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Suzhou - "The City of Classical Gardens"

2020/2/4 16:31:213689 People viewed this article

Located in the center of Yangtze River Delta, neighboring with Lake Tai (the 2nd largest fresh water lake in China) and by the side of Grand Canal (1794 km long between Hongzhou and Beijing, oldest and longest canal in the world), Suzhou city of Jiangsu Province is only about 100 km to the northwest of Shanghai. Inside the city wall and 2 moats, its 14.2 km2 ancient city area, 3km by 5km across, has become a protected historical district, in which little tampering and no skyscrapers are allowed. Its UNESCO world heritage gardens and nearby water towns present an open door for you to stroll into the authentic ancient China.


Built in 514 BC and as the cradle of Wu Culture, Suzhou is a city with a history of more than 2,500 years, tracing back to Zhou dynasty. It is a very large city in ancient time, bigger than ancient Rome which was 13.68 km2. Its site never got changed since it’s founded. This is the unique case for big ancient cities in the world. Around AD 100, during the Eastern Han dynasty, it became one of the 10 largest cities in the world mostly due to emigration from Northern China. When the Grand Canal was completed in 610, Suzhou found itself strategically located on a major trade route. Since the 10th-century Song dynasty, it has been an important commercial center of China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, Suzhou was a national economic, cultural, and commercial center (the same as the status of Shanghai now), as well as the largest non-capital city in the world, until the 1860 Taiping Rebellion. When Li Hongzhang and Charles George Gordon recaptured the city three years later, Shanghai had already taken its predominant place in the nation.


The city, well-known as the Capital of Silk and its classical gardens, was prosperous, and its residents became immensely wealthy. It was this group of upper class that built the elaborate private gardens which become model gardens throughout China and eventually throughout the world. Suzhou garden arts is a comprehensive design that strives to make the most aesthetic use of building - and landscape architecture, whereby buildings, plants (copses, flower beds, lawns, etc.), stones, walkways, and water, all come together in topographical harmony. The ancient poetic private gardens number about 70 now, with a dozen of the finest open to public view. No other Chinese city contains such a concentration of canals and gardens.


In 1997 & 2000, UNESCO added 9 classical gardens to the World Heritage List:                     The Humble Administrator’s Garden, 

The Master-of-Nets Garden, 

The Lingering Garden,

The Lion Grove Garden,

The Couple’s Garden Retreat,

The Canglang Pavilion,

The Garden of Cultivation,

The Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty,


The Retreat& Reflection Garden

(except the last one which is in Tongli, a small town 20 km to the south of Suzhou, other 8 gardens are in the ancient Suzhou city proper). Dating from the 11th-19th century, the above 9 gardens reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture in their meticulous design - Valued by UNESCO World Heritage Website. The ingenious man-made landscape and the concept of maintaining harmony between mankind and nature in these retreats have since been appreciated the world over for their grace and beauty. 


Much of Suzhou was built on a maze of canals. According to the inscribed stone "Pingjiang Map" in 1229 in Southern Song dynasty, there were seven north-south rivers and 14 east-west rivers inside the city of Suzhou, totaling 82 km, and 314 bridges. Now there are still 35 km slim waterways and more than 170 bridges within the moated city. The layout of streets and lanes in its 14.2 km2 ancient city area now are still of the Song-dynasty style around 1000 years ago. It is in the form of double chessboards, that is, rivers and streets run parallel to each other. The river and streets were intermingled, and the waterfront houses varied in height, together representing a rich flavor of water town. 


There are numerous cultural heritages such as ancient pagodas and temples, government offices, former residences of celebrities, gardens and mansions, ancestral temples, halls and public places, archways and ancient wells in the city. There are now 47 historical and cultural areas and 126 historic sites under protection, including 11 under national protection, 30 at provincial level and 85 at municipal level. In addition, there are also 200 buildings under controlled protection, 22 sections of ancient revetments, 22 ancient archways, 70 ancient bridges, 37 gate towers with brick carvings, and 639 ancient wells. Of these cultural heritages, eight classical gardens inside ancient Suzhou city have already been inscribed in the World Heritage List. The historical and cultural street blocks of Pingjiang, the Humble Administrator's Garden and Shantang, as typical areas of the ancient city of Suzhou, will apply for being inscribed in the World Heritage List. 


