Suzhou Travel Guide
the base of Beisi Ta
A network of canals, bridges, and canal-side housing characterizes the city of Suzhou. Its history dates back to the 6th century BC, when the first canals were built to control the area's low water table. The construction of the Grand Canal, 1,000 years later, brought prosperity as silk, the city's prized commodity, could be exported northwards. During the Ming dynasty, Suzhou flourished as a place of refinement, drawing an influx of scholars and merchants, who built themselves numerous elegant gardens. The city has plenty of sights, and is dissected by broad, busy roads laid out in a grid.
- 32 miles (50 km) NW of Shanghai
- Suzhou Train Station
- Beimen Station, Nanmen Station, Wu Xianshi Station
- ferries to Hangzhou
- tours of Grand Canal
- 251 Ganjiang Xi Rd 0512 6515 1369
Suzhou city center
- Beisi Ta (1)
- Canglang Ting (13)
- Confucian Temple (15)
- Humble Administrator's Garden (4)
- Museum of Opera & Theater (7)
- Ou Yuan (6)
- Pan Men (14)
- Shizi Lin (5)
- Shuang Ta (9)
- Silk Embroidery Research Institute (11)
- Suzhou Museum (3)
- Suzhou Silk Museum (2)
- Wangshi Yuan (12)
- Xuanmiao Guan (8)
- Yi Yuan (10)
- 1918 Renmin Rd.
- 0512 6753 1197
The northern end of Renmin Rd is dominated by the Beisi Ta (North Pagoda), a remnant of an earlier temple complex, which has been rebuilt. The pagoda's main structure dates from the Song dynasty, but its foundations supposedly date to the Three Kingdoms era (AD 220–265). Towering 249 ft (76 m) high, it is octagonal in shape, and has sharply upturned eaves. Visitors can climb right to the top, from where there are good views of the city, including Xuanmiao Guan and the Ruiguang Pagoda (see Pan Men Scenic Area).
Suzhou Silk Museum
- 2001 Renmin Rd.
- 0512 6753 6538
- 9am–4:30pm daily
The Suzhou Silk Museum is a pleasure to visit, mainly because its exhibits are well-documented with English captions. It traces the history of silk production (see ) and its use from its beginnings in about 4000 BC to the present day. Exhibits include old looms with demonstrations of their workings, samples of ancient silk patterns, and a section explaining the art of sericulture. The museum's most interesting exhibit is its room full of live silk worms, eating mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons.
- 204 Dongbei Jie
- 0512 6757 6011
- 9am–4pm daily
The municipal museum is housed in the villa which was formerly part of the adjoining Humble Administrator's Garden. The villa was occupied by Li Xiu-cheng, one of the leaders of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Rebellion (see Wuzhou) in 1860. This rather dry museum has no English captions, and concentrates on Suzhou's association with canal construction and silk production. The museum was rebuilt in a contemporary-meets-traditional style by the architect IM Pei and reopened in 2006.
in their own home
The History of Chinese Silk
According to legend it was the Empress Xi Ling who, in 2640 BC, encouraged silkworm breeding on a large scale. Trading vast quantities of the material around the world, China profited massively from the industry. It remained a Chinese monopoly for the next 3,000 years or so until refugees smuggled the secret to Korea and Japan. Another story tells that a Chinese princess who married the Prince of Khotan secretly brought silkworms with her as a gift for her husband. The western world, which knew China as Seres, or Land of Silk, learnt the secret of silk production via two monks, who hid silkworms in their bamboo staffs.
Silk was originally reserved for use by the imperial household, an example of which is this gorgeous robe embroidered with the imperial symbol of the five-clawed dragon. The imperial yellow symbolizes the earth.
Chinoiserie was popular in Europe and America at various times from the 17th century onwards. Cinese Factories created a range of Chinese-style designs solely for export. Silk has special qualities in that it retains warmth, and yet is lightweight and cool and can therefore be worn in comfort both in winter and summer.
Justinian was the Byzantine emperor who stole the secret of silk in AD 600. Silk had for long been fashionable in the Roman Empire but they had no idea how it was made, even thinking that it grew on trees.
Women produced silk in their own home – and it took up a large part of the day for six months of the year. The state also had many workshops producing and weaving silk.
The Production of Silk
Thousands of years of intensive breeding have rendered the silk moth, Bombyx mori, a blind, flightless, egg-laying machine whose larvae hold the secret of silk. The genius of the Chinese lay in the discovery of the potential of its ancestor, a wild, mulberry-eating moth unique to China.
Farming silkworms: the eggs are first kept at 65° F (18° C) rising to 77° F (25° C), at which point they hatch.
