in suzhou, china: getting the social studies textbook feeling


By guest blogger Fabien Reynaud.

During a recent 16 day trip to China, my partner and I spent a day in Suzhou, a major city located in the southeast of Jiangsu Province in Eastern China, approximately 100 km from Shanghai. The city is situated on the lower Yangtze River and on the shores of Taihu Lake.

We caught the 9:33am fast train [307kph to be exact] from Shanghai to Suzhou. The journey was just over 1hour 30minutes. After spending a couple of days in Shanghai, it was nice to be in a much smaller city – that is, smaller by Chinese standards. Suzhou has an urban population of over 4 million which expands to over 10 million if you include what in China they refer to as “the administrative area.”

As the countryside passed us by, it was apparent that China’s thirst for natural resources is making a definite impact on the country. We saw many hills and small mountains that were dug out, chopped and carved for stone, slate or any other mineral which could be extracted. Urban growth in China is happening at a record pace. Old tenements, shikumen [traditional Chinese terrace houses], and hutong [narrow streets] are all being demolished to make way for the new China. This was all apparent from our train window.

Suzhou, the cradle of Wu culture, is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze Basin and is known as the town of gardens. The city has over 2,500 years of rich history, and relics of the past and many important cultural monuments are still standing. 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.

Suzhou’s appeal to tourists is now primarily in its gardens. Some of the gardens are well preserved and date from as far back as the Ming Dynasty [14th-17th centuries]. We visited one named “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.” The irony of visiting this garden is that while one goes to appreciate the calm, contemplative environment, in reality it is crawling with tourists like me who want to appreciate that wonderfully peaceful atmosphere [and take lots of pictures in the process]. I personally felt that exploring the local architecture and streetscape of Suzhou was infinitely more worthwhile than most of the designated tourist attractions.

The classical gardens in Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. The Liú garden or Lingering Garden was our favorite, even though we were unfortunately too rushed to linger. The garden itself is divided into several smaller ones with a few pavilions and a small pond. I especially liked the bonsai trees and the small bamboo forest. Because it isn’t big, you can easily walk the entire tour of the garden in less than an hour.

Suzhou is often dubbed the “Venice of the East” or the “Venice of China.” When its Grand Canal was completed, Suzhou found itself strategically located on a major trade route. The banks of the canal never used to be busy with locals washing their dirty clothes and empty their chamber pots. However, now the area is much cleaner [one may say sterilized] and as a result is very popular with tourists. Rather than goods being transported, taxi services, or anything of the like happening on the canal, there are now tourist boats which run constantly and several restaurants to be found nearby.

Another highlight of the day in Suzhou was a rickshaw ride around the city. It was fairly nerve racking at some points, darting through the traffic in a rickshaw, heading towards oncoming traffic, narrowly missing cars and bikes coming at you when travelling not only in the back streets but the main thoroughfares too.

What I enjoyed most about Suzhou is that it is one of the few places one can travel to in China that actually looks a lot like what most people’s stereotypical perception of “old” China would look like. It has that warm, fuzzy, old style, Social Studies textbook feeling that is noticeably absent in most other “ancient” Chinese cities.

*Fabien is a French expat currently living in the United Kingdom.