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The Beautiful City of Suzhou | 魅力苏州


Written by (作者): Vincent R. Vinci 魏文深


 

There are many cities and towns across Asia have earned the moniker “Venice of the Orient” (10 in China to be exact), but the most beautiful of these is the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, ancient capital of the State of Wu and the city that served as my first experience of China. Suzhou is renowned across China for its beautiful garden homes, once occupied by the opulent scholar-official class and filled with beautiful plant life and rock gardens. Even though an economic juggernaut today, Suzhou is as pretty and quaint as it ever was, a wonderful city trapped in time yet moving forward with progress.

Originally called Helu, the city was founded in 514 BCE as the capital of the State of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BCE).In the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), the State of Wu was conquered by the State of Yue in 473 BCE, which was then conquered by the State of Chu in 334 BCE. When the Qin Dynasty was established in 221 BCE, Helu became Wu County. The city earned the name Suzhou during the Sui Dynasty in 589 and became a region for commerce and trade – especially that of silk– after the completion of the Grand Canal.

Suzhou came into its own during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when the city became a hub for scholarship and the arts. The wealthy residents of the city constructed immaculate garden homes filled with trees, flowers, ponds, and beautiful carved rocks – or “Scholars’ Stones” – which were submerged in water for periods to make their carved holes look natural, all working to bring about harmony and juxtaposition in the estate. Along with Hangzhou, Suzhou became known as one of the most beautiful cities in China, with a saying that went “In Heaven there is paradise, but on Earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.”

My first encounter with this wondrous city was 5 years ago, when I attended Suzhou University one summer for a Chinese language exchange program. It was so easy to fall in love with the place, and memories of its green gardens always return with flowing water dancing in the weight of the sun, the heat encouraging a dreamlike trance. I’ve gone back many times, each time finding something more amazing than the last, something that keeps me coming back for more.

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The Gardens

While each garden in the city has its own unique characteristics, as with temples and city walls, the scenery can get pretty redundant once you’ve seen one or two. As with the temples, though, there’s always something that draws crowds, and the best examples of this in Suzhou’s gardens in my opinion are the Lingering Garden and, my personal favorite, Lion Grove Garden.

Lion Grove Garden is my personal favorite because of all the scholars’ stones present. So many in fact that they form small mountains that you can roam around in and explore. Besides that its halls and passages lead to open areas more expansive than most gardens in the city: with wide open lake-like ponds filled with koi darting this way and that, a large stone “boat” in the central garden, surrounded by pavilions and more rock mountains.

The name of the garden derives from the rocks themselves, which were designed to form lions to honor the Buddhist Lion’s Roar Sutra. The garden was commissioned by a Zen monk named Tianru Wen in 1342 during the Yuan Dynasty in honor of his late teacher Abbot Zhongfeng. Following Wen’s death the garden fell into disrepair and changed hands many times until 1917, when it was purchased by a private owner who finished restorations on the garden in 1926. During its heyday, the garden was known throughout China, even receiving visits and praise from the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The latter loved Lion Grove Garden so much that he had a replica built in the Changchun garden of the Summer Palace and another in Chengde.

The Lingering Garden was built much later, in 1593 when it was commissioned by Jiangsu official Taishi Xu. Originally called the East Garden, Lingering Garden changed hands many times throughout its history, earning its present name when ownership passed to Kang Sheng, a provincial treasurer from Changzhou, in 1873. The garden is unique in that it is split into various sections – East, West, Central, and North – each with a distinct theme. The primary feature of the garden is its extensive ponds with grottos and pavilions. Its an excellent place to view pipa, guqin, and pingtai – Chinese song stories – which are performed every so often.

The Gates

As with many other cities in China, there are still sections of the old city wall that have been rebuilt. While, like most of these other cities, the walls are rather plain and uninteresting, what makes the city walls of Suzhou significant is that they were originally built in 514 BCE, when the city was established as the capital of the State of Wu. Another unique feature of the former wall is the Pan Gate, the 2,500 year old gate that connected travelers by land and water to the city. Its southwest location was the only link for people traveling by water to the inner city, with two water gates with doors flanking the land gate. From the vine-covered tower of the land gate, guards could lower two massive wooden doors in order to inspect vessels entering and exiting the city, a sort of ancient customs check if you will.

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While the main tower has been turned into a sort of tourist trap with replicas of ancient Chinese long weapons and hawkers offering to write your name in Chinese on a fan for a special price, the view outside is still impressive. Strolling along the reconstructed walls, you can see the two other “sights of Pan Gate”: Ruiguang Pagoda, a pagoda built in 247 that was once connected to a Buddhist monastery next to the Gate; and Wu Bridge, which spans the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and is the longest stone one arched bridge in Suzhou.

