AS the Chinese saying goes, "In heaven there is paradise; on earth are Suzhou and Hangzhou." Chinese people and foreigners alike first hear of Suzhou from this maxim. In ancient times, Suzhou was a center of economic prosperity and cultural abundance. Even after the passage of time, and the dramatic changes that have taken place in the world, people still speak of and remember Suzhou in all its timeless charm.
Suzhou's appeal is not in its skyscrapers, expressways or supermarkets. Sights such as these may be found in its neighboring city, Shanghai. Those who visit Suzhou marvel at its small bridges, murmuring brooks, classic gardens and water towns. While experiencing its prosperity, visitors can also witness the exquisiteness and elegance of Suzhou.
In China, gardens fall under two categories: one is the imperial garden, such as the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) and the Garden of Perfect Splendor (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing, and the Imperial Summer Resort (Bishu Shanzhuang) in Chengde, all of which are magnificent and imposing. The other is the private garden, like those found in Suzhou. A Suzhou garden represents the original concept of "urban scenery." It is a microcosm of the world in one corner of the bustling city, composed of the basic elements of water, rocks, plants and buildings, arranged in such a way as to reflect the garden's sequential beauty -- the passage of time, contrast between morning and evening, and succeeding seasons.
The classic gardens of Suzhou are precious heritage within the Chinese cultural treasure house. More than 60 gardens are well preserved, and over a dozen are open to the general public, including the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan), the Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan), the Master-of-Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan), the Lion Forest Garden (Shizi Lin), and the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty (Huanxiu Shanzhuang).
In December 1997, Suzhou's classic gardens were named World Heritage sites by UNESCO.
The Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan)
Built in 1509, this garden is representative of the classic gardens south of the lower Yangtze River and, along with the Lingering Garden, the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde, is one of the four most famous gardens in China. It is divided into eastern, middle and western sections, and its buildings are to the south. The garden is simple, extensive and natural. Its various structures center on the lake, which covers one third of the total area. Water is the soul of the garden.
The Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan)
This is noted for its 12 limestone peaks taken from Lake Tai. The garden is divided into eastern, central, northern and western parts. The center features a man-made mountain and lake scenery, and resembles a traditional Chinese painting. The eastern part is noted for its groupings of garden courts and elegant buildings, the western part for the enchantment of its woody hills, and the northern part for its bamboo fenced cottages and idyllic scenery. The Lingering Garden is an excellent example of ingenious use of garden space.
The Surging Waves Pavilion (Canglang Ting)
This garden differs from others in its layout. Most of the gardens in Suzhou are enclosed by high walls, and have a pond at their center, but the Canglang Pavilion is bounded by a moat. The three main features of the garden are its rockery, winding corridor, and lattice wall.
The Master-of-Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan)
This was the residence of a Qing Dynasty official, and is an example of combining living quarters with a landscape garden. It is also divided into three parts. The living quarters, which are elegant and quiet, are compactly laid out. At the center of the garden is a pond surrounded by trees and flowers, a rockery, pavilions, and corridors. A well-known German horticulturist commended it as the most elegant and complete private garden in Suzhou.
The Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty (Huanxiu Shanzhuang)
This is celebrated for its unusual limestone rockery. Within an area of 500 square meters, this man-made mountain, with its high peaks, dells, pathways, caverns, stone house, stone steps, ravines, precipices, gullies, bridges and cliffs, has a natural, uncontrived appearance. At its summit are towering old trees, and at its foot murmuring streams. This "fabricated" mountain affords enjoyment of the true delights of the classic garden and of Mother Nature.
Other classic gardens include the Garden of Pleasance (Yi Yuan), the Garden of Couple's Retreat (Ou Yuan) and the Garden of Seclusion and Meditation (Tuisi Yuan).
First built in 514 B.C., Suzhou is 2,500 years old. The city abounds in places of interest, second only to Beijing and Xi'an in its historic sites such as city gates, temples, pagodas and bridges.
