同里Tong Li——A City Made of Stone

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Tong Li, a small “water village” only 18 km north of Suzhou, often approached as a day trip from Shanghai, can be comfortably explored in just three or four hours, but that does little to diminish the allure of the “City Made of Floating Stone.”
Leaving Suzhou in the early hours of a rain-threatening Monday morning, a dog-eared copy of “Lonely Planet 2003” in hand, I hoodwinked a driver into taking me to the town, for an RMB figure I am too embarrassed to reveal. At the gate, I paid the usual entrance fee, and made my way into Tong Li.
Tong Li’s city center is dotted with stone arches, roofs with up-turned eaves, streams, and babbling brooks. At just a glance, it was clear why it is so often called “the water village”: water is the life-blood of the city. Canals snake through stone buildings like arteries through a human body, while water laps at foundations. Laundry, clearly washed in the canals, flapped to the rhythm of the early-March wind.
Silent, like the city around me, I followed the canals aimlessly. Tong Li’s must-see attractions, I’d read, were a garden of retreat, a handful of bridges, and two mansions, but I didn’t rush to any of these. Tong Li is centralized, it’s small, and I knew I’d stumble on each of these naturally. Instead, I let myself wander, finding the landmarks when they wanted to be found.
The stone bridges offered themselves quickly. Sitting squarely in the center of town, where two glassy, gentle streams meet, the bridges were a chiseled reminder of the architectural wonder of dynastic China.
Joseph Needham wrote an entire book on stone-arch bridges in China, and, sitting before these two wonders, it was immediately obvious why. If water is Tong Li’s life-blood, the bridges are the city’s bones, holding it together by adding form to the natural landscape. Stone walkways, leading down the maze of alleyways, add to it. The skin, perhaps? Or is that verging on being obnoxious? Either way, I was inspired.
The bridges really did seem to represent a stone personification of Chinese harmony—man and nature combine to organize life in Tong Li. Locals overtly emphasize this relationship by including both bridges in their weddings. Newlyweds ceremonially cross them, ensuring good luck and a harmonious marriage. I crossed them alone, but smiled as I saw a couple rushing across ahead of me.
I felt more appropriate being alone in The Retreat and Reflection Garden. Aptly named, it was quiet, empty, an open ground for meditation. Birds landed, and took off again, and not a word was spoken around me. The garden surrounds a small lake, and is itself surrounded by a score of pavilions and houses. Combined with a crisscrossing layout, the garden feels like it’s floating gently on top of the water. I’d long forgotten to reference my “Lonely Planet”—it was of no use here. More important than names and dates and references was the experience of losing myself in this watery world.
Jiayin and Chongben Mansions, the final two tourist must-sees, were built in the early 20th Century, but eschewed Western architectural influences prevalent at the time. Favoring the style of the Ming Dynasty, they’re covered in intricately-patterned brick carvings, and filled with lavishly crafted furniture.
What impressed me the most about the mansions was that I would never have guessed that they were built so recently. They were, simply, gorgeous.
At a traditional Tea House, I ate while watching people, boats, and long necked birds dart, duck, and ramble outside. On a weekend or a holiday, this is a village sure to be bloated with tourists. But on a rainy Monday, it felt like I was transported to a time before. Having a small glimpse into what China must have been like before modernity, without the crush of tourists and tour guides, was a special treat.
After eating, I rented a boat and went on a short tour of the city via her arteries. The change in perspective—from stone walkways and bridges to the city’s canals—brought the everyday life of Tong Li into focus. Locals fished from the walkways, and boatmen pushed and paddled their way down the waterways. It wasn’t hard to picture the time when fishing was the main source of food in the city, and all boats carried fish and vegetables instead of foreigners like me.
Tong Li wasn’t a museum, or a symbol of China’s heritage, but instead was a place where people actually lived. Outside the city gates, I clambered back into the car. As we merged onto the highway, I slipped on my headphones to drown out the honking horns, and watched rush hour traffic grow until it packed us in. The time before, though, still held me as I slipped into a nap of magical dreams of fishermen and canals and gardens of peace and solitude.

Key words: water village:水乡(shuǐ xiāng) museum:博物馆(bó wù guǎn)
tea house:茶馆(chá guǎn)

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