The Canals

Suzhou wouldn’t be the Venice of the Orient without its massive network of canals and waterworks. Even though most were cleared away to make way for new development , many sections of the city canal remain intact and welcome visitors to meander past them or even ride boats along them. Perhaps the best place to take in the ancient waterways is the quaint little neighborhood of Pingjiang Road. The little road (more of a long wide alleyway with a canal running through it) is a wonderful place to spend the afternoon and evening, with neon lights flickering across the water as people wind their way through the juxtaposition of old architecture and new restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops.

Its here you’ll find another thing the city is famous for: its food. There are many restaurants that serve up classic Suzhou-style dishes, known for their sweet and light flavors, a compliment to the relaxing feel of the town. There’s great Xiaolongbao – Jiangsu-style soup dumplings – soups, fish, sweet lotus root, and of course Su-style Dong Po Pork, large cubes of sweet braised pork belly wrapped like a small present to keep in all the flavors. After a hearty meal one can go out and stroll around, taking in the sights along Pingjiang.

Suzhou is a city where life moves at a slower pace. Indeed, the city’s taxi drivers are notorious for getting off work at 7:00 PM each night to go have dinner with their families, making travel cumbersome if you need to find a cab. The vibe here is a friendly and relaxed one, and it seems to have been this way since the literati put up shop here in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. While there may be paradise in Heaven, Suzhou is definitely a place where there’s paradise on Earth.

 

在亚洲,有许多城镇被誉为“东方威尼斯”(中国就有10个),其中最美的就是江苏苏州了。苏州曾是吴国的首都,也是我来中国后的第一个落脚点。苏州素来以园林典雅而闻名天下。苏州园林以文人墨客的私家园林为主,园林里到处都是亭台楼阁、泉石花木。尽管经济发展势头强劲,苏州依旧在现代化建设进程中保存了古城的独特风韵。

春秋时期,吴国将国都南迁至今苏州城址。公元前514年,阖闾继位,命大臣扩建该城,并命名为阖闾城。战国时期,公元前473年,越灭吴,吴地悉归越过所有。公元前334年,楚灭越,吴、越之地尽属楚。公元前221年,秦统一六国后,设阖闾为吴县。隋朝时期,公元589年,废除吴郡建置,以城西有姑苏山之故,易吴州为苏州,这是苏州得名之始。南北大运河完工后,苏州成了万商云集的天堂,丝织业极为繁盛。

明清时期,苏州经济文化发展达到鼎盛阶段。城中的达官贵人、巨商富贾开始建造精致典雅的私家园林。以凿池堆山、栽花种树点缀园林,将它们自然地揉和在一起,使园林的一山一水、一草一木都能产生出一种和谐之美。苏州与杭州被并称为中国最美的两大城市,正所谓“上有天堂,下有苏杭”。

我与这座美妙城市的第一次邂逅是在5年前,当时我参加了交换生项目来苏州大学学习汉语。爱上这个地方是如此的轻而易举,园林里花草树木争相开放,流水在阳光的照射下熠熠发光,热情的夏日似在邀请人们来支梦幻舞曲。后来我又去了几次,每次都能找到意想不到的惊喜,驱使着我不断故地重游去寻找更多的乐趣。

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 苏州园林

苏州的每个园林都有其独特之处,一旦你见识了一两个园林的魅力,你就会发现寺庙、城墙和风景是如此的多余,虽然寺庙总有它的夺人眼球之处。在我看来,最好的例证就是苏州园林中的留园以及我个人最喜欢的狮子林。

我之所以最喜欢狮子林是因为那里有许多名家的书法碑。狮子林内假山众多,你可以在外围闲逛,也可以亲自进假山探索。此外,通往开放区的过道和走廊比城中绝大多数园林都要广阔:锦鲤在宽敞得像湖一样的池塘里上蹿下跳,水池西北边是石舫,被亭台楼阁和假山包围着。

为纪念佛徒衣钵、师承关系,取佛经中狮子座之意,故名“狮子林”。亦因佛书上有“狮子吼”一语,且众多假山酷似狮形而命名。元朝时期,13 42年,由天如禅师惟则的弟子为奉其师所造,初名“狮子林寺”。天如禅师谢世后,弟子散去,寺园逐渐荒芜,几经转手,直到1917年被上海颜料巨商贝润生购买,并于1926年完成整修。在全盛时期,狮子林在全国享有盛誉,清朝时期的康熙和乾隆皇帝都曾巡游至此,对它非常钟情。乾隆皇帝甚至在颐和园内的畅春园和承德避暑山庄里都仿造了狮子林。

留园始建于1593年,为太仆寺少卿徐泰时的私家园林,时人称东园。之后多次转手,直到1873年,被常州盛康所据,始称留园。留园的独到之处在于全园分成主题不同、景观各异的东、中、西、北四个景区。留园以大量的水池、洞穴和亭台楼阁为主,是欣赏琵琶、古琴和评弹表演的绝佳地点。

