When Shanghai was a sleepy agricultural community, Suzhou - just a few miles to the west - was a busy mercantile center, its wealth secured by a thriving silk industry. Suzhou's history dates back over 2,500 years but it wasn't until the Grand Canal arrived a thousand years ago that the city's nickname of "Silk City" was secured.
For centuries silk manufacture had been a relatively minor business in Suzhou, but the canal – actually constructed to speed the north-south movement of rice and grain – improved overall trade efficiencies and broadened silk's potential market. The secrets of silk manufacture became fiercely protected; even Marco Polo's writings commented on this, noting that the penalty for revealing any element of its production (even the smuggling of a single silk worm from the city) was death.
Eventually, around AD 600, the secrets of silk manufacture were stolen by a Byzantine emperor. But centuries more would pass before the west could touch China in the quality of the finished product. The mansions, gardens, and scenic canals that define Suzhou (the city is also called "Garden City," and "Venice of the East") were, in effect, built of silk.
Though some of the city's charms have been lessened by 21st century growth – the city, after all, is only an hour's ride west of Shanghai – Suzhou and its gorgeous gardens remains one of China's must-sees. Suzhou, not incidentally, is the ancestral home of famed architect I. M. Pei (the Pyramid at the Louvre, Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, New York's Javitts Convention Center). And he's back (see below)!
Major Attractions of Suzhou:
Suzhou Silk Museum: Every aspect of silk manufacture – including live, mulberry-munching and silk-spinning silk worms; the evolution of silk looms and production techniques; and finally the lustrous end product – are displayed here. Even rayon "knock-offs" are on display; they're readily available in shops throughout China and the world. But here in Suzhou, experts can offer detailed instruction on how to tell the difference between the rayon and the real!
Garden of the Master of the Nets: With Chinese gardens, acreage is of little importance; how acreage is used is everything. This 12th century garden's magic is manifested in its illusion as a garden four times its size. Though buildings are large, they're carefully positioned; your eyes are directed in ways that enlarge each view and perspective. Interior views outward are highly calculated to focus your attentions to a single sight. Gardens throughout the world are modeled after this little gem.
Humble Administrator's Garden: Wealth has its advantages. A 16th century retired magistrate built this garden, the largest in Suzhou. Pavilions, a teahouse and a small museum are located among its beautifully-tended lakes, lotus ponds, rivers and walkways. The site has been identified as one of China's four most famous "classic" gardens.
Beisi Ta: (or "North Temple Pagoda") Excellent views of the city are available for those with strong legs. A climb up the nine stories rewards you with views from this, the tallest pagoda in town. This particular pagoda - previous ones burned to the ground at least twice - dates back to the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1279); its foundations are 700 years older.
Silk Embroidery Research Institute: What a beautiful setting for an institute – and what beautiful work comes out the doors of this research facility! Located within a garden, the workers produce some of the finest silk embroidery found anywhere in the world.
Dark Blue Wave Pavilion Garden: This garden utilizes an illusion frequently seen in Chinese and Japanese gardens, particularly those with limited space. In much the way "infinity pools" extend a swimming pool's border into the ocean beyond, this garden "borrows" the views of Suzhou's distant mountains and makes those vistas its own (while hiding close-in garden walls and neighborhood rooftops)!
Pan Men Scenic Area: Seven flights of stairs bring you to the top of a Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) pagoda, the Ruigang Pagoda. From here the views of the garden's attractions are excellent: the Hall of Attractive Scenery, the Pan Men (a gate and remnants of the city's ancient walls), the graceful arch of the Wu Men Bridge and the Hall of Four Auspicious Merits.
Suzhou Museum: Ieaoh Ming Pei (I.M. Pei) was chosen architect for this 75,000-square foot museum/auditorium complex, completed in late 2006. The three-level structure houses Suzhou art treasures dating back over the centuries (the city is 2,500 years old) yet the building's design blends ancient Suzhou design elements with 21st century engineering and themes. (letstravelchina.com)