 11th and 13th year of the reign (1875-1908) of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty. The master of Tuisi Garden was an Imperial official on assignment in Anhui Province who had been dismissed. The name Tuishi literally means "a place of retreat and reflection", but in a very special sense: that of having regretted an action for which one has been fired. That is, a retreat garden was a place to do penance, as it were, to contemplate one's mistakes with an eye to correcting one's errant ways, not because this was a means to regain one's job (it wasn't), but because it was a way to regain one's dignity.

The notion of such a retreat garden is owing to a verse from the Zuo Zhuan (also translated as the "Chronicles of Zuo"), attributed to a certain Zuo Qiuming of the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, though the accuracy of this claim is disputed: "Lin Fu is truly a gentleman; when he forwards proposals, he shows loyalty to his country; when he retreats, he reflects and mends his ways".

The designer of Tuisi Garden, Yuan Long, managed to pack in a large number of buildings on a scant site of slightly less than 1/5 of an acre, yet without making it seem crowded. The highly compact garden is in two parts: a western section and an eastern section. The western section is a private dwelling that comprises an inner and an outer house, which in turn comprise the main reception hall, a tea hall and a sedan hall.

The eastern section comprises the more public areas of the garden, including ponds with boats, bridges that span the narrower parts of the pool, waterside pavilions (the most famous of which is Water Fragance Pavilion), kiosks, verandas, rockeries, and tree-lined walkways. In season, the garden is alive with blossoming flowers. A scholar garden was a place not only for contemplation, it was also a place where friends – fellow officials, writers, artists and intellectuals – met to discuss subjects high and low, and where one often drank copiously and generally "had a good time".

All in all, "Retreat Garden" is a place of beauty and charm, notwithstanding its more serious original purpose. Little surprise, then, that Tuishi Garden was recognized by the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage committee in 2001.

Tongli Highlights

In addition to its charming water scenes, Tongli is home to Tuisi Garden, aka the Retreat and Reflection Garden (Retreat Garden, for short). » more

Tongli Food

Tongli has a gentle, slightly humid climate, with lots of river branches that contain various edible fishes and aquatic plants. » more

Tongli Transportation

There are direct buses from Shanghai and Suzhou to Tongli. At Zhouzhuang, there are small buses going to Tongli which involve a journey of about ½ hour. » more

Tongli Accommodation

Chuanxin Alley, archaic yet elegant, is worthy of special mention, its bluestone pathways providing a hint of the city's ancient cultural flavor. » more

Tongli Itinerary

Although Tongli is small, its streets are relatively wide, with dwellings and business establishments alternating with noteworthy cultural and historical sites. » more

Tongli Travel Tips

You can rent a gondola (long boat) w/boatman for a quiet tour on the river– the price is 60 Yuan for a standard, 30 minute ride. » more


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