Suzhou (100 kilometers west-northwest of Shanghai, only 30 minutes by fast train) has been called the "Venice of the East." Among the most pleasant places in China, the old town features a network of canals, old houses, stone bridges, lovely gardens and whitewashed buildings and is particularly famous for its classical Chinese gardens. A major of center for tourism, the town has pedestrian-only zones and many historic parks and gardens that have been restored and are open to the public. The Great Pagoda here was built here in the year 1131. Suzhou is also famous for its silks, silk manufacturing and embroidery, which are centuries-old tradition.

Suzhou (pronounces soo-joe and also spelled Soochow) is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) River basin. Marco Polo visited the town in 1276 and wrote it had 6,000 canals. A later traveler could only find 290. In the 1860s, Suzhou was the base of Taiping Rebellion, an uprising led by Hong Xiuquan, a deranged peasant who believed he was Christ's younger brother. The city museum was the former home of the Taping general Li Xiucheng. Relics from the rebellion are displayed in a courtyard.

Suzhou is not just a tourist town. On the whole it is a typical drab, dirty Chinese city with 11 million people. Half the canals were filled during the Communist reconstruction. The grand moat that once surrounded the old city is also gone except for a few sections around some bridges. The remaining half are fetid and filled with debris. The Communists developed the city’s textiles and chemical industries. Tourists generally stick to the Old Town area, which includes the gardens, restaurants and shops. It is about four kilometers from the train station and main hotel area.

Tourist Office: Suzhou Municipal Tourism Administration, 115 Shiquan St., 215006 Suzhou, Jiangsu China, tel. (0)- 512-521-2987, fax: (0)- 512-521-2980 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Maps of Suzhou: ;

Getting There : Suzhou is 39 minutes from Shanghai on a relatively new fast train. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

History of Suzhou

Suzhou is an ancient river port and part of the Grand Canal system. Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited the town in 1276 and wrote it had 6,000 canals. A later traveler could only find 290. In the 1860s, Suzhou was the base of Taiping Rebellion, an uprising led by Hong Xiuquan, a deranged peasant who believed he was Christ's younger brother.

When Shanghai was a sleepy agricultural community, Suzhou-just a few miles to the west-was a busy mercantile center, its wealth secured by a thriving silk industry. Suzhou's history dates back over 2,500 years but it wasn't until the Grand Canal arrived a thousand years ago that the city's nickname of "Silk City" was secured. [Source:]

For centuries silk manufacture had been a relatively minor business in Suzhou, but the canal — actually constructed to speed the north-south movement of rice and grain — improved overall trade efficiencies and broadened silk's potential market. The secrets of silk manufacture became fiercely protected; even Marco Polo's writings commented on this, noting that the penalty for revealing any element of its production (even the smuggling of a single silk worm from the city) was death.

Eventually, around AD 600, the secrets of silk manufacture were stolen by a Byzantine emperor. But centuries more would pass before the west could touch China in the quality of the finished product. The mansions, gardens, and scenic canals that define Suzhou (the city is also called "Garden City," and "Venice of the East") were, in effect, built of silk.

Modern Suzhou is large city with many businesses and industries. Almost 100 Fortune 500 companies have a presence in Suzhou, taking advantage of its nearness to Shanghai. In the 1990s and 2000s, old houses and neighborhoods were being flattened — and probably still are — on an almost daily basis to make room for new development. The famous architect I.M. Pei (Ieaoh Ming Pei), a native of Suzhou, led a campaign to preserve and restore the city's architectural and natural treasures. Part of this effort included dredging the canals and pumping fresh water into them from nearby Lake Taihu. Pei himself designed a new museum next to property confiscated from his family. Pei designed the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre, Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the East Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and New York's Javitts Convention Center. Pei credits Suzhou with influencing his style.

