Tuesday, September 08, 2009


While Beijing is majestic, sombre and hard, Suzhou is exquisite, approachable and “soft”. With Great Wall, Heaven of Temple, Forbidden Palace, Tian’anmen Square etc…..Beijing has no lack of grandeur or pompousness and so is the burden of history. Thankfully, Suzhou has none of these. It is an ancient city hidden in the shadows and relish in it. It has nothing grand in physical to showcase, only the finer taste of living and art appreciation.

I find Suzhou “soft” visually—its winding canals carrying boats in an unhurried manner; its abundance of greens (in their gardens) that softens the contours of the landscapes; it is soft from a cultural aspect as its people, in comparison to the northern Chinese, are relatively gentler (in terms of their dialects and mannerism) and subtle in expressions; it is soft from a social aspect, where people tend to appreciate the finer way of living and therefore spend their time excelling in embroidery, relishing in the fine arts of calligraphy, poems, operas, tea appreciating and idling their time in tea houses and gardens—a stark contrast to their northern counterparts in Beijing. Beijing is the traditional power house whilst Suzhou was an inexplicable magnet to literati, painters, calligraphers and retired officials.

(Canals are definitely one of Suzhou’s unique features. Nowadays, canals lie wasted and are only of use to canal tours.)

A Suzhou that is independent of Venice

The Chinese definitely has a terrible inferiority complex in the presence of the West. More often than not, we often need to ascertain our own worth and standard with an equivalence of the West (in whatever ways).

(Some of the remaining canals to meander through the modern city, serving as a reminder and reminisce to those days of prosper.)

Suzhou is dubbed as the Venice of the East. I find that remark insulting to Suzhou. Don’t get me wrong, I love Venice but I find the act of seeking constant recognition from the West truly undignified. There is no comparison between these two cities apart for the presence of large number of canals.

In terms of the length of history and the size of trade, Suzhou, in my opinion again, has more to offer. Tribes lived there as early as BC 1000, Shang Dynasty. By BC 514, it was made the capital of the Wu and King Helu was buried right in Suzhou. Suzhou was renowned for its silk production and was a centre of fine embroidery. The completion of the Grand Canal ( spanning approximately1700km from Beijing to the south, Madrid to Koln) by AD 600 brought about a great change in China. Goods and food supplies, which were paramount to the military and political stability of Beijing, could then be channelled to the north efficiently by water. Grand Canal also facilitated the flow and volume of trade between cities on the route. Lying in the route of Grand Canal, Suzhou’s trade benefitted from it.

Looking away from economic growth, Suzhou was once a cradle of literary arts and an inspiration for artists and literati.

Not forgetting to mention the unique Chinese architecture manifested in the creation of Suzhou Gardens that is second to none in the world (I dare say so).

(Street lamps presented in the form of lanterns.)

Modern Suzhou in white and grey

Suzhou has not completely sold its soul to modernization and capitalism (well, soon). Outwardly, one could still find some traces of traditional Suzhou-style architecture blending into modern facilities.

(Bus stops and public toilets manifested in the traditional architecture style of Suzhou--white washed walls and grey tiles)