Home » The Magical City of Suzhou, China

The Magical City of Suzhou, China

The high-speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou covers about 100 kilometres in 30 minutes and costs around five dollars. It’s a smooth commute, whose efficiency presents an interesting contrast to the long lineups and tight security in both the Shanghai subway and train station, where foreigners have to show their passports to numerous serious-looking officials: the Chinese government certainly puts a lot of people to work! Suzhou itself is a city of contrasts. As the train pulled into the sleek, flat roofed station, I read that the city of ten million was established in 514 BC and still retains much of its remarkably intact old city, along with several prominent parks which are now designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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Pulling into the Suzhou train station

Xiaojing had become friends with Chen Ruijin, the director of the city’s famous, I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum when she had had a beautiful solo exhibition of her work in 2018. The director and his wife, Xuemei Lu, who is herself the director of the city’s Stone Inscription Museum, had offered to host us, and would do so extravagantly over the next two days. Lu picked us up at the train station, and drove us past the new and into the old part of the city to her museum, which was closed to the public as it was Monday. The highlight of this museum – aside from the fact that it is also home to the Wen Temple, one of the most impressive Confucian temples in China, with an enormous statue of Confucius that reminded me of contemporary Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei – are the four monumental Steles, the Four Great Stone Inscriptions from the Song dynasty which were carved around 1190.

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Me with the statue of Confucius at the Stone Inscription Museum

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One of the four Steles, this one showing a map of the old city of Suzhou, much of which remains today

Grouped side by side in a small nondescript room at one end of a courtyard, one Stele represents the original city (now the old part) of Suzhou and is an extremely important early map. It’s fascinating to recognize the same city walls and roads and temples still in existence. Another Stele from 1247 showed a circular map of the sky with 208 constellations and over one thousand stars. It is believed to be the oldest astronomical chart in the world. A third Stele shows the lineage of ancient Chinese emperors over many dynasties and the final one shows a geographic map of all of China, including coastline, lakes and many mountain ranges. Outside, the museum’s peaceful courtyard held a few ancient ginko trees, including one that was over 800 years old, had been hit by lightening several times and was being carefully supported by stakes, but seemed to be still going strong.

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Another Stele, this one showing a map of the sky, with stars and zodiac

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An over-800 year-old Ginko tree, supported by stakes in the courtyard

In order for visitors to fully appreciate the ancient stone engraving, there is a room dedicated to lessons for those who wish to try out the technique themselves. And so with the help of an instructor, we learned the rather labour intensive process of printing on a stone tablet, which involved pounding – for about ten minutes – a silk covered cotton ink pad onto the engraved stone in order to achieve a consistent but not too heavy layer of ink that revealed the incised script. As with all art, engaging in the process can enlighten the participant as to the meaning of the practice, which was the case here: the labour involved made me reflect on how much we take the transmission of information for granted in modern times. In the end, we turned the paper over and learned that success meant a print where the thin rice paper was uniformly coated with black on one side yet remained entirely white on the reverse. Not as easy as it seems – I won’t say what mine looked like!

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Trying out a traditional printing technique

Next, on what would be a day filled with several wonderful experiences, was a visit to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. Upon entering the Lion’s Rock Garden, my attention was drawn to an enormous, rectangular, framed slice of jade at the entrance. The threads and markings in the translucent stone happened to look like the fog-covered hills in a traditional Chinese landscape painting. I love how the Chinese literally frame nature – a window framing a landscaped view; a carved wooden stand presenting a nicely-shaped scholar’s stone; a piece of jade hanging from an ornate freestanding frame. If I was a contemporary artist, this is where I would look for inspiration. Nature is, after all the ultimate artist, and the Chinese recognize this. In their display of nature as works of art, it seems they are – rightly – humbled by it.

