To experience the wellspring of Suzhou’s sophisticated artistic culture and understand its role in nurturing a scholarly intelligentsia for the nation, take a trip to one of the countless water towns that surround the city and link it via a complex network of canals to nearby Hangzhou, Wuxi and ultimately even Shanghai.
Through the completion of the Grand Canal during the Sui dynasty (581-618), Suzhou became a thriving commercial district, transporting silk and other bourgeois luxuries along its bustling waterways. The populace then was comprised of “prudent merchants, and, as already observed, skilful in all the arts,” Marco Polo wrote. “They have also many persons learned in natural science, good physicians, and able philosophers.”
From Fengjing through Luzhi, Mudu, Nanxiang, Nanxun, Tongli, Wuzhen, Xitang, Qibao, Zhouzhuang and on to Zhujiajiao, all of these gentle, sleepy little towns have suffered the overhyped label “Venice of the East” at one time or another in honor of their ancient stone bridges, mild waters, narrow flagstone pathways, mottled walls and delicate wood carvings. Many a retired man of letters wanders these stone alleyways to knock on a neighbor’s exquisite carved wooden door for a game of mahjong. Many a fat cat snoozes in the foot-long grass that grows from the roof above the noisy players. Many a native eats and drinks at dusk, as the dim street lanterns project shimmering shadows across moss-covered walls to illuminate thousand-year-old corridors.