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Suzhou's old town a cherished oasis of tranquility

SUZHOU in Jiangsu Province is a model for urban preservation of its ancient town with quaint streets, classic gardens and waterways. The city is featured in the World Expo 2010 Shanghai as an example of perfectly balancing ancient and modern. Zhang Qian reports.

Visiting the legendary city of Suzhou with a history of more than 2,500 years, one is impressed by the classical gardens, the winding streets and bridges, the simple black, gray and white architecture.

Leaving the bustling modern city of Suzhou, one is transported back in time to an enclave without skyscrapers, neon and contemporary intrusions.

The government of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province is dedicated to cultural preservation and restoration of sites that all travelers can enjoy.

Shantang Street

Wooden boats, stone bridges, cobbled walkways and white houses with black tile roofs along the riverbank evoke memories of old Suzhou. The Old City is filled with streets that are well preserved or restored to replicate the originals.

Shantang Street is one of the most typical Suzhou-style streets with multiple waterways and crossed by bridges. It is situated beside the Shantang River and connected with other streets by stone bridges. It features many arcades with delicate decoration.

The street has been paradise for merchants nationwide since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Residents living above shops could lower baskets to street level and shout down to vendors to fill them with whatever they needed - then they'd raise the baskets. They could truly shop from home.

The market area includes the river plied by barges, cargo boats and smaller vessels selling rice, firewood, snacks and spices to people along the banks.

Though stores are no longer on the banks, visitors can ride in tour boats.

Shantang Street dates back more than 1,100 years.

It was first set up in the Tang Dynasty when Bai Juyi, a famous poet, was appointed prefectural governor in AD 825. While trying to make his way by boat to Hu Qiu, or Tiger Hill, Bai found the way obstructed and decided to construct a canal and street to facilitate travel.

The street and river extend seven li (a little more than 3 kilometers) from Duceng Bridge at the Chang Gate in western Suzhou to Tiger Hill. The river was named Shantang River while the parallel street was named Shantang Street.

The canal and street construction facilitated transport and irrigation and contributed to the city's prosperity.

To show their gratitude, residents built a temple for Bai and renamed the street Baigong Di (Sir Bai's Causeway) when Bai left his post.

It is said Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) enjoyed Shantang Street and ordered two similar Suzhou-style streets constructed in Beijing in the 18th century. Both were destroyed in war, but Suzhou Street was rebuilt in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

Shantang Street in Suzhou has been repaired several times throughout the years, but retains much of its original appearance.

Tourists can reach Tiger Hill directly by bus, but walking along Shantang Street is a pleasant way to get there.

Lingering Garden

While magnificent royal gardens in China's capital reflect glory, the delicate gardens of Jiangnan (region south of the Yangtze River) often tell sadder tales of retired government officials tired of all the imperial court intrigues.

One such garden, Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan), lies behind a simple black gate in a white wall - it's easy to miss. But inside is a small paradise created with great deliberation.

That's also the case with Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan). These two Suzhou gardens are among China's Four Famous Gardens, including the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Chengde Imperial Summer Villa in Hebei Province. Lingering Garden was listed on the World Heritage List in 1997.

This garden is outside Chang Gate in western Suzhou.

It covers more than 20,000 square meters and contains residences, memorial temples and gardens.

Many tourists ask why there is such an ordinary gate for such a magnificent garden - shouldn't the entry be splendid as well?

But the intention was to build a quiet garden with an unobtrusive entrance, much like the entry to ordinary residences nearby.

The garden was built by Xu Taishi, a righteous official in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who was impeached for offending influential officials. Then he retired and lived in seclusion, spending time only in the garden with his family.

Over the years the garden was abandoned and repaired several times by three owners before it underwent major restoration by the Suzhou government in 1953.

The name Liu Yuan was given by the third owner in the Qing Dynasty who said he wished that every beautiful scene in the garden could linger in the world forever.

After entering the plain black gate, visitors follow a long corridor that finally opens into a courtyard revealing part of the garden.

The garden contains four sections in the east, west, north and center, connected by a 700-meter-long meandering corridor.

The central part features delicate scenes of rockeries, artificial ponds and boat-like structures. The building complex in the east includes sitting rooms, pavilions and studies. The west is a natural setting with large rocks and wooded areas.

Boat-like structures are common in many classic gardens, especially those whose owners were once government officials. In Chinese culture boats often indicate successful careers.

Another typical feature of Suzhou gardens are Yuan Yang Ting or "mandarin duck reception halls" comprised of similar chambers - the larger, more magnificent and delicately decorated naturally belonging to the male/husband. The hall for the wife is comparatively much more simple.

The Lingering Garden features elaborate openwork windows opening onto the garden. Almost every window is distinctive, opening onto a different view.

Rocks are always necessary in Chinese gardens that replicate landscapes and mountains. The rockeries in the Lingering Garden are made of both local clay and famous yellow rock from Anhui Province, known for its rugged appearance.

Large Taihu (Taihu Lake) stones are also used - they are beautifully eroded, containing hollows and holes and they take fantastic shapes.

Guanyun Feng, or Cloud-Observing Peak, is the most imposing Taihu stone in Lingering Garden. The 6.5-meter-high-rock resembles an eagle ready to swoop down on a turtle.


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