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A weekend trip to the land of fish and rice

ALMOST everyone knows Suzhou and its legendary gardens, but it's always a pleasure to visit again, make new discoveries and hear other legends.

Second, third and other trips reveal more layers of history. There's more to Suzhou than gardens.

A pleasant weekend trip to Jiangsu Province takes you to Suzhou and the untouristy Changshu, which has beautiful river and marsh scenery -- once you get away from its factories and commercial areas.

You can leave Shanghai for Suzhou on Friday evening (40 minutes by express train), spend Saturday at your leisure, take in nearby Changshu by bus (about an hour), and return on Sunday evening.

Both cities are part of China's yu mi zhi xiang or land of fish and rice in the warm, humid and fertile land south of the Yangtze River. It's crisscrossed by rivers and known for its abundant harvests and silk.


Two of the Four Great Chinese Gardens are in Suzhou, which dates back at least 2,500 years as a city. It's "Heaven on Earth" and the "Oriental Venice" (Marco Polo's words, maybe).

That said, "I first learned about Suzhou through tales of Chinese emperors who loved to kick over the traces, leave their capitals in northern China and visit the easygoing south, known for its beautiful scenery, elegant living and beautiful women. It was a lovely place for bored and naughty emperors to while away the days."

What most attracted me to Suzhou, however, were the tales of Xishi, one of the "Four Great Beauties of Ancient China."

The story goes that she was a patriot and became a spy on the rival state of Wu. Thus she was forced to leave her lover, move to the court and become a concubine to learn court secrets. Of course, the foolish and extravagant King Fuchai (r. 495-473 BC) was besotted with her. She helped her own kingdom defeat Fuchai.

The area of Suzhou, the region south of the Yangzte River, was known as Wu in ancient China. It was the capital of the state of Wu and was built by Fuchai's father 2,500 years ago.

The city still preserves its original design, merging rivers and canals with the land.

And Fuchai, though a foolish ruler who ignored most of his duties, was clever in one respect. He is recorded to have turned the city into a stronghold, difficult to defeat, because of its unusual fortified gate, built half on the land and half above a canal.

Cities with water access were vulnerable to attack, because it was difficult to shut down waterways. But this gate blocked the main attack route.

The land section was like most ancient brick gates and could accommodate more than 100 soldiers behind its two vast doors. The section above the water, also made of brick, blocked the main attack route.

For years attention has been focused on the ancient gardens in Suzhou, and the gate area was neglected until a decade ago when the neighboring city had a better sense of the need for historic preservation and more investment funds.

Today I can fully appreciate the gate, though when I first visited many years ago it was run down and the area was crowded with decrepit residential buildings. All I knew about were the famous gardens.

Once many Chinese generals struggled to protect cities on water and many famous battles were fought as rivals launched surprising attacks by backdoor waterways.

Suzhou not only could defend itself by land, but also protect itself from river attacks.

Pan Men, or Pan Gate, in the southwest part of the city, is the only such gate that has been preserved and now is a famous tourist attraction. It's one of Suzhou's name cards.

The Pan Gate area includes three attractions -- the gate, the Wu Men Bridge and the Ruiguang Temple Tower -- all connected by the canal.

Today, the name of the gate is written as pan, the word for dishes (like a plate). It evolved from the original name with the same pronunciation, a word meaning coiled dragon. Images of crouching, coiled dragons were carved on the gate to warn possible attackers.

I was surprised that the Sheraton Suzhou Hotel, where we stayed, is adjacent to the gate area and park, and blends harmoniously with the historic surroundings.

The low-rise hotel follows the tradition of Suzhou gardens, integrating structures with nature. It's also convenient that a back door of the hotel opens on to the gate area.


Little visited by tourists, Changshu is west of Shanghai and north of Suzhou. It's an hour's drive from Shanghai and you can easily get there from Suzhou by bus.

I had never bothered to visit Changshu as it's always been known as an industrial city filled with factories and trading companies. And it still is, full of high rises built on neat urban grids and rapidly expanding. Skip that part.

But the area is also part of the land of fish and rice, rich and fertile. Changshu means "always ripe," referring to its fruit, vegetables and harvest.

Archeologists' excavations show that the area was inhabited 5,000 years ago.

The surrounding areas are scenic with fields, rivers and rolling hills.

It's not well known, however, because tourism hasn't been a big part of the economy.

Shajiabang area is one of the few-developed tourist attractions, and it is famous for a modern "model" Peking Opera of the same name. It takes its name from the traditional opera first performed in 1963.

Model operas were created during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) when traditional operas were banned.

Only eight inspiring and politically correct operas were performed. "Shajiabang" was one of them.

Adapted from a Shanghainese opera, it tells the true story of a group of wounded Chinese soldiers during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

Around 10 soldiers escaped by hiding in the vast expanse of tall reeds in Shajiabang.

They were protected by villagers from Suzhou and Changshu in the fictional Shajiabang.

The setting of the story has been developed into a tourist attraction and outdoor filming studio, mostly for dramas and films about the war.

A major attraction is the sea of reeds that sway in a maze above the water. In spring it's recommended to rent a boat and tour the labyrinth of waterways to get a feeling for the experience of those wounded soldiers.

When you see those reeds, you can believe the story.


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