Suzhou — Venice of the East


Sultan M Hali

HAVING visited China on numerous occasions and after touring different cities and provinces, my last trip brought me a pleasant surprise: Suzhou—Venice of the East. It is a major city located in south-eastern Jiangsu Province of East China, about 100 km northwest of Shanghai and a major economic center and focal point of trade and commerce, and the second largest city in the province after the capital Nanjing. Suzhou is situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the shores of Lake Tai and belongs to the Yangtze River Delta region.
The sprawling metropolis has two distinct parts, the over 2500 years’ old ancient traditional city and the brand new high rise skyscrapers which form a part of the prospering Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). 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. The Classical Gardens of Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000.
As late as the early 20th century, much of the city consisted of islands connected by rivers, creeks, and canals to the surrounding countryside. Prior to their demolition, the city walls ran in a circuit of about 16 km with four large suburbs lying outside. The Japanese invaded it in 1937, and many gardens were devastated by the end of the war. In the early 1950s, restoration was done on the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden. Our hosts afforded us a detailed visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which was first built during the Shaoxing period (1131-1162) of the Southern Song Dynasty. Afterwards it changed ownership, and was destroyed or modified continually. It was the residence and garden of Lu Guimeng, a Tang Dynasty scholar. Later in the Yuan Dynasty it became the Dahong Temple’s garden.
In 1513, Wang Xiancheng, an Imperial Envoy and poet of the Ming Dynasty created a garden on the site of the dilapidated Dahong Temple which had been razed during the Ming conquest. In 1510, he retired to his native home of Suzhou on the occasion of his father’s death. He had experienced a tumultuous official life punctuated by various demotions and promotions, and gave up his last official post as magistrate of Yongjia County in Zhejiang province, and began to work on the garden. This garden, meant to express his fine taste, received close attention from the renowned artist, Suzhou native, and friend, Wen Zhengming.
The garden contains numerous pavilions and bridges set among a maze of connected pools and islands. It comprises three major parts set about a large lake: the central part (Zhuozheng Yuan), the eastern part (once called Guitianyuanju, Dwelling Upon Return to the Countryside), and a western part (the Supplementary Garden). The most amazing sites are exquisite rock arrangements and Bonsai trees, painstakingly arranged to provide a serene environment.
Suzhou is one of the most prosperous cities in China. Our hosts were keen on our experiencing the SIP because Industrial Parks are going to be an essential component of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). SIP is the largest cooperative project between the Chinese and Singaporean governments. It is situated beside Jinji Lake, which lies to the east of the Suzhou Old City. On 26 February 1994, Vice Premier Li Lanqing and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew represented China and Singapore respectively in signing the Agreement to jointly develop Suzhou Industrial Park (originally called the Singapore Industrial Park).
The project officially commenced on 12 May in the same year. Twenty-three years later, SIP is no longer just an ambitious dream but has emerged as one of the most vibrant regions of China. It is not simply a wide array of factories or industrial units but a scrupulously designed environment-friendly modern conurbation with a unique ambience that attracts more and more businesses and residences nationally as well as internationally.
Jinji Lake, along which the new city took roots, provides magnificent vistas, matchless cuisines, spiritual gardens, cultural and arts centers, theatres and exquisite shopping malls with prosperous commercial centers. Among other attractions, a pleasant discovery was the Suzhou embroidery, which is crafted in areas specific to the prefecture. Suzhou embroidery, along with the embroidery of Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong are recognized as the “Four Famous Embroideries”. Suzhou tapestry method is done in fine silks and gold thread and has a history dating back 2,000 years and is famous for its beautiful patterns, elegant colours, variety of stitches, and consummate craftsmanship.
Its stitching is highly skillful, coloration subtle and refined. Suzhou artists are able to use more than 40 needlework and a 1,000 different types of threads to make embroidery, typically with nature and environment themes such as flowers, birds, animals and even gardens on a piece of cloth. A rare subset of this delicate technique is Suzhou double-sided embroidery which requires ultimate skill and artistry.
The front and back of the piece may have different designs, but the ends are not knotted but woven in so the back can’t be distinguished. A major attraction are the famed education centers, which are also partnered with the most famous seats of international learning, boasting modern buildings with state of the art facilities. All in all, the visit to Suzhou was not only refreshing but like a whiff of fresh air, bringing in glimpses of prosperity and development. If the Industrial Parks along the CPEC will be even half as prosperous as the SIP, Pakistan is in for a major boost in development.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
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