Suzhou calls itself “the Venice of the East”. But, so does Zhouzhuang, and there are a dozen other watery towns in China’s Jiangsu province that could legitimately claim the title. Fed by the world’s second longest river, the Yangtze estuary is awash with water, not only from the Yangtze itself, but also from a multitude of lesser rivers that converge on the area from both north and south. When Marco Polo, a native of the European Venice, arrived there during his epic journey of 1271-1292 AD he must have felt right at home among the “water-towns” of southern China.
The coastal lowlands that flank metropolitan Shanghai are one of the most fertile and long-inhabited regions of China. In 600 BC He Lu, enigmatic ruler of the Kingdom of Wu, made Suzhou his capital. A thousand years later, when the Grand Canal was pushed through from Beijing, Suzhou and the surrounding towns were already linked together by a network of smaller canals. The new transportation corridor opened the Beijing market to the south’s silk, manufactured goods, and farm produce. The cities and towns of the Yangtze estuary prospered. Their growing wealth attracted scholars, merchants, artists, and government patronage. By the time Marco Polo arrived in 1280 AD Suzhou was recognized as the cultural capital of China. The pioneer travel writer describes it as a place with “six thousand bridges, clever merchants, cunning men of all crafts, and very wise men called Sages”.
Sadly very little remains of the city that Marco Polo describes, but thanks to the wise men of Suzhou a 3 km by 5 km portion of the old city is now a “historic district,” protected from further urban and industrial expansion. Many of the bridges are still there, its classic gardens are carefully protected, and the network of canals that wind through the moated inner city are still used by both local residents and tourists.
We began our exploration of the old city with a visit to the “Garden of the Humble Administrator,” a strikingly beautiful park where secluded pathways and slim waterways wind through rockeries, past traditional tile-roofed pagodas, and over arched bridges. It’s one of 70 private gardens, which give Suzhou its reputation as one of the greenest and most beautiful cities in China. I asked our local guide how the garden got its name. “Not so clear,” he answered, “Chinese characters may mean ‘Garden of Unsuccessful Politician’ or ‘garden of stupid officials’, not so clear.” What is clear, its 16 th century designer was a master of the landscaping art and the gardeners who have tended it for the past 500 years were, and are, dedicated to absolute perfection.