A Sunday in Suzhou, China
Suzhou (roughly pronounced as Zoojoe), formerly romanized as Soochow, is a major city located in southeastern Jiangsu Province of East China, about 100 km (62 mi) northwest of Shanghai. It is a major economic center and a focal point of trade and commerce. It is the second-largest city in the province, after its capital Nanjing.
Our bus ride to Suzhou began from our hotel in Shanghai and took a little over an hour to reach the city. From the moment that we arrived, it was easy to tell that this was a magical place, almost like a Disneyland for adults.
As a major historical and cultural tourist attraction in China, most organized tour groups include a visit to Suzhou as either part of their tour package or as a supplemental optional tour. If the occasion presents itself to visit this charming place, one should take advantage of that opportunity.
The city is situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the shores of Lake Tai and belongs to the Yangtze River Delta region. Administratively, Suzhou is a prefecture-level city with a population of 4.33 million in its city proper, and a total resident population (as of 2013) of 10.58 million in its administrative area. Its urban population grew at an unprecedented rate of 6.5% between 2000 and 2014, which is the highest among cities with more than 5 million people.
Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of history, with an abundant display of relics and sites of historical interest. Around 100 AD, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it became one of the ten largest cities in the world mostly due to emigration from Northern China. Since the 10th-century Song Dynasty, it has been an important commercial center of China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, Suzhou was a national economic, cultural, and commercial center, as well as the largest non-capital city in the world, until the 1860 Taiping Rebellion.
Since major economic reforms began in 1978, Suzhou has become one of the fastest-growing major cities in the world, with GDP growth rates of about 14% in the past 35 years. With high life expectancy and per capita incomes, Suzhou’s Human Development Index ratings are roughly comparable to a moderately developed country, making it one of the most highly developed and prosperous cities in China.
The city’s canals, stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens have contributed to its status as one of the top tourist attractions in China. The Classical Gardens of Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. Suzhou is often dubbed as the “Venice of the East” or “Venice of China.”
A Sunday in the park is filled with families and tourists, both domestic and from abroad. Above, three generations of one family enjoy a day of leisure in the splendid setting of Suzhou.
Our journey through Suzhou began at the northern end of the canals with a glorious boat ride, unhurried and peaceful along the gentle, uncrowded canal waterway.
The name Suzhou was first officially used for the city in AD 589 during the Sui dynasty. The character 蘇 or 苏 is a contraction of the mountain and old name Gusu. The sū in its name refers to the mint perilla (shiso). The character 州 originally meant something like a province or county (Guizhou), but often came to be used relatively for the capital of such a region (Guangzhou, Hangzhou, etc.). Suzhou is the Hanyu Pinyin spelling of the Mandarin pronunciation of the name. Prior to the adoption of pinyin, it was variously romanized as Soo-chow, Suchow, or Su-chow.
As you glide gently along the waterway you seem to pass by unnoticed as everyday life is observed along the way.
Suzhou, the cradle of Wu culture, is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze Basin. By the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou, local tribes named the Gou Wu are recorded living in the area which would become the modern city of Suzhou. These tribes formed villages on the edges of the hills above the wetlands surrounding Lake Tai.
Traditional accounts say that the Zhou lord Taibo established the state of Wu at nearby Wuxi during the 11th century BC, civilizing the local people and improving their agriculture and mastery of irrigation. The Wu court later moved to Gusu within the area of modern Suzhou. In 514 BC, King Helü of Wu relocated his court nearby and called the settlement Helü City in honor of himself. His minister Wu Zixu was closely involved with city planning and it was this site that grew into present-day Suzhou.
When the Grand Canal, the longest as well as the oldest canal in the world, was completed to include Suzhou, the city found itself strategically located on a major trade route. In the course of the history of China, it has been a metropolis of industry and commerce on the southeastern coast of China. During the Tang dynasty, the great poet Bai Juyi constructed the Shantang Canal (better known as “Shantang Street”) to connect the city with Tiger Hill for tourists.
Above, the smile on our boatman could light up an entire city and summed up the sentiment we had on this trip. He spoke no English and that smile never left his face. The boat was small, holding six passengers, and all of us smiled the entire time as well!
Suzhou has a charm that is unmistakably Chinese but gives an aura of history and balance. We were fortunate to be there while a production crew was staging and photographing various models for presumably a Chinese fashion magazine. It was a splendid occasion which caused the shutter of my camera to get pressed many, many times.
As our boat ride along the canal completed at the southern end of the city, we were given plenty of time to walk back along the streets and shops that lined the canal. Here we found all sorts of activity including, above, a candy maker in a small shop as he rolls out hot sesame candy showing his muscular arms from years of doing this work.
Above and below, numerous boatmen (and boatwomen) ply the canals, delivering both goods and human cargo.
The town of Suzhou was first opened to direct foreign trade by the Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the First Sino-Japanese War and by the most favored nation clauses of earlier unequal treaties with the Great Powers. The new expatriates opened a European-and-Chinese school in 1900. The Suzhou Railway Station connected the city with Shanghai and opened on July 16, 1906. Just prior to the First World War, there were some 7,000 silk looms in operation, as well as a cotton mill and a sizable trade in rice.
Above, a poster in Suzhou of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s The Little Red Book or as it is really titled- Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The red book is filled with over 260 sayings attributed to the Communist Chinese leader. These dictums cover many subjects, both political and otherwise, ranging from subjects related to the struggle of the masses, inequality of the classes and a famous Mao saying that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Originally produced in 1964 by the People’s Liberation Army, it soon became a key feature of the leader’s cult of personality. The Ministry of Culture’s goal was to distribute a copy to every Chinese citizen and hundreds of new printing houses were built in order to achieve this. Mao, ever the egotist, reportedly likens its resemblance to books of quotations by famous philosophers such as Confucius.
“Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work in production.”
― Mao Tse-tung, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery… A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” A quotation from Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s little red book.
Although the weather was grand when we visited Suzhou, we found ample places where a colorful umbrella could be procured for very little money.
And for a few dollars, one could enjoy a scenic ride in a foot-powered, chain drive rickshaw.
After our cruise along the canal, we had an enjoyable lunch and were given ample time to stroll along the boulevard of the more modern parts of Suzhou.
A chef takes a moment from the hectic pace of a busy restaurant at lunchtime to make a few phone calls.
As we walked among the hundreds of specialty shops, we walked around a corner and I thought that I had entered the Twilight Zone!
As with most agenda items on this trip, the time went by much too quickly. But isn’t that the case when you have a limited time to see and do so many things? By the time our day ended in Suzhou, we had seen plenty and experienced much. The time here in Suzhou was well spent and the memories will last a lifetime. Suzhou is one of those hidden gems that you so rarely hear about. Obviously, China should be on your bucket list, as should Shanghai, but Suzhou should be on it as well, it will make a lifetime memory of your drop in the bucket.
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.