Friday, March 30, 2012

Circling Shanghai III: Suzhou

Suzhou dates back over 2500 years, and it has been an important city since at least 600 AD when the Grand Canal linking central and northern China was extended through the city.  Marco Polo was quite impressed with the place when he saw it over 700 years ago, and so were we.

Tourists nowadays seek out Suzhou particularly for its gardens and its canals. We went there to see those but also to see I. M. Pei's final masterpiece, the Suzhou Museum, which opened in 2006. Louise's brother Richard worked with I. M. for Richard's entire architectural career, and the year before we went to China we saw a special on PBS about I. M. Pei and his museum that got us promising to each other that we would not return to China without seeing it.  

I. M. Pei was born in Suzhou in 1917 and left as a teenager for what he thought would be just enough time to get his Bachelors of Architecture at MIT.  He got the degree -- as did Richard at the same place but 26 years later.  Unfortunately, WW II intervened for I. M. and he never got back to Suzhou -- until the museum came calling.

As you will see in our photos around town, a dominant architectural style in town is a pure white wall bounded by dark grey trim, and the museum mimics this perfectly but in an even crisper, modern way.  The next photo was taken a block or two from the museum.  The second photo shows a corner of the museum to the left and a corner of the 19th century Zhong Wang Fu, Prince Zhong's mansion, to the right.  The museum was first located in the mansion.  It's part of the museum still and we'll say more about it as we tour the museum.

Like all the famous Suzhou gardens, the museum is built around an asymmetric pond. Another common feature of Chinese gardens is large and unusual stones. What I. M. did here was to assemble them so that they could be admired individually, while at the same time making the collection of stones look like a Chinese mountain range when seen across the water. Very effective!


The design concept was "Chinese style with innovation, Suzhou style with creativity."  There were little touches everywhere that pulled this off, mostly.  We thought the waterfall in the stairwell was creative, but maybe too two-dimensional.  But many other spots had us nudging each other to say, "Oh, look at that!"

We liked the airiness and light, natural in many of the galleries but equaly good in the interior ones.  It was a beautiful setting for their collection.

It's a good collection.  Here are just a few items that caught the camera's eye.  The one to the left and the grouping just below are from the Han dynasty, about 2,000 years old.  That amazing bowl -- how did the artist do that??? -- is about 300 years old, from early in the Qing dynasty.  The third item below is an oracle bone.  Ox bones or turtle shells would have questions written on them, then heated until they shattered.  A diviner would then interpret the cracks in the bone to find the answer.  The oracle bone is from the Shang dynasty, more than 3,000 years old.  Oracle bones are the largest source of information available today on early Chinese writing.  A nearby display contrasted some of the words found on oracle bones with modern Chinese.  OK, class, who remembers from the short Chinese lesson about 7 or 8 blog entries back which symbol is "men," or gate?  (Hint, it's near the finger . . . )

In the courtyard there was a scholar's studio from the Song dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279.

Next door, as mentioned earlier, was Prince Zhong's mansion.  The Prince was actually born to a peasant family and named Li Xiucheng, but rose to be one of the most powerful and successful generals in the Taiping army.  As a reward for his services, Hong Xiuquan had this mansion built for Prince Zhong, complete with a chapel for their quasi-Christian services -- you may recall from the last blog that Hong considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.  Prince Zhong also had a splendid hall built for performances of Chinese opera.

You'd think we'd be museumed out by now, but we were close to the Silk Museum so wandered down that way.  It is in the museum category with the Suzhou Museum the way Sardi's of New York or Ponti's in Seattle are both in the restaurant category with McDonalds and Subway.  But it's being renovated and may be somewhat more impressive by the time you get there.  What we did find fascinating were the mulberry trees, mulberry leaves and mulberry-munching silkworms, up close.  The last photo is silkworm cocoons, but the museum needs to work on explaining how those fuzzy balls become silk thread.

It was time to walk back to our hotel past some of the canals.  Many of the smaller ones are apparently no longer used for boating, and on a larger one the one boat we saw was simply trolling for trash in the water.

Our map showed a street that went the right direction.  More like an alley, but it eventually became livelier.

We found a restaurant near our hotel, pausing on the way to check out the "chicken cycle."  We were a block from the best street in town for shops and restaurants, and it was busy night and day.  Our hotel was great, despite it's odd name -- the Soul Hotel.  Quiet, clean and creatively decorated.  And only $50/night, ample breakfast buffet included.

It was time for a bicycle rickshaw ride to the Humble Administrator's Garden.  The shot to the left is one of those pictures you frequently see people taking with digital cameras, right arm extended and hoping the lens is aimed correctly back at the camera-holder.  Note the family of three on a motorcycle in front of us in the second photo below.

The Humble Administrator's Garden is anything but humble in scope.  We spent three hours there!  While not vast, it packs a lot into the space it has.  We'll start a quick tour with rocks and greenery.

Now let's add some water scenes  .  .  .

. . . walkways and terraces  . . .

.  .  .  windows and roofs  .  .  .

.  .  .  and leave the garden, appropriately, with a doorway.

We had one more day in Suzhou, and decided it was time to really see the canals.  Our guidebooks suggested we head to Shan Tang Street.  En route we passed a gate, one of the few remnants of the once grand walls around the city.  As promised, there were canals and canal boats as soon as we got to Shan Tang Street. 

We soon had a surfeit of canal and bridge scenes.

As we wandered down Shan Tang Street, it went from a busy shopping street to a neighborhood way.  This was a real, living neighborhood, scruffy walls and all, not a Disney-fied version of one.

At last we reached our turnaround point, the pagoda at Tiger Hill.  We bought one-way tickets back to the beginning of the canal, enjoying the rest as well as the view from a perch atop the canal boat.

A motorcycle rickshaw got us back to the Soul Hotel for another good night's sleep.  We'll take you to Shanghai in our next and final installment of our trip to China.