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Monday, 01 March 2021

Xi'an & Suzhou - Page 4

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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We nodded politely, expecting the awkward moment to pass.


Suzhou women have a reputation for being the most sought-after in China. But the reputation did not come about by chance. It was cultivated.”


One of the single men in our group took an interest. “So this is a good place to pick up women, you mean?”


Our guide smiled. “Not easy to pick them up. But if you do find one here, you will have a keeper. Suzhou women learn four things to become the most charming women in China.”


Mr. Single leaned in, seeming more interested in these morsels of information than the morsels of pork, chicken, and broccoli on his plate.


First, they must learn calligraphy. Then, they must master embroidery. Third, they must train themselves to sing beautifully. Finally, they must learn to play an instrument well. This is how Suzhou women make themselves among the most sought-after in China.”


The single guy shrugged and went back to eating. The rest of us were starting to feel a bit full. Now that we knew why Suzhou had a reputation for charming women, it was time to find out why Suzhou was known as the “Venice of the East.”



Venice of the East

Suzhou is known for its network of canals, stone bridges, and waterside houses with cement and stone porches that literally fall into the narrow waterways. This is how locals have lived since the 6th century BC. Most of six million who live in Suzhou today live outside this center, in modern housing. But those who still live here still live a simple life in the traditional way.



As our boat carried us through the narrow waterways, we saw people doing their laundry on scrub boards where their patios dipped into the canal. We watched people hanging laundry to dry, hanging out meat, and putting breads and baked goods in their windows. People stood on the stone bridges and took pictures of us as we took pictures of them. A man held up his baby to wave at us and we waved back. Girls sitting at a café and reading books looked up and waved, smiling. Vendors sold newspapers and nylons, food and tools. We even saw a wedding party, the bride and her bride’s maids all dressed up, two boats along the canal waiting for them, decked out with white flowers. The bride and her ladies giggled and waved.


Is this place the attraction,” our guide joked, “or are we?”


Picturesque and peaceful, but feeling more authentic than touristy, we enjoyed the sights—and the sights enjoyed us—as our boat carried us through the canals, under stone bridges, passing the homes and markets of the local village. We came to a 1,100-year-old street in old Suzhou, and got off the boat.


We visited the crowded streets of an old famers’ market where just about any animal you could want to eat (and a lot we didn’t want to eat) was available for sale, dead or alive: snakes, turtles, frogs, fish, chickens, geese, pigeons, various birds, and all sorts of creatures big and small. We watched a butcher kill a chicken right in front of us by hanging it off its own cage. They don’t cut the necks because they want to keep the blood in the chicken—it’s good for warming the body and the liver, locals say. It was easy to feel sorry for the animals, frogs piled on top of each other, chickens caged so tight they couldn’t move, eels in mounds that made it impossible for them to move. But it wasn’t that the local farmers were crueler than the western meat complex—just that they were more open about it. The animals cleanly and conveniently packaged in American supermarkets likely endure the same indignities and suffering—or far worse. We’re just more interested in hiding it from consumers.


Within the old farmers market, we visited a 100-year-old winery. The current wine master has been making and selling the family label all his life. While there, we sampled four different kinds of sticky rice wine. They called it wine, but it was more like a liquor, slightly sweet and made out of fermented white rice in large clay pots. The wine master dipped a silver ladle into the clay pots to distribute our samples. They were different ages—from three years to 30—and had very different tastes, from smooth and sweet to harsh and strong. When we purchased a bottle to take home and our guide bought a jug of the “fire water” to take with us to our next dinner, the master used the same metal ladle to dip into the clay pots and pour into specially made plastic bottles. The bottle our guide purchased for dinner ended up lasting a few meals.


Let’s Linger

After taking in the famers market, we took a canal cruise back to the mainland and visited the Lingering Garden. What a refreshing and peaceful place to linger.


We explored the full gardens, pond, bridge, willow trees, island, flowers, mosaic sidewalk pictures, display rooms, halls of bonsai trees, and more. The traditional Chinese garden is a popular tourist attraction, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to the 1500’s and appears to be every bit as serene today as it was then.


As we took in the bonsai trees, our guide cleared up the misconception that we were looking at traditional Japanese art in China. The Japanese took the idea for bonsai from the earlier Chinese art of Penjing, or Penzai. In fact, Bonsai was simply the way the Japanese pronounced the word Penzai. The Chinese Penzai we saw here tended to be just as dependent on naturally formed rock sculptures as cultivated trees. We stood in a forest of Penzai, and it was beautiful.


We lingered a couple hours—but who was counting? We could easily have lingered for hours more. But there was no time—we had a coach to catch, and it was headed for Hangzhou.


©Eric D. Goodman with help from Nicole Goodman


(Page 4 of 4)
Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021

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