Hanshan (Cold Mountain) Temple
Located in Fengqiao Town, Suzhou, is the Hanshan Buddhist Temple. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) a poet named Zhang Ji wrote a poem entitled "A Night Mooring Near Maple Bridge":
As I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.
The temple has been famous ever since. Each year, visitors come to Hanshan Temple to listen to the bell, and forget their worries. This has also attracted Japanese tourists who observe the same customs.
Tiger Hill (Huqiu)
This hill, in northwestern Suzhou, and is so named because from afar it resembles a tiger. Tiger Hill is picturesque, and famous scholars of various dynasties have come here to write poetry or paint. Legend has also added mystery to this hill. The Tiger Hill Pagoda, built in 959, has long been regarded as a landmark of Suzhou. Known as the "first scenic spot in the State of Wu," it is a must for visitors to Suzhou.
Xuanmiao (Mystery) Taoist Temple
Built in 276, this is one of the most important Taoist temples in the country. Its halls and pavilions are in good repair, and it houses dozens of stone tablets from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), that record the changes that have taken place in the temple. They are thus a precious source of research into the local politics, economy, society, culture, and belief systems and folk customs.
Built in 514 B.C., this is the best preserved land and waterway city gate, comprising two water passes, three land gates and a barbican entrance.
Visitors can climb the stairway on the northern side of the gate wall for a panoramic view. On the wall are crenellations, battlements, loopholes, sluice gates, a capstan and a cistern (for fire prevention). When a small boat goes out of this water city, it has to pass through the water gate, before entering the Grand Canal.
Located inside Pan Gate, this pagoda is a seven-storied octagonal brick-and-wood structure, consisting of three parts: a brick outer wall, winding corridors and a core. Ruiguang Pagoda is a representative Song Dynasty brick-and-wood structure, and is a perfect example for research into this kind of architecture.
Ancient Water Towns
Within the boundaries of Suzhou are over 200 small towns, featuring crisscrossing waterways and numerous bridges.
With a history of 900 years, Zhouzhuang is known as "No. 1 water town of China." It is famous for its unique man-made sights, traditional architectural design, and folkways.
Here, crisscrossing waterways are spanned by different designs of bridge, including a combination bridge and tower, and a twin-bridge. Visitors can tour the town by boat, serenaded by women gondoliers as they pole along.
Zhouzhuang residences are on waterside. The Shen Family Hall and the Zhang Family Hall are a source of fascination to all tourists.
Transportation: Take a bus from Wuxian Bus Station.
Tongli is a cultural town, and has produced many famous personages, some of whom built residences and gardens on retiring from their posts. Most famous is the Tuisi Garden, built on the riverside. In the town are many preserved Ming and Qing buildings, including Chongben Hall and Yilao Hall.
Transportation: Take a bus from Suzhou South Bus Station or Wuxian Bus Station.
Luzhi Town has a history of more than 2,000 years, and is famous for its statues of arhats (luohan) and its ancient commercial street. There are many historical sites, such as Bailianhua Temple, Concubine Sun's tomb, Royal Palace of the State of Wu, and Baosheng Temple. Baosheng Temple was built in 503, and houses nine precious arhats sculpted in the Tang Dynasty. Within the 1-square-kilometer ancient town are 41 bridges built in the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Hefeng Bridge, built in the Song Dynasty, is the earliest, and has been well preserved.
Transportation: Take Bus No. 18.
In Guangfu Town tourists can visit Guangfu Temple, Guangfu Pagoda, the Ancient Situ Cypress, and the Tianshou Sheng'en Temple. Dengwei Mountain south of the town is planted with plum trees, a practice that began in the Western Han Dynasty and flourished throughout the following dynasties. In late winter and early spring, plum blossom appears as a sea of flowers, and is known as a "sea of fragrant snow."
Transportation: Take a bus from Wuxian Bus Station.
(China Today October 10, 2002)