Suzhou Subway, Train Station and Fast Trains from Shanghai

The Suzhou Metro, officially known as the Suzhou Rail Transit, is mass transit system serving Suzhou and its suburbs. Line 1 began operation in 2012. Line 2 opened in 2013. Lines 3 and 4 had opened by 2020. Another three lines are expected to be completed soon. Upon completion, the system will have about 140 kilometers of tracks ans 109 stations. Line S1, connecting neighboring Kunshan city and beyond to the Shanghai Metro is currently under construction. Suzhou also has a tram system. Suzhou Subway Map: Urban Rail; Suzhou Tram Map: Urban Rail

Line 1 of the Suzhou Metro runs east-west from Mudu station in western Suzhou to Zhongnan Jie station in Suzhou Industrial Park and is 25 kilometers long with 24 stations. Line 2 generally runs north-south, from Suzhou North Railway Station in the north to Baodaiqiao South station close to Precious Belt Bridge. Line 3 runs east-west from from Suzhou Xinqu Railway Station to Weiting. Weiting will also be the first station of the future Line S1, a line that is planned to interchange with Line 11 of Shanghai Metro at Huaqiao station. Line 4 runs from Longdaobang to Tongli, south-southeast of Suzhou. [Source: Wikipedia]

Suzhou Railway Station is just on the north bank of the northern moat. It is about 3.5 kilometers from the city center, 2 kilometers from the Humble Administrator's Garden and 13.5 kilometers from the North Railway Station. Suzhou Railway Station is a large spacious station with 12 platforms on five island platforms and two side platforms. There is a bus station around the back. [Source: Travel China Guide ++]

There are currently more than 175 high speed trains running from early morning till late night between Shanghai and Suzhou, with the shortest interval of 1 minute and the shortest travel time of 22 minutes. The distance varies between 81 kilometers and 94 kilometers and the price for a second class seat varies between CNY 34.5 and CNY 39.5 due to different running routes. The fast trains are operated in more than one station in both cities. In Shanghai, Shanghai Station and Hongqiao Railway Station are used while in Suzhou, Suzhou Station and Suzhou North Railway Station are used. The most common route is between Hongqiao Railway Station in Shanghai and Suzhou Station in Suzhou. ++

Sights in Suzhou

Among the sights in Suzhou are Cold Hill Temple, with a cute little yellow pagoda; the famous bell of Hanshan temple; and an archive of Buddhist scriptures. One of the most popular destinations is 150-foot, octagonal leaning brick pagoda on Tiger Hill. Reached by's steep climb up a man-made hill, the pagoda was built in A.D. 961 and is often described as a tiger's tail. Tiger Hill is also the home of the Hall of the Broken Beam, the Honest Spring and the Sword Testing Stone. Local people like to sit on the boulders and do tai chi in the open spaces.

Suzhou Museum (near the Old Town Area) was designed by I.M. Pei and occupies 6970 square meters (75,000 square feet). The architecture is more interesting than the contents of the museum as is often the case with newer museums in China. Completed in 2006, the museum-auditorium complex, has three-levels and houses Suzhou art treasures dating back ro 2,500 years ago. Among is its most valuable pieces are some some Song Dynasty porcelain.

Suzhou IFS in Suzhou is the 22nd tallest building in the world. (as of 2020). Completed in 2017, it has 92 floors and is 452 meters (1,467 feet) tall. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, it is located to the east of Jinji Lake in the Suzhou Industrial Park. Sort of resembling the Shanghai World Financial Center in Shanghai, it is a multi-purpose building which includes apartments, hotels and offices.[Source: Wikipedia]

Beisi Pagoda (a couple kilometers away from the heart of the Old Town area) was built between 1131 and 1162 during the Song Dynasty It is 76 meters (243 feet) tall and offers excellent views of the city for this willing to make the climb up nine stories of steps. The tallest pagoda in town, it is not the original. Previous pagodas burned to the ground at least twice. Beisi Ta means "North Temple Pagoda". The first temple was reportedly built for a wet nurse. There are some nice gardens around the pagoda.

Soochow University in Suzhou was named one the ten most beautiful universities in China. The campus grounds of have been described as among China's most beautiful in part because it incorporate typical features of the classical gardens in Suzhou.

