City in China: Suzhou苏州

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Suzhou (Sūzhōu, 苏州) once was described as one of China`s most beautiful cities in Marco Polo`s book and today visitors to this city—once fondly referred to as “Venice of the East”—can still see evidence of beauty along the ancient canals in the old section of town.

Like many cities in China, the face of today’s Suzhou has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Suzhou’s old town is now flanked by two modern development areas: Suzhou New District (SND) and Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Suzhou Industrial Park is a popular area with foreign expats and students. Some 10,000 foreigners live in Suzhou.

Suzhou offers an ecclectic mix of old and new and there’s a bit of something for everyone. From cozy cafes, lakes, ancient canals, classical Chinese gardens and even a silk factory.

Suzhou has long benefited from its location between two of China’s greatest waterways. One, the Yangtze River, divides north and south China; the other, the Grand Canal, connects them. Covered 42 percent by water, Suzhou is nestled in the midst of a network of smaller canals and natural waterways that historically linked the city to various dynastic capitals in Beijing, Hangzhou and Nanjing, making it a vital center of trade, industry and culture while bringing it riches, fame and patronage of the arts.

From the Song Dynasty onward, its wealthy inhabitants set about turning Suzhou into a green city, building sprawling garden homes alongside willow-lined canals and employing skilled artisans to blend the manmade and natural in classic Chinese style.

Today, though the old city still has its moat and many of its finest gardens, greater Suzhou is far from being stuck in the past—it’s a booming metropolis of 5 million, profiting from its proximity to the Yangtze River Delta and the economic powerhouse of Shanghai. Despite the building boom, many gardens, temples and classic Chinese canal scenes remain, and Suzhou is still the source of some of China’s finest silk.

Cycle around the city visiting gardens, shop for silk and local handicrafts, visit the Suzhou Museum addition designed by native son I.M. Pei, head out to one of the Ming or Qing-era canal towns on the city’s outskirts or the pleasant island-speckled Tai Hu, China’s third largest lake—the list of things to do and see in Suzhou is long.

History

Suzhou was established as the capital of the Wu Kingdom in 514 BC, and it was Wu King Fu Chai who in 486 BC initiated the construction of what would in time become the Grand Canal. The Wu formed alliances and enmities with various neighboring kingdoms during the chaotic Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC), briefly attaining dominance with the help of the famous Sun Tzu (The Art of War) before falling to the ascendant Yue in 473 BC. Today, Suzhou’s Pan Gate, which dates back some 2,500 years, stands as testimony to the enduring Wu.

Suzhou returned to prominence during the Sui Dynasty, which had reunited northern and southern China in 581 AD. In 486 AD, Sui Emperor Yangdi engineered the connection of the network of small regional canals running intermittently between north and south into the Grand Canal, stretching from Hangzhou to Beijing. The center of power in China subsequently moved from north to south, with the Song and Ming Dynasties establishing capitals in Hangzhou and Nanjing, respectively (though the Ming would return to Beijing). Many of Suzhou’s renowned gardens were built in the Ming and Qing years. Invasions by the Mongols, Taiping rebels and Western-led anti-Taiping forces aside, Suzhou was primarily a place of commerce, leisure and scholarship for centuries on end.

In the twentieth century, Suzhou suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II, when much of its classical architecture was damaged. Since the Communist victory in 1949, much of the city’s old architecture—including most of the city wall—have given way to new developments. Still, the old city remains a very pleasant place to explore, rewarding visitors with numerous glimpse old Suzhou in classic canal scenes, stone bridges and, of course, the famed gardens.

Keywords:
苏州 Sūzhōu: Suzhou
东方威尼斯dōnɡfānɡ wēinísī: Venice of the East
苏州工业园sūzhōu ɡōnɡyèyuán: Suzhou Industrial Park
太湖tài hú: Tai Hu Lake
春秋时期chūn qiū shí qī: Spring and Autumn Period

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