When Marco Polo called this quaint merchant town one of the most beautiful in the world, he compared its lovely canals and stilt homes to those of the city of Venice. To this day, Suzhou continues to fascinate visitors from around the world with its superb charms. Though some of that appeal has unfortunately faded under a communist government more interested in putting up guady new buildings than preserving history, there’s still enough treasures left in Suzhou to warrant several days of exploration.
The gardens of Suzhou have a long history dating back to the 6th century BCE, but it was during the Ming and Qing Dynasties that the city’s prosperity produced some of the most renowned. Over these two dynasties as many as 200 gardens of remarkable beauty were built, earning Suzhou the title of the “Earthly Paradise.” While that title is sadly not quite applicable anymore, Suzhou is still one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities in China, and the magnificent gardens here – with their potpourri of flowers, rocks, buildings and water – are perfect examples of the traditional Chinese appreciation of harmony. Of Suzhou’s numerous remaining gardens, two of them have been selected by UNESCO to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites: the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden.
Lying in a strategic location on both the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal, Suzhou has long enjoyed prominence and wealth. The city’s history goes back over 2,500 years, and its prosperity first took root with the completion of the Grand Canal during the Sui Dynasty, as shipping sparked an economic boom. Artists and scholars were soon drawn to its beauty, building villas and gardens that would increase its charms. As early as the Tang Dynasty the city became a major tourist destination, and by 1035, the Confucian Temple began training recruits for the Imperial Civil Service exams.
The 13th century gave rise to Suzhou as the producer of the country’s finest silk. To this day, Suzhou Embroidery is one of the major styles of silk embroidery in China, famous for its elegance, creative patterning, bright colors, and the use of a kaleidoscope of over 1,000 different types of threads. It was during this time that the flourishing medieval city earned its moniker of Heaven of Earth: half due to the stone-paved, tree lined lanes, painted wooden buildings and stunning gardens and canals, and half due to the women, who were said to be the most beautiful in China.
Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution saw to it that much of the historic city, including is impressive city walls, were turned to rubble to make way for the unflinching development of New China.