Suzhou canals

Silk in Suzhou

The Suzhou silk industry is said to be more than 2000 years old. There is A Silk Museum and numerous silk shops and studios where craftsmen aim to produce the finest quality silk embroidery. Among the popular shopping streets are Guan Qiaan Street, Shi Quan Street Shan Tang Street and Ping Jiang Road — all in the Old Town area.

Suzhou Silk Museum is where one can see every aspect of silk manufacturing: including live, mulberry-munching and silk-spinning silk worms; the evolution of silk looms and production techniques; and finally the lustrous end product — are displayed here. Even rayon "knock-offs" are on display; they're readily available in shops throughout China and the world. But here in Suzhou, experts can offer detailed instruction on how to tell the difference between the rayon and the real!

Silk Embroidery Research Institute has (or h) an artist who makes extraordinary animal designs on silk screens. Located within a garden, the workers produce some of the finest silk embroidery found anywhere in the world. It has got to be one of the most beautiful setting for an institute.

Around 280 wedding dress shops are concentrated in a 200-meter stretch off the main street and back streets off the Suzhou Huqiu Hunsha Market in a suburb of Suzhou. Brides from all China flock to try on dresses that sell for about half of what they do in Shanghai.

Old Town of Suzhou

Pingjiang-lu — or Pingjiang Road, the heart of the Old Town of Suzhou — is a maze of old bridges and canals linked by a mostly pedestrian-only road separated by a canal. Quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with bustling tourist areas. Most of the traditional white-wall, black-tile houses have been converted into restaurants, shops, tea houses and guesthouses. Local specialities include Su-style dumplings, squirrel fish, tea-flavored shrimp, mid-barbecue chicken, Dazha crabs, eggs with Yin fish, soup and pig feet, steam lotus stem filled with osmanthus tofu and rose tea.

One person posted on Trip Advisor in 2015: “Pingjiang lu is a pedestrian street that runs next to a canal in the oldest part of the city. It's tastefully touristy for sure, but lined with appealing small shops, food places that include great local food-Pinvon one of the best-music bars, tea and coffee shops, all without the noise and fumes of traffic! It's a an easy walk to the Humble Administrator's Garden, Lion Grove Garden and the zoo. You'd be crazy to stay anywhere much more than 5 minutes walk away.”

A nice place to stroll around in the evening is the Pan Gate area, which stretches from the ancient city wall past the 11th-century Riguang Pagoda. Houses and canals are beautifully lit at night but some complain it is too touristy. Among the popular shopping streets are Guan Qiaan Street, Shi Quan Street Shan Tang Street and Ping Jiang Road — all in the Old Town area. The Gong Di causeway features many lakeside restaurants. In the Old Town area Bi Feng Fang and Feng Huang streets has several traditional restaurants

20080303-garden mopuntain garden of teh master of nets suzhou.jpg
Suzhou garden

Suzhou's Gardens

Suzhou’s gardens were laid out during the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties and restored after the Cultural Revolution when they were destroyed because flowers were deemed reactionary and gardeners were considered capitalist tools. Some of Suzhou's gardens have a reputation for being poorly maintained and full of weeds and Chinese package-tour groups. Some people feel this reputation is undeserved.

The gardens have been built and rebuilt many times and altered to such an extent so they are no longer Yuan or Ming gardens any more. Many are meandering and asymmetrical. The classic gardens all contain pavilions and houses that open to courtyards, ponds, orchards, "mountain" scenes and evil-spirit-tricking features such as dead ends and unexpected destinations.

Flowering plants and trees include osmanthus, canna lilies, salvias, lotus, and peonies. They each bloom in their own season. Peonies, for example, bloom in April. There are also lots of pruned and carefully maintained bamboo, banana and gingko trees. The gardens are famous for their stones, which have been placed in rivers to be sculpted naturally by flowing water and time.

The gardens in Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About 15 gardens, most of them located within the roughly one-square mile old city, are open to the public. Admission prices vary. The gardens are generally open from 9:00am to 5:00pm. From 6:00am to 8:00am some are open for free for exercise.

