Suzhou was founded in 514 B.C. and it was named after Gusu Mountain in the southwest of the city in A.D. 589. Suzhou is still located on the area where it was during the Spring and Autumn Period, and remained the parallel pattern in terms of “water and land coexist; river and street run side by side”, as well as the unique characteristic featuring “ancient bridges, flowing water, white wall, black tiles and famous gardens”. There is a saying from ancient times that “Up above there is heaven; down below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou”.
2,500 years ago, Suzhou is the most ancient place in the Yangtze basin. With the completion of the Grand Canal in the Sui Dynasty, Suzhou gradually evolved into a shipping and a food storage center due to its key position in this important trade route. The concentration of a large number of businessmen and artisans from across the country also contributed to the Suzhou’s booming economy and rapid growth of wealth and city scale. Suzhou in the 12th century has reached its present scale. Rectangular walls were surrounded by a moat, and there were the 6 gates leading inside the city, 6 canals running through the city from north to south and other 14 from east to west. To the 14th century, Suzhou has become China’s leading silk production city. Many nobles and men of letters were attracted to live here, and they built their own villas and gardens. In the 16th century, the number of large and small gardens in Suzhou amounted to 100, so it is known as the “Garden City” and “Oriental Venice”.
The long history cultivates a unique charm of Wu culture in Suzhou. Suzhou painting, calligraphy and seal cutting are various in genres; drama, medicine and buildings are also formed into diverse schools, each with its unique style. Suzhou embroidery, tapestry, jade, lacquer, Taohuawu Woodcut New Year Pictures, and other handicrafts are famous both at home and abroad.
The essence of Suzhou’s architecture is reflected in the various gardens. Architecture groups built in the Five Dynasties are still retained in Suzhou. The bright colors and delicate patterns harmoniously blend the buildings with the surrounding landscape. The landscape design includes all the connotations of the Chinese culture for “home”, and it also fully expresses ancient people’s pursuit of the natural beauty, which embodied the eternal vitality. Ancient bridges, flowing water and houses unexceptionally reflect the delicate emotion of the Chinese people, as well as the performance of the subtle and gentle “home” culture of Chinese.
China’s culture and religion are inseparable; therefore a variety of pagodas and monasteries also keep the perfect painting arts and techniques. Suzhou still preserved numerous ancient pagodas and temples, which make it a “living gallery”, such as the elegant Twin Pagodas, the ancient Tiger Hill, the magnificent Baoen Temple, the exquisite Ruiguang Pagoda, mysterious and the quiet Lanka Pagoda, etc. Excellent painting skills and art of architecture in various dynasties faithfully recorded the beauty of ancient Chinese architectures.
Suzhou has a long history and its classical arts have attracted worldwide attention. Among these artistic treasures the Kunqu Opera is the most impressive one. Kunqu Opera became a national artistic style in the Ming Dynasty, even several hundred years earlier than Peking Opera. The costumes, singing and body movement all have unique flavor, from which even the modern art needs to draw experience.
Suzhou Pingtan (Storytelling and Ballad Singing) was formed in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties and was a prevalent folk art in the southern area of Yangtze River. It’s also the general term for storytelling and singing lyrics with a history of several hundred years. Pingtan was originated in Suzhou, so it was performed in Suzhou dialect, and it is composed of five parts: talking, laughing, playing, singing and performing. Pinghua (storytelling) is also known as Da Shu (literally Big Book) because there is only storytelling without any singing. There is only one performer who talks and acts with a folding fan, a waking-up wood, and the contents of talking cover historical stories, ancient detective cases, martial arts legends and heroic epic. Tanci (ballad singing), integrating talking, playing and singing, is also known as Xiao Shu (literally Small Book). In most cases there are two performers, but there are also solo or three-performer cases, with contents covering generally social life and love stories. In the past days, before the major parts of the show, there was always a short singing of storytelling so as to quiet the audience and set the tone, and it was called the opening section. Based on opening section, many new forms appear: dialogue singing, small group singing, small chorus, and performance singing, etc. The Storytelling and Ballad Singing, with its light and flexible form, the beautiful and melodious music, lively and vivid style, attracting content, has won its own popularity and it is praised as the most beautiful voice in China.
Su Drama was formed relatively late, in the middle and later period of Qing Dynasty. Various and subtle facial expression is one of the major features of Su Drama.
There are a variety of festivals each year in Suzhou, ranging from the large official ceremonies to simple traditional public ceremonies, all of which characterizing wonderful performances. Fo examples, Huqiu Music Assemble focuses on elegant style, Suzhou Transcendent Melody on luxury, “Zhashenxian (temple fair)” on complexity, the Stone Lake and Stringed Moon on poetic feeling. Each ceremony represents a historical interpretation.
Silk and Embroidery Culture
Suzhou is not only a garden city but also “the land of silk and articrafts”. During Tang and Song dynasties, Suzhou served as the center of silk in the country; during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the royal high-quality silk fabrics were mostly made from the hands of the Suzhou weavers. Now, the silk fabrics produced in the past 10 year can circle around the earth for 45 times. Thus, Suzhou also enjoys the reputation of “hometown of silk”.
The famous Suzhou embroidery has a long history. As early as 2,000 years ago in the Spring and Autumn Period, Wu Kingdom applied embroidery skill in texture. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the style and techniques of Suzhou embroidery is getting more perfect. Suzhou embroidery reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty, and Suzhou then was known as “Embroidery City”.