In 1981, the central government recognized Suzhou, along with Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guilin, as a Chinese cultural and historical treasure trove to be protected by the state. This means that the future development of these cities must proceed in a manner such that progress does not compromise their cultural and historical integrity.


Situated at the temperate zone and with subtropical oceanic monsoon climate, Suzhou enjoys four distinct seasons, a mild temperature and abundant rainfall. The city spreads on a low terrain, with the plain covering 55% of the total area. With a network of rivers and canals as well as a fertile land, the city is rich in a variety of agricultural products. Major crops vary from rice to wheat, rape, cotton, mulberry, and fruit. Its specialties include Biluochun Tea (Green Spiral Spring Tea), Dao Fish from Yangtze River, Silver Fish from Lake Tai and Hairy Crabs from Yangchenhu Lake. While talking about Suzhou, the old saying mentions it as "Land of Fish and Rice", “Paradise on the Earth” or the "East Venice of the World”, referring to its splendid history and culture, charming natural beauty, blue web of interlocking canals, classical gardens, graceful bridges and ancient streets, low and white washed houses, silk industry, traditional operas and soft dialect tone. 


Suzhou's Cultural Heritage


The Wu culture produced a rich tapestry of cultural influences that would shape the city of Suzhou beyond the cultural period defined by the Wu state proper around 2500 years ago. The city of Suzhou is the cradle of many literary geniuses, artists including painter, calligrapher & architect, philosophers, politicians, and influences down through history in whole China.


Suzhou was also known for its ballad singing traditions, story-telling arts & Kunqu Opera which are the 3 flowers of Suzhou culture.


The Kunqu opera, Intangible UNESCO World Heritage, grew out of the efforts of a local Suzhou musician Gu Jian, who combined the music style that was typical of Central China of that period with the elements of theatrical drama. The Kunqu Opera, which, in its Ming and Qing heyday was the fully-blossomed romantic opera of the royal court, was later replaced in popularity in the mid-18th century by Peking Opera.


The embroideries of Suzhou are also famous, and, together with the needlework traditions of Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan Provinces, was known as the "Four Famous Embroideries." It is famous for double-sided embroidery. The patterns on the 2 sides of the embroidery are different! Other famous art traditions that helped to keep Suzhou on the cultural map were painting, calligraphy, city's sculptures, Song Dynasty brocades, jade and rosewood carvings, and of course Suzhou's classical gardens. 


Led by the Shen Zhou, Tang Ying & Wen Zhenming (he was also the designer of Humble Administrator’s Garden), a group of painters in Suzhou region in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was known as the Wu School of Painting. It is the most famous painting school in Ming dynasty.


When in Suzhou, be sure to pay a visit to the Suzhou Museum, which has a vibrant collection of historical and cultural artifacts from China's ancient and as well as more modern past. The collection includes 30000 cultural relics - most notably for excavated artifacts, Ming and Qing Dynasty paintings and calligraphy, and ancient arts and crafts.


As part of Huaiyang Cuisine, the Suzhou style cooking is closely related to the local culture and characterized by natural flavor, beautiful presentation, light, sweet and palatable taste, and seasonal varieties. The selection of materials has much to do with the water country. Many kinds of pastries and noodles, dumplings are another speciality of Suzhou style food. Dishes and pastries traditionally served aboard of pleasure boats remain the principal form. Ingredients for seasonal foods are fishes, shrimps, crabs, water mallows, gorgon fruits and other aquatic products. The visitor is sure to be impressed by the refined taste of Suzhou cuisine.


The City’s Historical Background & Wu Zixu, the founder of Suzhou


In the Zhou Dynasty around 2500 years ago, the capital of China was in Luoyang city in central China, current Henan Province. But the territory of China was vast, the King of Zhou dynasty could not control every part of his territory by himself. So many kings, dukes & marquises were enfeoffed in the country to help the King of whole China to administrate this vast country. But gradually the King could not control these vassals. They began to conquer against each other.