Web Sites: UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO
Book : "The Chinese Garden" by Maggie Keswick (St. Martin's Press).

Classical Gardens of Suzhou: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 According to UNESCO: “Classical Chinese garden design, which seeks to recreate natural landscapes in miniature, is nowhere better illustrated than in the nine gardens in the historic city of Suzhou. They are generally acknowledged to be masterpieces of the genre. Dating from the 11th-19th century, the gardens reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture in their meticulous design. [Source: UNESCO]

“Garden masters from each dynasty adapted various techniques to artfully simulate nature by skillfully adapting and utilizing only the physical space available to them. Limited to the space within a single residence, classical Suzhou gardens are intended to be a microcosm of the natural world, incorporating basic elements such as water, stones, plants, and various types of buildings of literary and poetic significance. These exquisite gardens are a testament to the superior craftsmanship of the garden masters of the time. These unique designs that have been inspired but are not limited by concepts of nature have had profound influence on the evolution of both Eastern and Western garden art. These garden ensembles of buildings, rock formations, calligraphy, furniture, and decorative artistic pieces serve as showcases of the paramount artistic achievements of the East Yangtze Delta region; they are in essence the embodiment of the connotations of traditional Chinese culture.

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are special because: 1) they “have been influenced by the traditional Chinese craftsmanship and artistry first introduced by the freehand brushwork of traditional Chinese paintings” and “embody the refined sophistication of traditional Chinese culture. This embodiment of artistic perfection has won them a reputation as the most creative gardening masterpieces of ancient China. 2) The classical gardens of Suzhou are the most vivid specimens of the culture expressed in landscape garden design from the East Yangtze Delta region in the 11th to 19th centuries. The underlying philosophy, literature, art, and craftsmanship shown in the architecture, gardening as well as the handcrafts reflect the monumental achievements of the social, cultural, scientific, and technological developments of this period. 3) These classical Suzhou gardens are outstanding examples of the harmonious relationship achieved between traditional Chinese residences and artfully contrived nature. They showcase the life style, etiquette and customs of the East Yangtze Delta region during the 11th to 19th centuries.”

Master of Nets garden

History of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou

According to UNESCO: “The classical gardens of Suzhou first originated from the ancient Chinese intellectuals' desire to harmonize with nature while cultivating their temperament. They are the finest remnants of the wisdom and tradition of ancient Chinese intellectuals.“ Within a time span of over 2,000 years, a unique but systematic form of landscaping for these particular types of gardens was formed. Its planning, design, construction techniques, as well as artistic effect have had a significant impact on the development of landscaping in China as well as the world. [Source: UNESCO]

“The classical gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China date back to the 6th century B.C. when the city was founded as the capital of the Wu Kingdom. Inspired by these royal hunting gardens built by the King of the State of Wu, private gardens began emerging around the 4th century and finally reached the climax in the 18th century. Today, more than 50 of these gardens are still in existence, nine of which, namely the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden, Net Master’s Garden, the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, the Canglang Pavilion, the Lion Grove Garden, the Garden of Cultivation, the Couple’s Garden Retreat, and the Retreat & Reflection Garden, are regarded as the finest embodiments of Chinese “Mountain and Water” gardens.

“The earliest of these, the Canglang Pavilionwas built in the early 11th century on the site of an earlier, destroyed garden. Conceived and built under the influence of the unconstrained poetic freehand style originally seen in traditional Chinese landscape paintings, they are noted for their profound merging of exquisite craftsmanship, artistic elegance and rich cultural implications. These gardens lend insight into how ancient Chinese intellectuals harmonized conceptions of aestheticism in a culture of reclusion within an urban living environment.