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A very large, framed slice of jade, reminiscent of a landscape

The Lion’s Rock Garden is unlike any garden I have seen before. A beautifully curated maze of water-eroded stones set around a monastery in dizzying patterns, the garden was created in 1342 by the Zen Buddhist monk Wen Tianru in memory of his teacher Abbot Zhongfeng. It is said that the rocks resemble lions, and in fact it is possible to depict many lion-shapes emeshed into the stone. The path through the former living quarters has been laid out into expertly framed views and backdrops at every turn, so it can take a while to get through – what with all the selfies you need to stop and take! The interiors feel like classic Old China, all circular door frames, carved furnishings and red-tassled hanging lanterns – it’s hard to believe that this stunningly beautiful former monastery was the ancestral home of the world-famous architect I.M. Pei!

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Scenes from the Lion’s Rock Garden

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Scenes from the Lion’s Rock Garden

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Scenes from the Lion’s Rock Garden

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Inside the former living quarters

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Inside the former living quarters – a beautiful view

After the garden and many – MANY – photos, we went for lunch at a restaurant serving Suzhou’s famous long, thin, Fengzhen noodles. I was relieved to see that lunch didn’t seem too big; the bowls of steaming clear broth were accompanied by unadorned bok choi, pork belly and duck, until I was told that it would be followed by a second round of soup, this time a soy-based broth. Of course I devoured both, topping each one with freshly shredded ginger. It was as delicious as it was healthy, and filling. Walking back from the restaurant, we passed shop windows displaying elegant modern takes on Suzhou’s traditional silk Qipao (or Cheongsam) dresses. Many more of these shops also lined Pingjiang road alongside the picturesque canal, making for a visually interesting promenade. Lu told me that despite the boutique’s touristy locations, this refined style of dress is popular among local women as well.

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The second bowl of Fengzhen noodles

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And all the trimmings – duck, pork, fish, bokchoi – to put in your soup

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Qipao and wedding-style dresses

The design of the Suzhou Museum, the modern wing of which was designed by I.M. Pei in 2006, is masterful. It’s showing its age a bit, likely due to the huge crowds that flow through, but the architectural response to the 19th century historical residences that form the older part of the museum, known as Zhong Wang Fu (Prince Zhong’s mansion), strikes exactly the right note. From the outside, white plaster walls reflect traditional local architecture and are framed into a balanced series of geometric shapes complemented by hexagonal windows. My favourite painterly detail was the water-filled courtyard featuring a series of large stones set against the white wall, carefully placed to resemble the harmonious mountain landscapes of traditional Chinese painting. It was a sensitive, artistic gesture that only a master could have dreamed up. Inside, skylights featuring slatted blinds cast precise, slowly moving shadows down the hallways, while display cases in each gallery were lined in silk. Windows were placed to frame expertly curated scenes, from thatches of tall bamboo to, in the inner courtyard, an enormous tangle of ancient roots that connected floor and trellis ceiling.

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Painterly stonework at the water garden at the Suzhou Museum

Highlights from the collection included a much-admired celadon-glazed porcelain bowl in the shape of a lotus flower whose elegance and jade-like colour is said to be exceptional. I could appreciate it, but perhaps not at the same level as a Chinese visitor would have. There were strikingly modern looking women’s funerary ornaments – dangly earrings, combs and other luxurious accessories – dating from the 13th or 14th centuries, and delicate examples of hair embroidery, which I was told was a Tang Dynasty technique undertaken by women who plucked their own long hair in a pious gesture to depict images of the Buddha.

What a treat to be experiencing this solo, particularly since a private tour of the galleries with an English-speaking guide had been arranged – especially for me. The older side of the museum was established in 1960 but exemplifies the palace architecture of circa 1850. The dark pavilions featured carved wooden sliding doors and ornate window frames, through which the indirect light filtered gently. Buildings were lined with shallow colonnades hung with tasseled lanterns. I can imagine that Xiaojing’s 2017 CHK exhibition, which featured as its centerpiece her sculptural installation Spirit Cloud, an amorphous shape comprising hundreds of freshwater pearls, would have fit perfectly, the way the right piece of jewelry completes an outfit.

