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February 19, 2012

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Suzhou - graceful city renowned for great minds

TODAY the scenic city of Suzhou still boasts of its many scholars who aced the imperial exams hundreds of years ago. Yao Minji explains how this small water city nurtured so many extraordinary minds.

In Chinese literature and films set in ancient times, when a character is described as a Suzhou native, he or she is always well-bred, sometimes aristocratic and coming from a family of scholar-officials.

A Suzhou native is always portrayed as elegant and graceful, a talented writer of poems and essays, often a connoisseur, delicate and fastidious about everything - what he or she eats (how artistically it's prepared), what he or she drinks, wears and uses.

"We have 50 zhuang yuan (top scholars) from Suzhou - how extraordinary!" - I heard that over and over from local tour guides, friends and taxi drivers.

Zhuang yuan were the superior scholars who scored No. 1 in the imperial examination, a major way for scholars to become government officials. In each exam, there was only one zhuang yuan, so they are highly valued and respected. And to have produced so many is a tribute to the intellectual atmosphere and cultivation of a city.

The number varies, depending on whether one counts city natives or includes everyone who's ever lived there. The total number of zhuang yuan from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when the exam started, to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it ended, is around 600, so the number 50 is amazing considering the small size of the city.

Suzhou may also be the only city where the number of zhuang yuan still is mentioned so frequently to tourists as a source of local pride.

As the locals say, Suzhou has produced so many precious scholars, intellectuals and literati that you can only count the zhuang yuan, otherwise the list is endless.

It makes one wonder what's so special about this small water city with streams and canals that has nurtured so many extraordinary minds.

My primary impression of the city was drawn from Suzhou beauty Lin Daiyu from "A Dream of Red Mansions," a famous 18th-century novel following the ups and downs of a wealth and influential feudal family.

Lin, a major character, was known for her sickly beauty, astonishing talent and emotional fragility. For a long time she has been used to symbolize talented women who suffer great misfortune.

She is a Suzhou native and as I read about her when I was a child, she gave me my first impression of the city - beautifully delicate, elegant and stylish. The visits to Suzhou in my childhood made my imaginary city very real. It was filled with all kinds of old architecture - towers, pagodas, pavilions, corridors, gardens, courtyard residences. It seemed difficult in those days to find a modern building.

These old structures displayed a kind of fragile delicacy in their well-designed brick columns, the worn carvings on the ceiling and roof and the often broken but cleverly fashioned furniture, some with moveable parts.

Residents spoke in a soft Suzhou dialect, walking at a leisurely pace down small and twisting lanes and bridges. Life moved slowly and gracefully.

It's a wonder that the old section of the city, its buildings and residents, haven't changed that much over the years. The preservation of that timeless quality is extraordinary, considering the country's rocketing development in which a place can be completely transformed within weeks.

In Suzhou, all the flashy shopping malls and skyscrapers are located far from the old town where new construction is strictly regulated to conform to its surroundings and not to clash with history. Busy factories are in a separate industrial zone.

It is also amazing that the old town's basic urban planning hasn't changed much since the city was built more than 2,500 years ago. Of course structures, roads, gates and bridges were built, renovated, destroyed and rebuilt, but mostly in the old style.

The grid layout of the water city, through which rivers and streets run parallel, has basically remained the same.

An area today looks much as it did in a painting created hundreds of years ago.

Tiger Hill Pagoda

Huqiu Tower, or the Tiger Hill Pagoda, is not far from Chang Men, or Chang gate. The miles of prosperous commercial streets were first built as a throughway from the gate to the Tiger Hill.

Westerners sometimes call the seven-story (47-meter) tower the "Leaning Tower of China," since it has tilted northeast for more than 1,000 years, since it was first built in the late period of the Five Dynasties (AD 907-960).

The difference between top and bottom is now 2.3 meters, but experts have braced the structure so it will not tilt further.

The pagoda was completed in the second year of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and repaired in all the following dynasties.

Thus, the tower and other buildings in the area reflect different architectural styles and features of the different dynasties.

The pagoda's general structure and design of the brick columns are typical of the Song Dynasty, while the details of the doors, roofs and corridors bear features of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) architecture, when the pagoda was repaired.

The top of the tower was rebuilt in 1956, when the original was destroyed in a thunderstorm.

During the reconstruction, workers found a secret cavity containing a large number of relics including bronze Buddha statues, bronze mirrors, porcelains and other antiquities.

Because of its atmospheric view, Tiger Hill has been a popular salon for intellectuals who gathered for drinks and discussions since the Ming Dynasty.

Pingjiang Road

Suzhou's earliest urban plan, Pingjiang Tu or Picture of Pingjiang, was drawn in 1229. A copy of that plan can be seen in the summer house at the end of Pingjiang Road, along with today's urban plan.

By comparison, it is clear that the difference across 800 years is merely a few small lanes.

Pingjiang Road is a favored leisure spot for locals, much nicer than spruced-up Guanqian Street, a tourist attraction. The essence of the city's urban structure - a river on one side and street on the other, crisscrossed by countless tiny lanes - is encapsulated in Pingjiang Road.

Unlike many other cultural streets in other Chinese cities, it is not too commercial, nor too well-preserved.

It takes only 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other, but one can spend hours exploring stylish shops on the street side and mysterious lanes on the river side. Old brick walls on the river side shine with a warm light in the evenings. Behind the walls are twisting lanes where dozens of former residences of famous scholars or wealthy families can be spotted.

The lanes and residences are not preserved or turned into museums; they are residences for ordinary people who carry on, day and night, crossing lanes and bridges as if centuries had never really passed.

The sense of modernity hits when one crosses bridges. On the other side of the river are the same old buildings, mostly from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) housing all kinds of shops and boutiques (incense, silk, fashions, yogurt), galleries, bookstores, hostels with preserved original architecture, small and delicately decorated cafeterias.

Pan Gate and Chang Gate

The other impression of Suzhou that I drew from "A Dream of Red Mansions" is that of Chang Men, or Chang Gate.

In its first chapter, the book describes the area near Chang Men as "one of the most crowded, prosperous and cultural places in the dusty earth."

Similar descriptions of the area appear in many old books, historical records and novels. It was frequently described as a highly prosperous, competitive and densely populated commercial area.

The gate I see, especially when it's all lighted at night, does impress as a flashy prosperous spot as it appeared in old texts and paintings, especially since the surrounding area has also been built into a commercial spot. But I cannot visualize the richness and charm of the old days described by so many intellectuals in so many elegant words.

"It's all new - destroyed, repaired, destroyed again, and then rebuilt and renovated early this century, it's not even at the same spot," says our cab driver, seeing my puzzled face.

"If you want to see the real old gate, go to Pan Men, that's rebuilt the way it was in the old dynasties," he adds.

When the water city was founded 2,500 years ago, eight gates, controlling both land and water entries, were built to guard the area and encircle the city.

All were virtually destroyed, but Pan Gate was the least damaged and all the old walls remain intact.

It is the only one of the eight that has been restored to its original appearance as depicted in paintings and records from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties.

The kindly cab driver, an old resident of the Chang Men area, also tells us that the walls of the eight gates, although partially destroyed, were still mostly connected around the city in the 1950s.

"My older brother told me that we used to walk on top of the walls around the city," he says.

That's impossible now.

But well-preserved Pan Men does make it possible to imagine the city as it was. The grand gate has a mechanism to block enemies approaching both on land and water. The tunnel between the inner and exterior gates could conceal hundreds of soldiers.


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