“The style evolution of classic gardens of Suzhou has been recorded in detailed volumes of reminiscent verses, poems, paintings and maps of each historical period from the 11th Century. Information about the gardens in each historical period is found in the ancient trees, plaques, couplets, brick and stone carvings, inscriptions and other precious immovable cultural relics in these areas. Local traditional gardening techniques and values have been handed down from generation to generation, always adhering to design concepts that strive to create miniature worlds in limited spaces, and gardening practices that strive to simulate nature with meticulous details while adapting to local conditions. Garden masters of each dynasty consistently used traditional materials and techniques in the repairing and maintenance of these gardens. The local government has insisted on minimum intervention in conservation work for the purpose of respecting the historic condition of these heritage sites and controls the impact of modern urbanization around them, keeping intact the charm of these classical Suzhou gardens.”

“The settings and features of the heritage property cover all essential elements and key values of the classic gardens of Suzhou. Archives ranging from the 11th to the 20th century, such as in Chronicle of Suzhou Municipality, Chronicle of Wu County, Chronicle of Tongli Town, and Record of Jiangnan Gardens by Tong Jun in 1937, Inscription of Pingjiang Map, Ying zao fa yuan (Rules of Traditional Architecture) by Yao Chengzu in 1937, and Classical Gardens of Suzhou by Liu Dunzhen in 1979, are records of detailed surveys, maps and drawings of these classic gardens. These gardens preserved varied architectural features such as structure and layout, architectural forms such as rock and plant configurations, plaques, couplets, and furniture. Within the borders of the buffer zone, essential elements including rivers, streets, alleys, vernacular residences as well as a cultural atmosphere, all have been preserved. These essential elements holistically feature the styles, vista, atmosphere, and artistic mood of the “urban scenery” around the classic gardens of Suzhou.”

Protection and Management of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou

According to UNESCO: “ The classical gardens in Suzhou on the World Heritage List are all listed by the State Council as State Priority Protected Sites, and therefore subject to strict conservation and management laws and regulations including the Law of People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The government of the Suzhou municipality established an agency for the conservation and management of the gardens and cultural heritage in 1949. The Suzhou Municipal Garden and Landscape Administration Bureau, which includes the Heritage Supervision Department, Heritage Monitoring and Conservation Centre and site management office, is the responsible managerial entity for each garden. [Source: UNESCO]

So far the classical gardens of Suzhou have been well preserved. Management and Protection Regulations of Suzhou Garden and the Conservation Plan for the World Heritage Classical Gardens of Suzhou have been issued, in which the property area and buffer zone are clearly defined. The protection of these gardens has been incorporated into the framework of the Master Plan of Suzhou City. Conservation and management institutions at all levels have determined and will focus on the formulation and enforcement of all respective laws and regulations, and interim and long term conservation plans. All measures serve a common purpose: to minimize the impact of urbanization by strictly monitoring and supervising various factors that could potentially affect these gardens, including through regulating approved procedures for construction projects within the buffer zone; reducing population density; improving living conditions and heritage awareness of residents around the area, and mitigating the pressures that arise from commercial activities and tourism. The ultimate goal is to guarantee the scientific, orderly conservation and management of these classical gardens of Suzhou.

Different Gardens in Suzhou

According to UNESCO: “Today, more than 50 of these gardens are still in existence, nine of which, namely the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden, Net Master’s Garden, the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, the Canglang Pavilion, the Lion Grove Garden, the Garden of Cultivation, the Couple’s Garden Retreat, and the Retreat & Reflection Garden” are recognized as belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Humble Administrator's, Garden, Lion Grove Garden, the Blue Wave Pavilion (Canglang Ting) and the Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan) are regarded by some as the four main gardens. Lingering Garden (1525) is the home of a perfectly placed stone called Cloud-Capped peak. Western Garden is more of a temple than a garden. The Garden of Pleasure was built in the late 1800s.

Lion Grove Garden is a small garden known for its curiously-shaped limestone rocks that resemble lions, Buddhist guardians, small ponds and bamboo groves. Also called the Lion Forest Gardens and other similar names, it was once owned by the family of the architect I.M. Pei and repurchased by the Peis in the 1980s. It features a roofed walkway, eroded stones from Tai Lake, chosen for their resemblance to lions, a ridge and a stone boats. Originally designed by the 14th-century painter Ni Tsan, it now looks like a jumbled English garden with some Chinese touches.