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A view into the old part of the Suzhou Museum

The day was capped off by a spectacular multi-course banquet, held in a multi-roomed restaurant, hosted by the director and his wife, (his son, who had gone to university in Canada and spoke good English, was seated next to me) and attended by some friends along with Xiaojing and her family. Small plates of meats, fish, dumplings, soups of various descriptions circled by on the lazy susan, and halfway through the meal, there was a brief interlude by musicians playing traditional instruments. Then, just as I thought the meal was winding down, a large platter arrived holding a bright red, whole fish whose spiky shape and button-like green eyes startled me. It was so unusual looking that I had to snap a photo. The Mandarin fish, as the dish is known, is traditionally served during the spring festival and is said to represent good fortune. It had been entirely deboned with the tail still attached, the skin scored into a cross hatch all over and then deep fried, which forced the flesh up into thick spikes which, when coated in sweet and sour sauce and completed with gaping mouth, made the fish himself look surprised at his circumstances! In any case, he was tasty.

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A brief, traditional musical interlude

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Mandarin fish

Xiaojing had recently made a connection with a family of silk embroiderers in Suzhou, who wanted to meet her with the idea of potentially collaborating, which is how we found ourselves, the next day, slightly disoriented in the basement of a mall in the new part of the city. After a few minutes and a phone call, Xiaohong Tang came out to find us. A smiling, talkative woman who spoke no English, Xiaohong is the daughter of legendary embroiderer Jinzhen Gu, whose family is known for some of the top embroidery in China. More of a showroom than the traditional working studio I had been expecting, display cases featured examples of various types of traditional embroidery. I was interested to see that they also created corporate gifts, a popular one being the embroidered fan, which can be displayed and shows off the technique of double-sided embroidery, where both sides are finished with the same image, often in contrasting colours.

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An example of photorealistic embroidery by the family of famous embroiderer, Jinzhen Gu

But it was the portraits lining the walls, uncannily photorealistic pieces that were so finely detailed that the portrait of a cat appeared to have been reproduced hair by hair, that left me awestruck. Using the ‘free light T stitch’, a particular stitch invented by Jinzhen Gu in order to achieve an extreme level of detail, the pieces involve silk threads that have been split into multiple individual threads, a skill for which Gu achieved a record, in 1987, for splitting 96 finer threads in three minutes, if you can believe it. They were unlike anything I have ever seen in a textile.

Needless to say, her work became world famous and Gu made a career from commissioned portraits including for the Clinton family and many other world leaders. Suzhou has been known for the particular craft – although it kind of pains me to call it that – for over 2,500 years. ‘Su’ is one of the four major styles of Chinese embroidery, so-called either for Suzhou or for the province of Jiangsu, in which Suzhou is located. Su embroidery is particularly famous for its rendition of painterly landscapes, and it is certainly in this tradition that Xiaohong and her family continue to practice.

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An artificial reality app, where the artist is seen explaining his work

A fitting contrast to this ancient technique, perhaps, was our final stop in Suzhou, the headquarters of a company that develops artificial reality programming for museums throughout China. We were welcomed at the door in Mandarin by a robot whose iPad screen face displayed large eyes with long, feminine eyelashes. (The robot had yet to learn English, I was told.) Our guide led us through the museum space on the main floor, demonstrating an AR app by holding a phone up to an ancient steamer, as virtual steam began to emerge on screen, demonstrating the artifact’s original use. Elsewhere, in front of a contemporary painting, the artist suddenly made a virtual appearance and began explaining his work.

This technology, while remarkable, struck me as good and bad in about equal measure. On the one hand it makes looking at art much more relevant and accessible, allowing museums to level up the experience, particularly for younger audiences. But I also believe there’s value in leaving the experience open to interpretation, whatever that might mean to each individual. Particularly with contemporary art, which encourages creative thinking by thriving on subjective interpretations not always in line with an artists’ intention. Nevertheless, this technology is clearly the future of museums, so I suppose I had better get used to it!

We left Suzhou mid-morning. After two full days, I was feeling overwhelmed by director Chen’s hospitality and a bit grateful to have escaped another large restaurant meal, even through I had found Suzhou’s cuisine to be both complex and particularly delicious. I was impressed that so much remains of the city’s 2500-year history and am grateful to Xiaojing to have planned such a well-curated and wide-ranging experience of it. It is certainly a city that I will always remember.

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Suzhou at night

 

 

 

 

 

 

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