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Outside In

Garden State

A pearl of the Yangtze Delta and criss-crossed by waterways, the gardens, bridges and pagodas of Suzhou are a slice of ancient life amid a modern city

By Yajing Zhang Updated Mar.1

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province (Photo by Yajing Zhang)

Some say water is the origin of life, and few cities embrace this fact like Suzhou. The city is one of the largest examples of a Jiangnan (“south of the Yangtze”) water town, which litter Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, as well as Shanghai. Sitting amid the Yangtze River Delta, on the shores of the vast freshwater Taihu Lake and along the Grand Canal, the ancient city is criss-crossed by some 20,000 canals and rivers, which are spanned by 189 bridges. Marco Polo marveled at the city and its silk-clad inhabitants, comparing it to his own hometown and dubbing it the “Venice of the East.”  

The other defining feature of Suzhou is its many classical gardens, built by centuries of literati officials. Traditional Jiangnan architecture like odd-shaped rocks, bridges, pagodas, ponds and pavilions were designed to represent the concepts of Chinese landscape painting. If you make a square with your fingers, every view of the gardens could be a painting. 

Official’s Humblebrag 
Among the 60 classical gardens, which are listed collectively as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perhaps the most well-known is the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It is said this Ming Dynasty garden, completed in 1526, was created by a man seeking solace after an unsuccessful political career, and took its name from a phrase penned some four centuries earlier: “Irrigating gardens and raising vegetables for daily meals are also a way for a humble person to manage administrative affairs.” However, the garden itself is far from humble; in fact it is the largest one in Suzhou at more than five hectares. Stones, plants, architecture and water are woven together, displaying the ideals of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Rocks cut through walls, adding fun in wandering through the garden as it makes you feel like you’re exploring a mountain, and you may easily lose your way.  

Outside the garden are the hustle and bustle of more than 800 years, on Shantang and Pingjiang roads. The two roads dotted with red-tasseled lanterns run parallel to each other alongside canals. Temples, ancestral halls and memorial arches stand witness to history, meanwhile milk tea shops and souvenir handicrafts bring people back to the modern day.  

Strolling away from the tourist hotspots to a random, quiet lane can also help you discover the hidden gems and feel the city’s vibe. Once walking on ancient stone bridges adorned with flowers and auspicious symbols, your steps will naturally slow. Boats amble down the foggy, narrow rivers, and passersby wink into view as they cross the narrow gaps between homes. The traditional houses are mostly built with wood, enclosed into small courtyards in the form of a patio. The outside walls are painted white and darkened by centuries of rainwater, while the exposed wood retains its natural color, and doors and windows are painted light brown or claret red. These colors, together with the gray roofs, create a simple yet vibrant appearance.  

Just as in Marco Polo’s hometown, boat tours provide another angle for exploration. The wooden boats for tourists look like they’ve sailed straight out of the Ming Dynasty, but the hum of their engines reminds you where you are. The chatty captains act as guides, pointing out the names of each bridge that passes and providing some anecdotes of local historical figures. If they are in good mood, they will also offer photography tips – where to get the best shots. If the boat’s full, they urge passengers near the bow to scoot down, so everyone can get the best snaps.  

It is a good opportunity to dwell on how lives in the city have always been intertwined with the water, though perhaps not so much since the coming of the motor vehicle. You can take a close look at the canal-side housing whose back doors are just above the water’s edge, seeing women squatting at the bottom of the stone stairs and washing clothes in the river. Wooden “honey” buckets are a reminder of the lack of plumbing in the past. Usually, the front of the house would have been the storefront, with goods arriving on the canal and the family’s kitchen (and bathroom) adjoining the water. 

A canal with sightseeing boats in Suzhou (Photo by Yajing Zhang)

Crouching Tiger 
The main canal route for tourists, conveniently, leads to another must-see site – Tiger Hill. As Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo wrote, “to visit Suzhou and not see Tiger Hill would lead to a lifetime of regret.”  

The hill, apparently shaped like a crouching tiger, has been a destination for hundreds of years. Walking through the lush green trees and classical gardens on a drizzly day, reading the poetry and calligraphy carved into rocks near Sword Pool by famous calligraphers is both a cultural and refreshing experience. The steep-sided pool is believed where a king was buried over 2,000 years ago, along with hundreds of swords. However, no matter how hard you stare at the vivid green water, you cannot find any sword-shaped objects, though you might spot a fish or a turtle. It is said the swords were either stolen, or never existed in the first place.  

As you mount the hill from Sword Pool, you will come across another iconic sight – Yunyan Tower. In another Italian connection, this time with Pisa, the tower tilts menacingly. The seven-story brick tower was first built over 1,000 years ago and got an extra few storys at the twilight of the Ming Dynasty. Once the city’s highest spot, the toll of subsidence and a fire has put it some 3.5 degrees out of whack.  

If you are looking for some more modern cultural delights after days immersed in China’s ancient history, the branch of Taiwan’s Eslite Bookstore located in the Suzhou Industrial Park is well worth a visit. The multistory beautifully designed bookstore has a huge selection, including an impressive array of English books, along with exquisite stationery stalls, a candy store, cafés and restaurants, with many brands from Taiwan on display. The store is also known for the six-meter wide, 18-meter tall grand staircase that sits at its east entrance, though you’ll have to dodge selfie-takers as you clamber up its 72 steps.  

The bookstore, and the entire glitzy area it calls home on the west bank of Jinji Lake, represent the modern phase of Suzhou’s centuries of prosperity. Skyscrapers create a skyline, reflecting the green tiles and white walls from the old city, showing a balance between historical conservation and urbanization.