Couple's Garden (Old Yuan Garden) is one of the most pleasant gardens in Suzhou. Begun in the early Qing Dynasty in the 17th century and not restored since the 19th century, it features wonderful old buildings and galleries, a small canal that leads to the Grand Canal and natural slightly unkempt gardens. This gardens is not on most group itineraries and is often empty.

Dark Blue Wave Pavilion Garden (Canglang Ting, 12th century) sits, on the banks of a canal and utilizes an illusion frequently seen in Chinese and Japanese gardens, particularly those with limited space. In much the way "infinity pools" extend a swimming pool's border into the ocean beyond, this garden "borrows" the views of Suzhou's distant mountains and makes those vistas its own (while hiding close-in garden walls and neighborhood rooftops).

Pan Men Scenic Area offers a good view of many of the gardens from above, and at a distance. Seven flights of stairs bring you to the top of a Song Dynasty (960-1279) pagoda, the Ruigang Pagoda. From here the views of the garden's attractions are excellent: the Hall of Attractive Scenery, the Pan Men (a gate and remnants of the city's ancient walls), the graceful arch of the Wu Men Bridge and the Hall of Four Auspicious Merits.

Garden of the Humble Administrator

Garden of the Humble Administrator (Zhou Zheng Yuan) is one of the four most famous classic gardens in China and the best known and largest one in Suzhou. Built in 1522 and also known as Zhuozheng Garden, it covers an area of 5.2 hectares, three fifths of which is water. All of the major buildings are placed on the shores of ponds or streams. What makes this garden interesting are the fantastically shaped stones that are placed harmoniously among the gardens temples and plants. The artist-poet Chen-Ming immortalized the garden in his poems and paintings and may have helped designed it.

Ming-era bureaucrats could be quite wealthy. A 16th century retired magistrate built this garden and filled it with pavilion and teahouses. Although its owners changed numerous times, it still maintains a late Qing appearance today, with numerous pavilions and bridges set among a maze of connected pools and islands. Today, a small museum is located among its beautifully-tended lakes, lotus ponds, rivers and walkways.

The Humble Administrator’s Gardens features 10 pavilions and 40 attractions, including ponds, bridges, watrescapes exquisite buildings, and grove of trees and lots and lots of groups of strangely-shaped rocks. Try to get there right when it opens at 7:30am to avoid the crowds and linger at places such as the House of Sweet-Smelling Rice, the Keep and Listen Pavilion, the Hall of 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks, the Floating Green Tower, the Snow-like Fragrant Prunus Mume Pavilion, the With Whom Shall I Sit Pavilion, the Hall of Distant Fragrance, and the Small Flying Rainbow Bridge. If it starts to rain don’t fret, seek shelter in the Listening to the Sound of Rain Pavilion, but if you’re timing is bad you might share it with hordes of other people.

Humble Administrator’s Gardens is divided into eastern, middle and western parts. Organized around an irregularly-shaped lake, the landscapes and scenery change with the season. "Peak Above the Clouds" is reported to be the largest single piece of rock ever hauled from a lake. Nanmu Hall is known for its spaciousness and the garden as a whole provides "a changing scene at every turn."

The oldest and most interesting part of the garden is on the west side. Here there are many pavilions, where you can relax and enjoy a picnic. Susan Rowland wrote in the New York Times, "Among the architectural tricks in this sprawling garden are a covered walkway where one wall is flat and the other zigzags, rooftops that resemble a mountain range and an ancient tunnel that leads to a show of flower arrangements if you turn left or to a ledge over a pond if you walk straight. There is large pond, filled with lotus, their leaves constantly moving like prairie grass: a hill of tree peonies...a covered bridge; an art gallery; a music room; and in the east section, the only lawn I ever saw in China." Admission: 70 yuan (US$11.07) per person (summer); 50 yuan (US$7.91) per person (winter)