The area in the lower reach of Yangtze River was belonged to Wu State at that time. In 522 BC, Wu Zixu, the son of the Grand Tutor of the crown prince Jian of Chu State, escaped to the neighboring (and rival) Wu State after his father and elder brother were killed by the King of Chu State on accusations of a royal plot. In Wu State, Wu Zixu helped Prince Guang ascend the throne and was known as King Helu of Wu in 515 BC. Along with Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War,” Wu Zixu and his army defeated Chu State and made Wu State become one of the most powerful states in Zhou dynasty. The King ordained him as the Premier of Wu and also assigned him to choose a suitable place to build a grand city as the new capital of his state. In 514 BC, the Grand city of Helu, that would eventually be named Suzhou, was founded. 


Some years later, the Wu state would itself suffer the same fate as had the Chu state. It was the Yue state that was defeated and usurped by the Wu state and the son of King Helu, King Fuchai, who ascended the Wu throne in 495 BC after his father. Afterwards, Xi Shi, a beautiful woman sent by King Goujian of Yue state, was much loved by King Fuchai of Wu. Wu Zixu, seeing the dangerous plot of Goujian, warned Fuchai and insisted on annexing Yue state. Fuchai became angry at this remark and compelled him to commit suicide ("fall on his sword") in 484 BC as the result of a frame-up by Wu Zixu’s political opponent, and with his body thrown into the river on the 5th day of the 5th month. These were both bitter fates. 


The Wu state was conquered by Yue State and ceased to exist as a separate political and cultural entity, the King Fuchai of Wu commited suicide by 473 BC. 


Wu Zixu, the premier of Wu State, has evolved into a model of loyalty in Chinese culture since his death. In places such as Suzhou, Wu Zixu is remembered during the Duanwu Festival (the Dragon Boat Festival as widely known in the West) on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar (so the date of the festival varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar.) – This is one of the origins of this famous festival in China.


Wu Zixu is worshipped in eastern China as God of the Waves. He was also long considered the god of the tidal bore of the Qiantang River near Hangzhou and continues to be worshipped, particularly by Taiwanese Taoists, as one of the five Kings of the Water Immortals. Wu is also sometimes credited as the culture hero responsible for the invention of the waterwheel.


Classical Gardens & Attractions

The earliest gardens in Suzhou date back to its foundation in the 6th century BC, but it was during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and in particular the 16th to 18th centuries, that the city's prosperity resulted in the creation of as many as two hundred gardens within its walls. Now there are still around 70 ancient gardens in Suzhou. Their quality and profusion earned Suzhou the title of the "Earthly Paradise." 


Tiger Hill 

Around 2500 years ago, King Helu of Wu State was buried in the hill, called then "the Hill Emerging from the Sea". The legend goes that three days after his burial a white tiger appeared squatting on the hill. Hence the name. In spite of the fact that it has an elevation of 36 m. and covers about 49.41ac., the Hill boasts impressive rocks, deep dales, No wonder it has been an awe-inspiring sight in the area south of the Lower Yangtze and the No. 1 Sight of Suzhou. The Yunyan Temple Pagoda and the Sword Pool are the most famous places on the hill. With a history going back more than 1,000 years, the simple, archaic and imposing 48m high Yunyan Temple Pagoda, also known as the Second Leaning Tower on earth (the top is 2.34 m northwest from the center), stands aloft at the top of the hill, serving as the Landmark of ancient Suzhou for hundreds of years, The Tomb of the King Helu under the Sword Pool has remained an unsolved mystery for two and a half millennia. Climbing it, you will find a number of historical sites, some of which can be traced back over 2500 years to the founding of Suzhou. Although the hill is relatively small, it has rich history.


