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Simply Suzhou
  The old town of Suzhou is a world of old houses, streams and bridges. [China Daily]

Suzhou is a city that can induce dreams - dreams of a time in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when artists and retired officials made a leisurely walk in the park an art.

I am not talking about the sprawling new districts on both its east and west suburbs, where high-tech facilities merge seamlessly with well-planned landscapes. I am talking about the 14.2-sq-km old town surrounded by canals on four sides and crisscrossed with so many streams that a comparison with Venice is inevitable.

I love the old town because it does not have any building taller than 10 stories and very few large chain stores or supermarkets. If there were no automobiles on the streets, it would be easier to imagine how the city was created 2,500 years ago. A modern theme park can imitate the architecture, but not the atmosphere of languor and tranquility lulled by high culture, Suzhou style.

Much of what you see dates from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), though. The best surprises come when you veer off a main street and walk across a small bridge.

You will most likely come face to face with a riverside lane paved with slabs. This is how the ordinary people live - or used to live as more residents make their homes out of the old town nowadays. The lane is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. As roads can be slippery when wet, people tend to have a dainty gait. Marching in such an environment is inconceivable.

Bridges in Suzhou are not just a mode of river crossing, but a mood enhancer for romanticizing the mundane. One feels like a fairy godmother with long sleeves sweeping along the stone steps. Marco Polo could be exaggerating when he praised the "6,000 stone bridges" of this city, or maybe he mistakenly added an extra zero to the figure. But the city - within the confines of the old town - is dotted with hundreds of small bridges. A Song Dynasty (960-1279) map listed 314, and 161 still extant.

There is one type of bridge a tourist cannot cross because it is part of a private house. A typical household in the old town has two entrances: One facing the street and the other the river. In the old days, cargo was moved by boats and would dock at any building. Occasionally, a household had a few extra rooms on the opposite side of the river and built a covered bridge to connect both sides.

I got myself onto one such bridge when a friend took me to the Tongdexin Noodle Shop. She said Zhang Yimou, a Xi'an native who is known to eat noodles as a staple, made a special effort to seek out this eatery. We chose "the bridge room", which accommodated only one table.

The noodles were delicious, but the surrounding absolutely divine. The river flowed under it. Droplets of drizzle created circles on the water without a sound. A boat with a man in a straw rain cape on the deck did not make a single splash. It was like a scene from a scroll painting, come alive.

Suzhou is best known for its private gardens. At its height during the Ming and Qing dynasties, it boasted more than 280 such gardens, with 69 still in good condition today.

Unlike the imperial gardens in Beijing, a private garden here is demure on the outside. Whitewashed walls and black-tile roofs appear just like a typical residential building. At the back of some of these residences hide microcosms of Mother Nature.

The Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) is widely believed to be the best specimen. The original builder and owner was a Ming Dynasty official, who, in 1509, after a frustrated career, decided to retire to the life of a recluse. Traditionally, Chinese scholars used the imperial exam to ascend the steps of officialdom, and Chinese officials retreated from politics to the literary and artistic diversions of scholars.

A life in the wild could entail hardships beyond measure. To channel wild nature into a manageable landscape not far from the hub of commerce, yet shielded from the maddening crowd with high walls, could be the best of both worlds.

A Chinese garden is rooted in Taoism: It seeks synchronization of opposites - of black and white, of mountain and water, of worldly pleasure and solitary contemplation, of holding on and letting go, of yin and yang, and ultimately, of the beauty in nature and the beauty in one's mind.

A Chinese garden is dictated by the aesthetics of a Chinese painting. It has multiple layers and multiple focal points. A pond-side pavilion with red pillars may stand out, but it is not the center of everything. As you move closer, its pillars may turn into the foreground while the stone bridge beyond the pond zooms into focus.

The best way to enjoy a garden is to pause after every few steps and take in the sight from every possible angle. Shift your vision and mentally draw a frame - or use your camera. See how easy it is to get a well-composed picture. Doorways and windowsills become frameworks for your image when you stand close. As you walk, imagine what you see as a series of still photos.

The curved pebble pathways, the meandering corridors and the sudden turns through rock passageways - all were meticulously designed to vary the view. In a sense, they are meant to obstruct you from seeing everything with one glance. In a Chinese garden, you can never capture all the scenery with one shot. In the quietness of whistling winds and chirping birds, everything runs in slow motion, so that even the smallest traces of seasonal change are perceptible.

For all the man-made hills, lakes and structures, a garden is always careful to leave space for the imagination. What I imagined most while sauntering through the Humble Administrator's Garden was the absence of swarming tourists and the presence of a few kunqu (opera) singing friends. This could be the place where the female protagonist had the lovesick dream in The Peony Pavilion; or where I suddenly started to speak in verse. It dawned on me why we do not have first-rate poets any more: They all live in apartment blocks now, from which the only view is endless rows of more apartment buildings. We are cut off from Nature, denied even a slice of it offered by a classical garden.

The Suzhou Museum, both the old and the new, stand side by side as neighbors of the Humble Administrator's Garden. The new wing, designed by I.M. Pei, started construction in 2002 and was inaugurated in 2006.

No one understands the essence of Suzhou better than hometown boy Pei. Instead of an eye-catching, crowd-pleasing structure of modernity (think of the National Theater or Bird's Nest), Pei has created something that steadfastly refuses to call attention to itself. It pays the ultimate tribute to the traditional art of Chinese aesthetics by limiting its height to that of its neighbor and employing only the essential elements found in Chinese gardens.

Yet, unlike the many new gardens sprouting in the Suzhou area, I.M. Pei's work, said to be the last from the master, is not a replica or a hodgepodge of existing gardens. It is an elevation of the highest order. Just walk in the front entrance, and you will see a pile of rocks as background. Compared with typical sculptural rocks, they are more abstract. As a matter of fact, everything in the museum has been stripped of non-essentials. In the central pond as well as the many small courtyards, decoration is so sparse and what remains is so suggestive that every "frame" you get embodies the spirit of Chinese description.

It is often believed that after the Qianlong years (1711-1799), artistic taste took a turn for the pompous. The influence of European baroque coincided with local penchant for flaunting wealth through ornate decorations and opulent architecture. In terms of garden design, the rule of "less is more" gave way to "the more the better". The mantra of spatial harmony was essentially destroyed.

Pei's museum is a throwback to the golden age when a garden was a form of art, a hint of the vast offerings of Nature, a venue for personal refinement and a shelter for spiritual purification - not a display of material cornucopia.

In Suzhou, I wish time could fly backwards and I could live in the Ming Dynasty.

กกกก(China DailyAugust 18, 2008)

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