Garden of the Master of Nets

Garden of the Master of Nets (a few kilometers from the other gardens) is the oldest and smallest garden in Suzhou and in the eyes of many its most charming. Originally built in 1140 and known in Chinese as Wang Shi Yuan, it is the home of the splendid Cold Spring Pavilion, which has been replicated in Astor Court in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The garden covers less than an acre but is filled with cleverly arranged secret ceramic pot gardens and courtyards. In the main courtyard are bamboo groves, a pond and replicas of mountains. The garden was saved from the marauding Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, it is said, by orders from Premier Zhou Enlai.

At The Garden of the Master of the Nets, size is of little importance; how acreage is used is everything. The garden's magic is manifested in its illusion that it is four times bigger than iit really is. Though buildings are large, they're carefully positioned; your eyes are directed in ways that enlarge each view and perspective. Interior views outward are highly calculated to focus your attentions to a single sight. Gardens throughout the world are modeled after this little gem. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Garden of the Master of Nets is one of the smallest yet considered one of the best designed and most elegant of the private gardens still extant. It is situated in the southern part of Suzhou, within the city proper, a site that has been a garden since the middle of the twelfth century. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

Buildings and structures within the garden including the 1) Main Gate, 2) Sedan Chair Hall, 3) Great Hall, 4) Tower of Gathered Excellence, 5) Five Summits Reading Hut, 6) Chapel of Accumulated Emptiness, 7) Clustered Cassia Hill Viewing Porch, 8) Shooting at Ducks Walkway, 8) A Branch Beyond Bamboo Viewing Porch, 9) Viewing Porch for Looking at Pines and Studying Paintings, 10), Gallery of Royal Spring, 11) Cool Springs Pavilion, 12) Pavilion Where the Moon Meets the Wind, 13, Belvedere of Magnificent and Bright Waters, 14, Barrier of Clouds Terrace, 15 Pursuing Tranquility Lodging and 16) Zither Chamber

Tour of the Garden of the Master of Nets

According to Ebrey if you start out by walking from the northeast entrance you go through a set of courtyards, to end up in the Branch Beyond Bamboo Viewing Porch, just south of the library. From there you can look through a moon gate onto the central pond. Go a few steps further and you can o catch a glimpse of the Barrier of Clouds Terrace. If you leave the covered walkway and cross the small bridge, you can turn and face the opposite corner of the small lake, where you see another bridge. But before you cross the garden to the other side of the pond, there is a small courtyard on the west side of the bridge. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

At the lower end of the courtyard, a small pavilion sits up against the outer wall of the garden. If you follow the long covered walkway that borders the west side of the pond to the south, you pass the Belvedere of Magnificent and Bright Waters. Just past this point, a crooked walkway veers off to the left. Follow this towards the south end of the pond. From the back of a viewing porch you can look out through "cracked ice" patterned windows to the northwest, with a view of rockery and bamboo.

Go back through the building, and follow the walkway that turns to the right, then take the walkway that splits off on a sharp left. These walkways connect portions of the compound that were originally the living quarters of the occupants. If you enter the courtyard to the west of the Great Hall, you find ourselves right next to the small bridge that you saw from the north side of the pond when you first started out. Continue north along the pathway beside the pond. Just to the other side of the Tower of Gathered Excellence is a courtyard you haven't yet seen. This courtyard lies to the east of the Five Summits Reading Hut, which houses the owner's library on the second floor.

“If you stand in the middle of the courtyard facing north, a small path veers off to the right behind a rockery. If you walk towards the southeast corner of the courtyard between two small rockeries, you see a wall which bounds the eastern edge of the garden compound; the wall has a moon-shaped gate in it. Walk over to the southwest corner of the courtyard and look back at the moon gate. The tree that is framed within the circular gate is a cassia tree.