The silkworms (actually caterpillars) are now kept at a constant temperature and fed mulberry leaves at 30-minute intervals day and night,
until fattened they are ready to enter the cocoon stage.
|Making silk: the cocoons are steamed to kill the pupae and soaked to soften the sticky gum and allow the silk strands to be separated. Several strands are woven to make one silk thread.||Cocoons: when they are ready to pupate, with a figure-of-eight motion, they spin their sticky secretion into cocoons.||Silken saliva: the silkworms’ saliva glands secrete a clear liquid, that solidifies into silk threads as it dries, and a gum that sticks these together.|
- 23 Yuanlin Rd.
The Lion Grove Garden is considered by many the finest in Suzhou. However, visitors unfamiliar with the subtleties of Chinese garden design may find it rather bleak, as rocks are its main feature. Ornamental rocks were a crucial element of classical gardens, and symbolized either the earth or China’s sacred mountains. Dating to 1342, the garden was originally built as part of a temple. The large pool is spanned by a zigzag bridge and buildings with unusually fine latticework, while part of the rockery forms a labyrinth.
- Cang Jie
- 7:30am–5pm daily
The Ou Yuan (Double Garden) is not as busy as many of the city’s other classical gardens, and is a pleasure to visit. It takes its name from its two garden areas, separated by buildings and corridors. A relaxing place, Ou Yuan has rockeries, a pool, and a fine, open pavilion at its center that is surrounded by several teahouses. It is situated in a charming locality filled with some of the most attractive houses, canals, and bridges in the city.
Museum of Opera & Theater
- 14 Zhongzhangjia Xiang
- 0512 6727 3334
- 8:30am–4:30pm daily
Housed in a beautiful Ming dynasty theater of latticed wood, the Museum of Opera and Theater (Xiqu Bowuguan) is a fascinating and highly visual museum. Its display halls are filled with examples of old musical instruments, delicate hand-copied books of scores and lyrics, masks, and costumes. Other exhibits include a life-size orchestra and vivid photographs of dramatists and actors. Traditional Suzhou Opera, known as kun ju, is renowned as the oldest form of Chinese opera, with a history of about 5,000 years.
The museum is the venue for occasional performances, while the adjacent teahouse stages daily shows of kun-style opera and music.
The Daoist Temple of Mystery was founded during the Jin dynasty but like many Chinese temples, has been rebuilt many times. The Hall of the Three Pure Worshipers dates to the Song dynasty, and is the largest ancient Daoist hall in China. The intricate structure of the roof in particular is worth scrutiny. Located in Suzhou’s commercial center, the temple was associated with popular street entertainment, and although the musicians and jugglers have gone, it retains a casual atmosphere.
- Dinghui Si Xiang
Once part of a temple, these 98-ft (30-m) high twin pagodas date to the early Song era. According to a recently discovered inscription, they were first built in AD 982 by the students Wang Wenhan and his brother in honor of their teacher, who helped them pass the imperial civil service exams. Twin pagodas are commonly found in India but are a rarer feature of Chinese temples, as pagodas were largely built as single edifices.
The Garden of Happiness is one of Suzhou’s newer gardens, dating from the late Qing dynasty. It was built by a government official who utilized rocks and landscape designs from other abandoned gardens. The garden appears to have originally covered a larger area; today its central feature is a pool encircled by rockeries and spanned by a zigzag bridge. The best viewpoint is from the Fragrant Lotus Pavilion, while another pavilion that juts into the pool is known for catching cooling breezes. Look out for the calligraphy by famous scholars and poets.
Silk Embroidery Research Institute
- 280 Jingde Rd.
Housed in the Huan Xiu Shan Zhuang Garden (Surrounded by Majestic Mountains), this institute creates exquisitely fine silk embroidery, work that is mainly done by women. In order to produce the painting-like effect of their designs, the women sometimes work with silk strands that are so fine, they are almost invisible. They specialize in double-sided embroidery – for example, a cat with green eyes on one side and blue on the other.
- Kuojia Xiang
- 0512 6520 3514
- 7:30am–5pm daily
It is said that the Master of the Nets Garden was named after one of its owners – a retired official who wished to become an accomplished fisherman. Dating to 1140, it was completely remodeled in 1770 and for many people, is the finest of all Suzhou’s gardens. Although small, it succeeds, with great subtlety, in introducing every element considered crucial to the classical garden (see Traditional Chinese Gardens). It includes a central lake, discreet connecting corridors, pavilions with miniature courtyards, screens, delicate latticework, and above all, points which “frame a view”, as if looking at a perfectly balanced photograph. The best known building is the Pavilion for Watching the Moon, from where the moon can be viewed in a mirror, in the water, and in the sky. Regular evening performances of Chinese opera, including local kun ju, take place here.
- 3 Canglang Ting Jie, Renmin Rd.