 城门

正如中国的很多其他城市,苏州不时上演着重建古城墙的戏码,也像那些城市一样,这些城墙总是平淡无奇、索然无味。而让苏州的城墙变得有意义的原因是它始建于公元前514年,苏州即当时的阖闾还是吴国的都城的时候。另一个独特之处则是位于古城墙西南角的盘门,已有2500多年历史,是国内外唯一保留完整的水陆并列古城门。陆城门分内外二重,二门之间设有“瓮城”,可藏卒数百,以备突然出击之用,也可对入侵之敌作“关门打狗”。水路城门紧相毗连,均设有巨大的闸门,古代用盘车提升或关闭,可控制往来行人与船只,便于设防守城池。

虽然现在主城楼已经变成敲诈旅客的陷阱,店铺里放置着古代中国长兵器的复制品,还有小贩在风扇上写上你的中文名,再跟你漫天要价,但是城楼外的风景依然让人印象深刻。沿着重建后的城墙散步,你还可以看到“盘门三景”的另外二景:建于247年、临流照影的“瑞光寺塔”和横跨京杭大运河、江苏省现存最高的单孔古石拱桥的“吴门桥”。

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运河

 归功于其河道纵横、水网密布,苏州才被誉为东方威尼斯。虽然大多数河道已经被整治,为城市发展让路,但是运河的某些河段仍然完好无损,游客可漫步其间或乘船欣赏沿河风景。古雅的平江路街道或许是欣赏古运河的最佳地点,这条小路(更确切地说是运河边上一条长长的、宽敞的小巷)值得你花上一个下午和晚上的时间,看霓虹灯在水面上闪烁,人们在古建筑和新餐馆、咖啡馆、酒吧、商店之间穿行。

在这里你会找到让这座城市声名在外的另一样东西— — 美食。很多餐馆提供传统苏州风味的菜肴,以甜和清淡口味著称,呼应着城市的休闲氛围。最不可错过的是灌汤小笼包,还有松鼠桂鱼、桂花糯米藕,东坡肉就更不在话下了,一块块味甜香糯的五花肉,像一份份小巧的礼物,将人间美味藏匿其中。饱餐一顿后,你可以四处闲逛,领略平江路沿途风光。

苏州是一个生活节奏比较慢的城市。出租车司机每天晚上7点就下班与家人共进晚餐去了,出行也因此变得麻烦起来。整座城市的氛围亲切融洽、休闲自在,似乎自明清时代文人雅士寓居于此后就一直未曾改变。对我来说,上有天堂这事儿真假未可辨,苏州的人间天堂之名倒是毋庸置疑的。


Recommended Reading | 推荐读物

Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China | 《美丽姑苏:苏州的社会文化历史》

Tracing the rise of Suzhou 2,500 years ago to its growth as a wealthy trading center and its modern rebirth as a hub for hi-tech, pharmaciudical, and textile manufacturing, this book by Stephen L. Koss paints a vivid picture of Suzhou through the eyes of history and modern development.

从2500年前的建立,到逐渐发展为富有的贸易中心,再到崛起为现代高科技、制药、纺织品制造中心,这本由
Stephen L. Koss撰写的书,从历史和现代化发展的角度,为我们生动地描绘了苏州这座城市。

The Gardens of Suzhou | 《苏州园林》

This wonderful book, part of the series Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture, not only presents 11 of Suzhou’s famous gardens but delves into the literary and artistic references lef t in the gardens by the elite who built them, not as beautiful spaces but as a region of the world compacted into smaller spaces for enjoyment and reflection.

这本很棒的书是宾夕法尼亚大学研究园林建筑系列丛书的一部分,不仅描绘了11个苏州著名园林,还深入探讨了学
识渊博的园主遗留下来的文学和艺术典籍,向读者呈现苏州园林不仅只是漂亮的花园,更是一个浓缩的“自然界”,
供人享受和遐思。

Suzhou: Where the Goods of All Provinces Converge | 《苏州:各省货物的汇合之地》

An exploration of how commerce in Suzhou entering the Ming Dynasty shaped its future, making it a home for the artistic, literary, and business elite of China through specialization, population growth and other factors.

探索苏州自明朝以来的贸易是如何塑造其未来,通过专业化、人口增长及其它因素使之成为艺术、文学和万商云集
的中心的。

(Photo Credit in Order of Appearance: 0578js.com, garystravels.com, Vincent R. Vinci, 716it.com, 4000635369.com)


Bio

Vin imageNF-JUN#46_01-93

Vincent R. Vinci is the Senior English Editor of Ningbo Focus. Having lived, studied, and worked in China on and off for the past 3 years or so, he has dedicated his time in the country to exploring its history, culture, food, and drink and sharing it with whoever wants to read about it.

魏文深是《宁波聚焦》杂志的资深英文编辑。在中国生活、学习和工作的三年期间,他花费大量时间探索这个国家的历史、文化、美酒、佳肴,并把它们分享给读者们。

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