Suzhou: Interrogating the Space Between Shan and Shui


Just a half hour bullet-train ride from Shanghai, Suzhou is a popular day trip destination for tourists, international and Chinese alike.

My trip in late October was graced with beautiful autumn weather. The main attraction in Suzhou are its many gardens constructed by the literati of old and the canals that have prompted the nickname “Venice of China.” It should be noted that I have heard several cities in China referred to with this same categorization, including Ningbo. The idea behind the construction of these gardens, which were basically the backyards of the intellectuals, was the artificial construction of small-scale scenery featuring the mountain (shan, 山) and water (shui, 水). The juxtaposition of mountains and water is a common theme upon which traditional Chinese art is based.

Suzhou Museum:

Probably the best museum I’ve ever been to in China. Suzhou is the birthplace of I. M. Pei, and as such he designed the building that houses ancient artifacts, textiles, and instruments from the area, as well as some rotating exhibitions of contemporary artists. The building itself is a work of art, with beautifully lit hallways and a central courtyard that is entirely a pond with a walkway and gazebo over it. Entry is free.


Humble Administrator’s Garden:

Down the street from the Suzhou Museum you will find the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It is one of many Suzhou gardens designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason. We only spent a couple hours wandering around, but I imagine if we had thought ahead and brought a few pieces of fruit we could have made a day of just this garden, wandering from place to place. I was most taken with the amazing window designs, both in walls and along this walkway.


Master of Nets Garden:

Another garden, whose centerpiece is a pond filled with carp. The interesting thing wandering around this garden is the way the building interacts with the surrounding landscape- I was never sure if I was technically “inside” or “outside,” because I would be contained by walls, but also surrounded by nature. In these gardens you will often see adorable toddlers dutifully posing for their parents.


The famous canals are lined with picturesque red lanterns that light up the scene at night. You can grab a meal beside the water and sit for a while, or take some beers to go and wander around the canal banks.


In case you need more convincing, here are some more pictures:

IMG_0839 (1) IMG_0857 IMG_0814 (1)

If you have any questions about visiting Suzhou, getting around China, or teaching in China, please give us a shout!


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