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This Side of Paradise

Suzhou-canalGrimy windows gaze upon opal waters while the day decides what weather to wear. Rows of lanterns, like rubies threaded through a string garland, sway in the wind. The ferry conductor, as aged as the houses surrounding us, wends his way through the liquid silence. Inside the boat we ooh and ahh at the decaying black tile roofs, the peeling white facades, the rotting steps leading down to the channel. If this were Venice, Italy scions of medieval nobles and nouveau riche entrepreneurs would be living inside. Instead, we are coursing through the canals of Suzhou (蘇州), China in the Jiangsu Province (江苏) one-hundred kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Shanghai (上海). The wealthy and the ambitious have vacated these doddering shore cottages to seek the promise of a better life in the town’s new district skyscrapers and congested streets. The algae covered facades, the flood marked walls, and the graceful arched bridges, once the pride of Ming (明) and Qing (清) dynasty aristocracy, have been left to the old and the poor. Between these two halves yawns an insurmountable gap. 

Suzhou-lanternsA pale laundered cheongsam hangs from intricate carved wooden shutters. An elderly woman washes her shoes in the river. A shabby man listlessly smokes a pipe on his terrace while the curious grandson in his lap waves at us passing by. Lost among the weeping willows and the worn cobblestones this mummified way of life dies softly. It is a genteel impoverished setting worlds away from the fast-paced rhythm of honking horns, computer codes, and steel mills. While some cannot escape the confines of cultural preservation, others hurry nowhere in a desperate race for affluence. Separated physically by a few avenues, old Suzhou and its modern counterpart are truly divided by the philosophy of progress.

Suzhou-housesConstruction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow River (黃河) to the Yangtze River (長江) transformed areas like Suzhou from struggling agricultural settlements to integral ports of fifth century trade and industry. Starting in the eleventh century government administrators fleeing the stifling politics and overcrowding of their capital sought Suzhou’s fertile vistas and hushed environs. Its mist-driven mornings and tranquil terrain inspired them to embrace the life of hermit scholars. Its silver lakes and jade tributaries stirred them into poetic flights and garden creations. Many of those estates survive, changed and molded to suit their various owners, yet retaining an air of studied classicality endearing to foreigners.

Suzhou-gardenWalking Suzhou’s feculent twisted alleys we stumble upon one such place — Master of the Nets Garden (網師園). The eastern portion of the property is arranged into a series of elegant family residences ensconced amidst greenery. At every turn corridors, gates, and viewpoints frame al fresco glimpses — a courtyard of magnolias, distant foggy hills, a cypress fringe leading to a curved bridge — miniature universes revealing the inhabitants’ desires to marry art and artifice, to live amidst the euphony of culture and wilderness. We roam through named rooms both indoors and out, each a lyrical ode to beauty: Cave of Cloud Hall, Branch Beyond Bamboo Porch, Cool Springs Pavilion, Ten Thousand Volume Library, Truth and Harmony Cottage. Suzhou-roomEras collide and remain frozen within the delicate scrolled watercolors, lacquered work tables, somber sedan chairs, portals into the fluid past. The rest is a garden replete with every representation of traditional Chinese nature imagery. Tumbling rockeries echo the undulating far off slopes, pools reflect the evanescent moods of the sky, zigzagging paths mimic labyrinthine underground roots. Each element is a microcosm of the ecosystem beyond, a chance to contemplate imperfect splendor, a stepping stone to immersion with the untamed. Living quarters, cultivated plots, and raw environment coalesce, nestling together as intricately as a puzzle box. In their equilibrium these demesnes proffer a vision of future municipal composition.

“Nirvana has never been achieved through a closet full of yoga pants.”

I find ancient Suzhou steeped in sadness. Perhaps it is how these landscapes were designed to instigate introspection. Or perhaps it is the weary expression I see upon the locals because they witness the end of yin yang (陰陽). Working close to the earth has become a rarity, earning a subsistence from the land has become untenable. Few choose to suffer the hardships of their parents and grandparents. As China yearns to be maintain its economic authority, its citizens turn to the lure of novelty electronics and luxury goods to define their new identity. Primitive siheyuans (四合院) without electricity and unsanitary hutongs (衚衕) are a relic of pre-industrial poverty that have no place in a prospering nation. Yet a vital essence is being lost as contemporary convenience bulldozes the outmoded.

Suzhou-roofJie jing (借景) is an essential component of Chinese gardening. It translates literally to “borrowing scenery,” the concept that tableau (mountains, woods, waterfalls) outside the garden architecture should be integrated into the view to enhance its overall spectacle. However, in Ji Cheng’s (计成) seminal work “Yuanye” (園冶), jie jing refers to the landscaper’s willingness to fuse with the surrounding environment; the pursuit of enlightenment through an understanding of ecology. This is an idea relegated to twenty-first century conservationist élite. Contemplation requires idle hands and money, scarce commodities for the penurious and starved. Dedication to tending the soil necessitates patience and attentiveness, qualities forgotten in the rush to develop.

Suzhou-bridgeI look at the sharp contrast between Suzhou’s Shantang Street (山塘街) and its Industrial Park, wondering why classical and modern cannot commingle harmoniously. Why does heritage have to be sacrificed at the altar of advancement? Why should financial strength shackle itself to planned obsolescence? Nirvana has never been achieved through a closet full of yoga pants. Perhaps it is idealistic or naïve of me, but I cannot help thinking that a bit of newfangled plumbing inside the quaint country houses, a dab of technology applied to the deteriorating neighborhoods, and clean water running through the streams would go further than the hordes of concrete towers and counterfeit consumables. If only community and commerce could coexist; if produce markets could be as profitable as software management; if the digital dash could empower our psychological serenity.