“The moon and the cassia tree are closely linked in Chinese mythology. It is said that if you look closely at the moon's surface, you can see the woodcutter Wu Kang cutting down a cassia tree. Wu Kang was banished to the moon for his fixation on the magical aspects of immortality. The gods would allow him to return to earth only after chopping down the huge cassia tree that thrived alone on the moon. However, the tree has magical self-restorative properties, and so Wu Kang continues to chop for eternity.

Islam in Suzhou

Suzhou is a bustling, wealthy city of 12 million people only 20 minutes by high speed train from Shanghai. Regarded as a major center of Chinese culture, it famed for it art and landscaped garden but it also has a rich Islamic past. Alessandra Cappelletti wrote in The Conversation: “The labyrinth of alleys and lanes in the old city of Suzhou hides a secret: historical fragments of the long history of Islam in China. [Source: Alessandra Cappelletti, The Conversation, March 12, 2021]

What remains of “Islamic Suzhou” lies just outside the city wall to the north-west. There is only one active mosque: Taipingfang, in the northern commercial and entertainment district of Shilu. Taipingfang was restored in 2018 and is where local and visiting Muslims go to pray. It’s in a busy part of the neighborhood, squeezed in a tiny alley, surrounded by small restaurants and hotels, canteens, food stalls, and butchers catering to Uighur and Hui Muslims. The butchers of Taipingfang — like those in Beijing’s Niujie area where the majority of the city’s Muslim minority lives — are popularly thought to sell the best meat.

“Before 1949, Suzhou had at least 10 mosques of various sizes and social importance. Many of them were vast buildings with precious furniture and sophisticated decorations, while others were smaller intimate prayer rooms. One of them was a women’s mosque presided over by a female imam. The women’s mosque, Baolinqian, was one of a cluster of four mosques was built during the Qing Dynasty, all connected to the wealthy Yang family inside the city walls in the north-western part of the city. Built in 1923, it was established by initiative of three married women from the Yang family who donated the building and raised funding from other Muslim families to turn it into a women’s mosque. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the mosque’s library, containing holy scriptures, was damaged and the building was turned into private houses. Nothing remains today to show it was a mosque.

“Another Yang family mosque, Tiejunong, was built over three years during the reign of the Qing emperor Guagxu, from 1879 to 1881. It was the biggest in Suzhou with an area of more than 3,000 square meters, featuring seven courtyards. The main hall for Friday prayers had 10 rooms and could hold more than 300 people. The courtyard included a minaret and a pavilion in which was housed an imperial stele.

“Tiankuqian Mosque was built in 1906 and is now inhabited by poor city residents — most likely as a result of the practice during the Cultural Revolution of reallocating large, aristocratic or religious buildings as living accommodation for indigent families. The mosque used to cover an area of almost 2,000 square meters, with a main hall, a guest hall, and ablution room.

“The structure of the main hall was like a large lecture place, containing — as the local historical records report — a ginkgo wood horizontal plaque written in calligraphy by master Yu Yue. Because many Muslim jade workers had businesses in the same district, donations made the mosque the most prosperous in the whole of China. And, in the 1920s, a school teaching Islamic and Confucian texts was opened there.

“Many of the mosques had affiliated schools teaching the Arabic language and Islamic writings to the children of the Muslim communities. Suzhou is one of the first cultural centers where Islamic scriptures were published in the Chinese language. Translations from Persian into Chinese were made by the 16th-century Suzhou scholars, Zhang Zhong and Zhou Shiqi, making the city an early hub of Islamic intellectual culture.

“The oldest Suzhou mosque, Xiguan, takes its name from the adjacent Xiguan bridge in the center of the old city. It was built in the 13th century during the Yuan dynasty, probably financed by the prominent Muslim Sayyid family, and its influential Yunnan’s provincial governor, Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar al-Bukhari (1211-1279). The mosque was later incorporated into a government building during the Ming dynasty, so only written accounts remain of its existence in local Chinese records. This suggests — and it is already a well-known historical assessment — that the Yuan dynasty favored Muslims from Central Asia in its administration and government service. This significant population group was much later, in the 1950s, classified within China as the Hui minority.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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