Suzhou: China’s Canal Capital
Venice of the East
Known internationally as the Venice of the East, the Chinese city of Suzhou is famed for its criss-crossing canals, grand lakes and tranquil rivers. Discover why the beauty of its waters continues to draw visitors from all corners of the globe.
Exemplifying China’s classical elegance and sophistication, Suzhou is located in the Jiangsu province just 100 kilometres to the west of Shanghai. Founded in 514 BCE, it has stood for over 2,500 years and abounds with cultural relics and historical landmarks. An array of meticulously designed gardens, stone bridges and regal pagodas have made it a top tourist attraction, but it’s the stunning backdrop of flowing canals and rivers that reinforce Suzhou’s reputation as one of the most picturesque cities in China. An astonishing 42% of the area is covered by water, including huge ponds and streams, earning Suzhou a worthy comparison with its Italian counterpart Venice – though it possesses a unique Oriental charm all of its own.
A major feature of the 24 lattice-style waterways is their proximity to the Grand Canal. As the main artery flowing through the heart of China’s economy and culture for over two millennia, the Grand Canal stretches 1,794 kilometres and links northern Beijing to the southern Hangzhou – with Suzhou standing as the centrepiece of this enormous channel. Recently the Grand Canal was given UNESCO World Heritage status and protecting its antiquity has become a project seconded only by the ongoing efforts to preserve the Great Wall of China.
The rivers are not just historically significant, though: today, they are still of social importance to the inhabitants of Suzhou. Take a trip through the canals by navigating the many bridge crossings and you can witness the everyday lives of Suzhou’s residents. Seeing the unhurried pace of the locals is the best way to get a feel for the real atmosphere of the city – and you can absorb some of Suzhou’s most spectacular sights at the same time.
Serene Waterside Scenes
Those who want to experience the undisturbed waters of Suzhou’s streams can head to either Pingjiang Road or Shantang Street. Running parallel to Pingjiang River, Pingjiang Road measures over one and a half kilometres and is lined with houses that embody Suzhou’s style – graceful, simple and timeless. Far from the maddening crowds of more touristy areas, Pingjiang Road gives an insight into the leisurely existence of the city’s residents. For many centuries, Pingjiang Road has been a centre of Suzhou's artistic life, lined with bookshops and local opera theatres. There are also several teahouses, where people gather for performances of traditional storytelling and ballad singing.
In comparison, Shantang Street stretches over three kilometres yet retains the alluring qualities of an old canal-side street: whitewashed buildings are completed by red-tasselled lanterns that swing softly in the breeze, adding to the charm of the river bank, while in the distance the distinctive sounds of the famous Kun and Suzhou operas can be heard from the nearby Kunqu Opera House. In the off-season, you may even catch a couple of natives outside competing in a quiet game of mah-jong, enjoying the views as they play. At night it provides the perfect setting for an evening stroll, as the water’s edge is lit up by the captivating glow of all the hanging lamps.
There is only so far you can travel on foot in this water-laden city, so a tour of Suzhou by boat is a must. You’ll immediately notice the punt-style vessels that run alongside the streets and, for a relatively modest fee, you can have the chance to embark on one of these unforgettable rides. The boaters are dressed mostly in traditional garments and they love to sing customary Chinese songs to their passengers. Trekking in this manner means you can also take pleasure in the extravagant detail of the numerous bridges up close and benefit from the exceptional views you will only see when you’re on the river’s surface.
The scenic waters are not restricted to the city’s canals, though. Lake Jinji – the largest inland lake in China – is vast expanse that forms a part of Suzhou’s landscape. Reaching an area of ten square kilometres, visitors are able to go on a special tour bus around its edge to appreciate it from every angle and then explore its on-site shopping and entertainment complex.
If you’re willing to travel a mere 30 kilometres southeast of the Suzhou, you’ll arrive at the famous location of Zhouzhuang. Said to be China’s oldest ‘water town’, its buildings are submerged in the river’s flow, attracting both national and international travellers. Zhouzhuang’s picture-perfect serenity echoes Suzhou’s majesty, as its numerous ornate bridges are seamlessly complemented by remarkable architecture.
Tongli is also a well-preserved aquatic township located just 18 kilometres away from Suzhou’s centre. Situated on the eastern shore of the Taihu Lake, its history stretches back over 1000 years and is most noted for its three bridges of blessing: the Taiping, Jili and Changqing. When locals get married, give birth to a child or celebrate a special birthday, they will walk across these overpasses to pray for health and happiness, so it’s worth having a stroll around to guarantee your own good luck in the coming years.
With such astonishing grandeur provided by its vast canals and waterways, it’s no surprise that Suzhou is celebrated for being a city of water. The coolness and composure of its many streams reflect the region’s connection with high culture and refinement, granting Suzhou an ambience that is unrivalled by any other site on the Yangtze River Delta.