The Following 9 Gardens are the UNESCO World Heritage


Humble Administrator's Garden and Chinese Classical Garden Museum by the side of it 

This Garden is the largest and most famous of all private gardens in Suzhou and one of the 4 best ancient gardens in China. Wen Zhenming, one of the representatives of Wu School Painting, designed this garden. Outstanding with the smart use of ponds, this elegant garden shows you how traditional Chinese architects and landscapers used pavilions, winding corridors, ponds, rockeries, and trees to create a relaxing harmony. 


It was the Ming Imperial Inspector Wang Xianchen who built the present complex, when he got frustrated in officialdom in Beijing and retired from public life in 1509 and returned to his native city. The garden was named from a line in a Jin Dynasty poem: "Building a house and planting trees, watering the garden and selling vegetables constitute a humble administrator's business". The garden frequently changed owners, each contributing his own vision. During the era of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in the mid 1800s, the Loyal Prince Li Xiucheng lived here. 


Water comprises three-fifths of the whole garden which is divided into three parts. The center one takes on its present appearance around 130 ago in the late Qing dynasty though few original structure in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) remained. It features mountains and a lake at its center, rising from the lake are the tree covered east and west hills, many buildings in the garden along its shore.


Master of Nets Garden

The Master of Nets Garden is the smallest of Suzhou’s 4 best classical gardens and is the best protected former private garden with the residential part. It was firstly built in the mid-12th century as the residence of Shi Zhengzhi, a retired government official of the Song Dynasty who named his hall The Fisherman's Retreat. He had a library in the garden known as The Hall of 10,000 Volumes. During the reign of Qian Long in the 1700s, Song Zongyuan bought the property and remodeled the gardens and renamed it based on the name of the original hall.


The beauty of this garden is derived from the exquisite balance of shape, arrangement and form with the buildings, pond and rockeries perfectly arranged. The effect is that the garden looks and feels much larger than it actually is. The west part of it - Dianchunyi Hall area (Peony Hall area) is thought the representative of Chinese classical garden and was even copied and built in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


The Cool Spring Pavilion in the Master of Nets Garden: 


Lingering Garden

The Lingering Garden dates from the end of the 16th century and is the work of Xu Taishi, also a high Imperial official. Its present name was given to it in 1873 by the Zhengs, who paid a graceful tribute to the former owners, the Liu family, since the Chinese word for "lingering" is similar to the name of this family.


The garden consists of four distinctly themed sections; East, Central, West, and North. The Central area is the oldest part of the garden and features mountain and lake scenery, encircled by buildings and visited by means of a narrow, winding path which gives unexpected views of great beauty. The eastern section of the garden is arrayed around the Cloud-capped Peak Stone, one of the 4 best Lake Tai Lime Stone in China. The western section is mostly natural containing only a few pavilions, a large artificial hill. The north part is a bonsai garden.


The Lion Forest Garden (or Lion Grove Garden), the Kingdom of Rockeries

The garden was created by a group of Zen Buddhist disciples of the famous Abbot Tianru in 1342, during the Yuan dynasty, as the Budhi Orthodox Monastery. The garden is famous for the large and labyrinthine grotto of taihu rocks at its center. The name of the garden is derived from the shape of these rocks, which are said to resemble lions and as a reference to the symbolic lion in the Lion's Roar Sutra. Hence the name. The garden, which attracted scholars and artists, was detached from the temple in the 17th century. It features a series of man-made mountains with various buildings disposed around the lake, together with an artificial waterfall on steep cliffs. The 14th-century mountains are still clearly visible. The woodland cover of the craggy mountains is pierced by winding paths and thereare many caves and grotesque rocks. There are 22 buildings in the garden, the most impressive is the stone boat. 


The Couple's Garden Retreat

The original garden was built by Lu Jin, prefect of Baoning district, in 1874. It was purchased by Shen Bingcheng, the magistrate of Susong. who rebuilt it in its current form and changed the name to the Couple's Garden Retreat. This name refers to the garden's two parts and alludes to the couple of the owner of this garden.