Suzhou-fogFor now these precious pockets of society are being preserved in the same way as our vanishing creatures. Cages and fences set up so that we and future generations may gawk for a few hours at how we used to live. Meanwhile those inside the sheltered enclosures (humans and animals) grow resentful, solely perceiving the engirdling bars and a semblance of reality which rings hollow to the touch. Doomsayers claim there is no deliverance, the best we can do is focus on mitigation. They could be correct. We will not know unless we try holistic urban planning, attempt to incorporate gardens as the gateway to genuine wilderness, and endeavor to champion our interdependence. From where I stand, I cannot tell how long the moss coated passages we drifted on will endure nor what will happen to the lotus filled pond and venerable pomegranate shrub inside the Master of the Nets grounds. However, the nodding Scholar Tree and I both hope a renaissance for Suzhou is about to dawn.


Chinese garden architecture was often inspired by famous verses. At Master of the Nets gardens, for instance, the Moon Comes With the Breeze Pavilion (月到风来亭) is named after a line from poet Han Yu (韓愈) — “Twilight brings Autumn and the breeze sends the moon here.” A replica of the estate’s Late Spring Cottage can be seen at Ming Hall in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Have you visited a place that you felt combines modernity with traditional well? Any thoughts on the future of urban planning? Let us know in the comments below.

30 replies »

  1. One of my favorite places on Earth ~ 上有天堂下有苏杭 ~ I’ve worked in Hangzhou for so many years, and I still find myself amazed by the diversity between the past and present. Suzhou history is so rich and robust, and it has been tied to Hangzhou for so long (per the idiom I wrote above), but looking at modern Suzhou and Hangzhou, and I see Suzhou falling so far behind in many areas of life. You mention a bit of sadness, that is what I see/feel as well. Many locals feel the same, but they also have so much pride and know one day they will be back on top. Gotta love the optimism, and still it is great to see the history. Great post 🙂

    • Thanks for your insightful comments about this region. Any ideas as to why or how Hangzhou has been able to transition better into modernity while maintaining so much of its history so beautifully?

      • I think the Hangzhou business community worked very well together ~ a lot of support from banks, government and each other (even among competitors), which attracted businesses and made businesses successful…add that to an already rich and strong culture 🙂

  2. There’s a melancholy dreaminess to these photos. They go along perfectly with your wistful words about vanishing ways of life. When I wander through such places, I feel the same way. It’s like all architectural personality is being destroyed. Everywhere is going to resemble everywhere else, eventually, or end up as some kind of museum of how things used to be.

    • Thank you! As you say, in big cities I am finding that everywhere almost does resemble everywhere else, except for a few talked about creations by the rock-star architects of the world. We seem to think progress is predicated by virtual reality and the abandonment of the past.

  3. Liquid and lyrical perfection. I was held spellbound in these watery ‘streets’. Cast me aside with the old. I have no inclination for the new. I don’t know where we’re headed and I’m not sure it’s a place I want to go.

    • Thanks for your sweet words, Jo. I think it is especially difficult in China where several generations have grown up being told that their past and the past of their ancestors is no longer valid or integral to moving ahead. They are not certain what to believe in anymore.

  4. Your exquisite use of language and imagery highlights the juxtaposition of the old and the new, traditional heritage and progress beautifully. I always find it sad when progress turns its back on the significance of the past.

  5. Suzhou has its own beauty & charm, learning about it is gratifying, the photos are stunning, thanks for sharing.

  6. I remember many years ago peering in the window of a quaint house in a Swiss mountain village, expecting to see a correspondingly quaint interior, and to my surprise finding an ultra-modern kitchen that made mine back in the US seem downright old-fashioned. I’ve subsequently seen this throughout Europe, but of course these are renovations carried out by the wealthy. The question is, could similar renovations be made in places you mention, not for second homes of the rich, but for “normal” people, farm workers, who could never afford to do it on their own?
    People are willing to pay exorbitant prices to have the latest technology, often just to play games, but balk at the price of fresh fruits and vegetable and select the cheapest to put into their bodies. It’s a scary path man has chosen.
    Thank you for these beautiful photos that seem otherworldly. Hopefully, these buildings will be preserved together with at least something from the former way of life.

    • You raise up an interesting source of conflict with your comment regarding how to provide needed renovations (or resources) for the poor in a way that would empower them. It has been eye-opening to see what many Chinese people consider worth having (and worth paying for) as well as their overall value system as the country seeks to become “modern.” Having said that I think peculiarities like this can occur anywhere and aren’t necessarily unique to China. We tend to get swept up in the romance and trend factor of certain things in our lives. I was reading an article recently that mentioned certain charities were better funded because they are “in vogue” compared to others. Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback!

  7. Amazing piece. I love the thoughtfulness you express, and the imagery you invoke.
    It reminded me of my travels through Japan, a nation which seems to combine it’s heritage and modern progression extremely well. It’s everywhere from big city Tokyo with its remarkable Imperial Palace, to hidden valley towns such as Takayama whose traditional village sits neatly next to the overwhelming light and sound of a Pachinko arcade.
    Great read. Thank you.

    • Glad you enjoyed the piece. Thank you so much for your insightful comment. I am intrigued by the stark yet seemingly compatible contrasts you have stated about Japan. Tokyo seems to have achieved that tense balance between traditional and contemporary with which so many cities struggle. It will be fascinating to explore its islands at some point.

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