- 0512 6519 4375
- 7:30am–5pm daily (to 4pm mid-Apr–Oct)
The Dark Blue Wave Pavilion Garden – whose name is suggestive of a relaxed and pragmatic approach to life – is perhaps Suzhou’s oldest garden, first laid out in 1044 by a scholar, Su Zimei, on the site of an earlier villa. His successor, a general in the imperial army, enlarged it in the 12th century, and it was rebuilt in the 17th century. It is known for its technique of “borrowing a view”, allowing the scenery beyond the garden’s confines to play a role in its design. Here, it is achieved by lowering walls on the north side of some of the pavilions, allowing views across water; elsewhere the southwest hills can be seen. The central feature is a mound that is meant to resemble a wooded hill. Gardens were ideal places for contemplation and writing poetry, clearly visible in the engravings of verses and poems dotting Canglang Ting.
- Liu Yuan
- 338 Liuyuan Rd.
- 0512 6533 7903
- 7:30am–4:30pm daily
- Xi Yuan
- Xiyuan Rd.
- 0512 6533 4126
- 5:30am–7pm daily
Originally a pair, these two gardens lie near each other to the west of the old moated area. The Liu Yuan (Garden for Lingering in), was restored in 1953, and its four scenic areas are connected by a long corridor. The Xi Yuan (West Garden) once belonged to a devout Buddhist, and is more temple than garden. The Jiechang Temple, with its tiled roof and red beams is a fine example of southern style architecture. Adjoining it is the Hall of Five Hundred Louhan.
- Renmin Rd.
- 0512 6519 4343
The original Song dynasty temple was rebuilt in 1864 after it was destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion. Its main hall, dating from the Ming dynasty, has several stone carvings including China’s oldest surviving city map, depicting Suzhou, or Pingjiang as it was known in 1229. A star chart dating from 1247 maps the positions of stars and celestial bodies in the heavens. It is one of the earliest surviving maps of its kind.
In the city’s northwest is the popular Tiger Hill (Huqiu Shan), the burial place of He Lu, the King of Wu and founder of Suzhou. His spirit is said to be guarded by a white tiger who appeared three days after his death and refused to leave.
The main attraction is the Song-dynasty leaning pagoda (Yunyan Ta or Cloud Rock Pagoda), built in brick, which leans more than 7-ft (2-m) from the perpendicular at its highest point. Some 10th-century Buddhist sutras and a record of the year that it was constructed (959–961) were discovered during one of the attempts to prevent it from falling. The park is quite large, with pools and flowerbeds filled with blooms in spring and early summer. One of the many boulders is split in two, allegedly the result of He Lu’s swordsmanship. He is supposedly buried nearby along with 3,000 swords.
- 24 Hanshansi Long
- 0512 6533 6634
- 8:30am–4pm daily
First constructed in the Liang dynasty, the Cold Mountain Temple was named after a Tang-dynasty poet-monk. A stone rendition of him and his fellow monk, Shi De, is to be seen here. The temple was rebuilt in the 19th century, after it was destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion. Located close to the Grand Canal, it was immortalized by the Tang-dynasty poet Zhang Ji, who arrived here by boat and anchored nearby. His poem “Anchored at Night by the Maple Bridge” is inscribed on a stone stele, and contains the lines that made Hanshan Si famous: “Beyond Suzhou lies Hanshan Temple; at midnight the clang of the bell reaches the traveler’s boat.” The bell alluded to here was subsequently lost, and the temple’s current bell was presented by Japan in 1905. Nearby, a beautiful arched bridge offers views along the Grand Canal.
- 7:45am–5:30pm daily
Pan Men Scenic Area
Set in the southwest corner of Suzhou, this once overlooked area has been extensively restored – gone are the pretty canalside shacks – but it still contains some of the city’s most interesting historical sights. Pan Men is a unique fortified gate that once controlled access to the city by both land and water. It is said to date back nearly 700 years, although most of the present construction is much more recent. Other highlights include the charming Wu Men Bridge and the views of the city and canals from the Ruigang Pagoda.
- 2 Dong Da Rd, SW corner of the city
- from the train station
- 8am–5pm daily
- for scenic area (inc. Pan Men and Wu Men Bridge), separate fee for Ruigang Pagoda
- Wu Men Bridge
- Pan Men
- Ruigang Pagoda
View from Ruigang Pagoda
After a climb up narrow stairs, looking down into the heart of Suzhou itself reveals a city dotted with large pockets of green – the beautiful gardens that have made the city so famous.
This gate and attached section of wall (dating back to 1351) are all that remains of the city’s ancient fortifications. It is the only land and water gate in China.
Hall of Attractive Scenery
This three-story pavilion houses a tranquil tea room with views to the platform of the Western Stage in front.
This seven-story, 140-ft (43-m) high pagoda dates back to the Song dynasty. It is constructed of brick with wooden platforms, and has simple Buddhist carvings at its base.
Hall of Four Auspicious Merits
The name of this hall is inspired by Buddhist teachings. At each side of the hall at the end of covered walkways are smaller pavilions, one containing a drum and the other a bell.
Wu Men Bridge
This graceful bridge spanning the Grand Canal is the tallest in Suzhou and its design dates back to the Song dynasty, although it has since been rebuilt a few times. It has steps built into it and a lovely view from the top.