The 0.33 ha garden is divided into an east and west section by the residential core in the middle; an unusual composition for a classical garden. East Garden is the main garden of the complex. It is dominated by a dramatically realistic mountain of yellow stone which rises from a pool flanked by several attractive Ming style buildings. The West garden is composed of several structures grouped around a small grotto and a Library annex, and the style is more subdued. It is structurally joined to the central residence. 


The Canglang Pavilion

The garden was built on the order of the Northern Song poet Su Sunqin in the early 11th century, on the site of an earlier, destroyed garden. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1279-1644) it became the Mystical Concealment Temple. Over succeeding centuries it was repeatedly restored, a tradition maintained by the P. R. China. It is reached across a zigzag stone bridge, when the mountains, covered with old trees and bamboo, suddenly become visible. The square pavilion stands on top of one of the mountains, inscribed with an appropriate text. 


The Garden of Cultivation

The garden was laid out during the Ming dynasty, in the 16th century. A quarter of the total area is occupied by the central pond, which has a mountain landscape to the south and a group of buildings to the north. The two sides are linked to east and west by roofed open galleries. It is very typical, both in its layout and in the design of its thirteen buildings, of the classical Ming dynasty garden.


The Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty

The origins of this garden go back to the end of the 16th century. Although it covers less than 500 m2, it is intensively detailed, with high peaks rising to 7 m, dells, paths, caves, stone houses, ravines, precipices, ridges and cliff.


The Retreat and Reflection Garden

This garden is one of the UNESCO Heritage gardens but in Tongli Town, 20km to the south of Suzhou city. It is the work of the famous painter Yuan Long, who built it in 1885-87. The group of buildings is linked with the garden proper located to the east by a boat-shaped guesthouse. The main feature of the garden is the pool, surrounded by a series of elegant buildings, the most striking of which is the double-tiered Celestial Bridge. The Gathering Beauty Pavilion overlooks the entire garden from the north-west corner.


Pingjiang Historical and Cultural Street Block 

Located on both sides of the Pingjiang River in the eastern part of the ancient city and with an area of 30.66 hectares, this block is the most typical and the best preserved historical and cultural street block in Suzhou. The street pattern has come into being since 13th century. The rivers, bridges, lanes, civilian residences, archways, temples, ancestral temples and halls exist all in harmony, forming an inseparable whole. The renovation project was granted the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for the Culture Heritage Conservation in 2005.


This street block is a typical section of the double chessboard pattern of the layout of the ancient city of Suzhou - with streets and waterways running parallel. The civilian residences along the streets, with black tiles and whitewashed walls, vary in height. The length the two north-south rivers and four east-west rivers is up to 3.5 kilometers, and there are 16 bridges in the block. It is the street block in the city with the highest density of rivers and bridges. The locations and names of lanes and bridges are basically identical to that contained in the monument inscribed with the Pingjiang Map drawn in the 13th century. Civilian residences along the rivers in the street block connect to one another, forming deep and tranquil lanes.


Suzhou Museum

Founded in 1960 and originally located in the Royal King Palace complex by the side of Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou Museum has been a highly-regarded regional museum with a number of significant Chinese cultural relics. A new museum designed by world famous architect Ieoh Ming Pei (Who once designed the glass pyramid before Louvre in Paris) was completed in October 2006, covering over 10,700 m2and located right by the side of Royal King Palace complex. The design of this new museum visually complements the traditional architecture of Royal King Palace. The new museum houses over 30000 cultural relics- most notably for excavated artifacts, Ming and Qing Dynasty paintings and calligraphy, and ancient arts and crafts. 


The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal was built in AD 610 and 1794km long, connects Hangzhou in the south and Beijing in the north. It is the longest ancient canal in World. The Grand Canal is a canal system, not only a river. The moat of ancient Suzhou city is also part of this canal. A boat ride on it is a fascinating glimpse of ancient Suzhou with old city wall and gates, ancient bridges and houses. 


Xuanmiao Taoist Temple (Temple of Mystery

Located at the center of old Suzhou City, the Taoist Xuanmiao Temple was founded in AD 276, and was initially named "Zhenqing Daoyuan". It was destroyed and rebuilt many times and was renamed Xuanmiao Temple in 1295. 


