Suzhou: The Venice of the East

       This weekend the Chinese celebrated Moon Holiday. In Chinese culture, the moon represents family, especially family members who are far away or ancestors. The idea is that, no matter where you are in the world, you can look up at the sky and see the same moon that your far-flung family members see. Last night, the full fat moon made a brief appearance through the thick clouds and we saw some fireworks outside our window.For foreign teachers, the significance of the Moon Holiday is we get Monday off. We took this opportunity to go explore a neighboring city, ninety minutes by train in the direction of Shanghai, Suzhou (pronounced Sue-joe; zh makes a j sound in Pinyin).

From Suzhou

 The train stations in China look more like airports than our train stations in Massachusetts. Multi-floored, glass-paneled, with metal detectors and luggage x-rays at the entrance, Nanjing train station was crowded with Chinese heading home for the holidays. The lines – or, rather, line-shaped mobs – moved slowly and noisely toward the ticket window.

From Suzhou

We arrived at 7 AM and couldn’t get a ticket until the 10:40 train, and then the tickets were for “standing room only,” though we were able to snake seats after the first stop.

The trains are swift and smooth, with more leg room than a Greyhound bus or airplane. They fly at 240 km per hour; our commuter rail can’t hold a candle to them, though the ride costs about the same, 67 RMB, about US$10.Arriving in Suzhou, bike taxis and cab drivers followed us like seagulls follow people with french fries, even standing in line with us (first the wrong line, then an unmoving line) to buy our return tickets. After getting on the wrong tourist bus and waiting for a few minutes for the other bus, we took a taxi to Tiger Hill. Split four ways, taxis are cheap in China, controlled by the government: 10 RMB, or less than $2 to start, and rarely costing over 20 RMB to reach the other side of the city.

From Suzhou

Tiger Hill is a beautiful, wandering Chinese-style garden, with springs, pagodas, trees, and lovely walls. The pagoda at the top was built in the 900s AD, and while there has been some restoration, it looks ancient. The stone tower leans to one side by about 3 degrees, so it’s often called the Chinese Tower of Pisa. Within the park, there’s also a Golden Buddha, more of the southern Asian style, slimmer than the big-bellied Buddha.

From Suzhou

At the bottom of the hill, visitors can rent a “Bridal Sedan Chair,” and be carried up the hill. In Imperial China, when a man married a woman, he would “send a chair for her,” or have her carried by men in a covered chair, sometimes with a processional, depending upon how wealthy he was. Weddings used to be extravagant affairs, but the Communists wanted to end the wasteful, borgeosie ways. In Wild Swans, when the Communist Revolutionary daughter gets married in a kind of town hall, the mother is distraught that no chair is sent for her daughter and fears that her daughter will lose face.

From Suzhou

Today, Chinese weddings are more in the western style, with a typically banquet reception. The bride wears both a traditional red Chinese wedding dress and a white western style dress. There are “bridal centers” all over Nanjing, and down at the canals in Suzhou, we saw a bride and her bridesmaids in traditional dress taking their photos.

From Suzhou

Being a foreigner in Suzhou is a lot of fun. In Nanjing, because of the university, white people and foreigners are nothing special, though children will often yell, “Hello!” to us. In Suzhou, many of the Chinese tourists asked to take a picture with us, and would try some of their English words (one young lady said, “Hello,” and “You’re welcome,” and got a little flustered and embarassed when we giggled.) In fact, when we visited the Master of the Nets garden, a university student introduced herself to us, and asked us if she could take us around and tell us about the place so that she could practice her English while she was waiting for her friends to finish shopping. She was an amazing tour guide!

From Suzhou

 We never would have learned of all the symbolism and historical meaning in the building of the gardens if it hadn’t been for her. Chinese gardens are really mansions, built in the Chinese style with courtyards separating the different buildings, which allows light into the inside. The oldest parts of Master of the Nets garden was built in 1147 AD. It’s hard to believe the beautiful wooden furniture and the white walls are the original; I have never seen a structure in the US that old. Knights were roaming in Europe when the owner, disgusted with the corrupt court, left the court to seclude himself in this home.

From Suzhou

The way the grounds are built is very symbolic, as well as practical. The first structure is for the men and official business, while the second structure is for women, who were less important, and the farthest back structure for the children. The fish pond, with red-orange goldfish and lillie pads, has a pavillion for looking at the autumn moon, an enclosed room open to the pond for the summer, when the sun is too harsh, and a completely covered room on the opposite end for the cold winter.

From Suzhou

The roof of the music room is designed so that the music can clearly echo throughout the area. All along the outdoor gardens are pagoda-roofed awnings, so that one can travel between rooms in the drizzley rain and lounge outdoors without getting wet. Each of the windows, which lets in the light from the gardens, has a different lacey pattern carved into the stone and looks out onto the trees and gardens, almost as a framed picture.

From Suzhou
From Suzhou
From Suzhou

There are very few paper drawings or paintings in the buildings because of the wet climate. Instead, they frame pieces of marble in dark wood for their art.

From Suzhou

The practical side is merged with symbolism. In the women’s room, a beautiful round table is directly split down the middle – when the master is away, the family is not whole, so they must eat at only half of the table, until he returns home and puts the two semicircles back into a full moon shape.

The flowering trees have symbolism – some are have gold yellow flowers and some have white silvery flowers, to represent wealth. The pomegranate tree represented fertility.

From Suzhou

Everything in the structure was elegant and well-preserved, which is really amazing when you consider not only the age, but also the Cultural Revolution, when Mao insisted the Chinese destroy the old ways – old books, old artifacts, old structures that brought to mind imperialism, even grass and flowers because they were bourgeoisie, not practical. There were many Chinese who, though they followed Mao’s orders, could not bring themselves to destroy beauty. During the cultural revolution here, the Chinese covered the gates with mud to deface them, writing Communist slogans, and in this way, the structures were spared.

From Suzhou

The Museum of Fine Arts in New York City has a replica of one of the rooms in the Master of the Nets. While it is a true, well-detailed replica, the MFA recreation is sterile compared to the elegant, living feeling of the real deal in Suzhou.

We finished our tour with a ride throught the canals of Suzhou. It was one of those moments when you really feel you are in China, with people washing their clothes and pans just outside their front doors in the canal. Willow trees reached into the water, and tiny gardens with flowers and tomato plants were crowded against the canal.

From Suzhou
From Suzhou
From Suzhou

For more pictures, check out our album: http://picasaweb.google.com/lkyser/Suzhou# 

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2 thoughts on “Suzhou: The Venice of the East

  1. Sounds like a great day trip! Having worked for many years in the house museum field, though, I am somewhat skeptical about their claims to original furniture, especially since you were given the tour by someone with less than perfect English. The “original” furniture may include pieces that were used by people who lived in the structure in the 20th century before the communist government made it into a museum, they may mean “original style” or something like that, or it may be an outright lie (although the person who gave you the tour may not know that). Although some house museums in America do have excellent provenience connecting the furniture with the house, pieces actually connected with a particular house can be quite rare, especially when periods before the Civil War are being depicted. The Paul Revere House, for example, contains only three or so pieces that we THINK were actually used in the house.

    Laura, you are writing a great blog, but what do you think Matt? Particularly, how does Suzhou compare with the actual Venice?

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