Suzhou: rocks, gardens and petrochemical haze

A child on the train falls down, and everyone around joins in playing with him. Gives resonance to the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”

I’m in yet another 2,500 year-old city, where every intersection is supplemented by an ancient pagoda, or a temple, or a stone bridge, or a canal, or a museum. Suzhou is dubbed the “Venice of China,” since its canals stretch throughout the old and new city. It would be more accurate to call Venice the Suzhou of Europe, since Suzhou’s meticulously planned canals and history of commerce predates Venice’s by over 1,500 years.

Lion Grove Garden

Despite the consistent presence of canals beneath the city, few people travel by canals and waterways anymore. There is a subway for that now. Few people seem to eat at the ancient teahouses either. There are KFCs, McDonald’s and local Chinese fastfood for that. Oh, and Suzhou is also the world’s largest producer of laptop computers.

A strange contrast of old and new, these Chinese cities.

This rock garden was assembled in 1342.

Suzhou is famed as a city of gardens. There are twelve large ancient gardens throughout the city, and then many more small ones. Since it’s confusing which garden is the “really famous” one and which is the “sort of famous” one, we end up giving money to homeless people to ask them for directions. They know the streets better than anyone, having lived on them for so long. And unlike the touts holding up maps, they won’t try to convince you to buy anything.

Pollution near Suzhou

Like most ancient Chinese cities, the poetry of numerous Chinese poets is posted on random street signs and bridges. I’m less interested in the poetry (bad student) than in the battles, wars and massacres that have taken place in Suzhou, especially the Suzhou massacre , where 10,000 prisoners of war were killed during the Taiping rebellion. One of the deadliest wars in history, the Taiping rebellion cost the lives of over 20 million people, and was led by a Christian convert, Li Hongzhang, who believed that he was the brother of Jesus Christ and was born to lead Chinese into a promised land. Suzhou played an extremely important role, in being one of the first cities that the Taiping lost to the Qing.

Clip from The Warlords, about the Taiping Rebellion


The rain makes the city even more beautiful. It drizzles down the side of ancient walls, it cascades through the canals, it drips over the stones in the rock gardens and seeps down pagodas.

The constant haze of pollution, obviously, makes the city far less beautiful. So we wait for night and imagine what the city might have been like without it. We silently curse all the rhetoric about the glory of unregulated markets. With one of the most unregulated markets in the world, China’s beauty has succumbed to environmental catastrophe, its cities to an energy crisis, and its people to a vast economic disparity without the healthcare, job assurance and quality of life once guaranteed by the government.

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