The street along east-west direction in front of the temple is called Guanqian Street, the most famed business pedestrian street in Suzhou. A lane called Gong Xiang (means Palace Lane) along north-south direction leads directly to the gate. 


Covering an area of about 1,125 m2 and 30 m high, the Pure Trinity Hall (San Qing Dian) is the main hall of the temple and built in 1179 in the Song Dynasty. It is the largest wood structure built in Song dynasty in south China. In the hall stand three 17 m high gold-gilded clay statues of the trinity San Qing (three Pure Gods) for people to worship. In the middle is Yu Qing (Jade Pure). On the left and right sides of Yu Qing stand Shang Qing (Upper Pure) and Tai Qing (Great Pure). On the left of the three statues stands a special tablet. An epigraph of Li Longji and the figure of Lao-tzu are both engraved on the tablet. Li (685-762) was an emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Lao-tzu was the founder of Taoism as well as a great philosopher during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC). The figure was drawn by Wu Daozi (680-759), a very famous painter in the Tang Dynasty.


There are some other halls on the two sides, including the Hall of the God of Wealth and the Hall of Wenchang Star in charge of one's wisdom. 


What is the best time to visit Suzhou?

You can visit Suzhou at any time. Every season has its own peculiar beauty. Beautiful flowers in spring and colorful leaves in autumn make spring and autumn most popular. Avoid Chinese national holidays like May 1st, or the ChinaNational Day holiday (Oct. 1st-7th) because it would be very crowded during these holidays.


How to get to Suzhou?

It is only around 100km from Shanghai to Suzhou. There are many bullet trains, say every 5 or 10 minutes, between Shanghai and Suzhou and it only takes around 30 minutes one way.


Tourists can also take car from Shanghai to Suzhou. Normally it would take around 1.5 hours one way. 


Where to Stay in Suzhou? 

Pingjiang Lodge  4-Star standard

The 4-Star standard Pingjiang Lodge is converted from two neighbouring pervious historical residential courtyard properties (stately homes). They originally were built for 2 different rich families during the middle of Ming dynasty (450 years ago). Now they have been joined together as one hotel, so anyone can have the opportunity to see and stay in this antique house. It has been kept as much original as possible. A lot of furniture is real antiques. There are 11 small but typical Suzhou courtyards / gardens in this hotel. The lobby is the oldest part of the house over 450 years old, it has been through Ming, Qing dynasties, Minguo period (between Qing and Mao time) and also Mao's Culture Revolution. It’s not just accommodation, there is lots of culture and history to see here.


Suggested Restaurant for Lunch

I suggest tourist can take a simple and delicious typical Suzhou style noodle and dumpling lunch at Zhuhongxing Restaurant (朱鸿兴面馆 in Chinese) which is with around 100 years history at Gongxiang (means Palace Lane, 宫巷 in Chinese), a lane right to the front gate of Xuanmiao Taoist Temple (Temple of Mystery) and very near the temple. The Fresh Water Crab (Hairy Crab) Meat Noodle and Steamed Dumpling are the famous speciality food of this restaurant. 


Suggested Suzhou Tour Itinerary

One Day Suzhou Tour from Shanghai

1.5-2 hours drive from Shanghai to Suzhou, 

Visit: Tiger Hill (No.1 Sight in Suzhou and the Landmark of ancient Suzhou), Xuanmiao Taoist Temple (the largest wood structure built 900 years ago, and the right center of ancient Suzhou city), Pingjiang Historical and Cultural Street Block, Humble Administrator's Garden (UNESCO World Heritage site, best classical garden in China), Master of Nets Garden  (UNESCO World Heritage site, best preserved classical garden with both residential and garden part in Suzhou)


This itinerary offers the epitome of Suzhou with some of the must-see attractions: the landmark and the No. 1 Sight in Suzhou, 2 representative ancient classical gardens, one is the best garden and another is the well-preserved garden, the geographical, economic and cultural center of ancient Suzhou and the area which still keep the authentic ancient Suzhou style life.