History & Culture
Suzhou, “Venice of the East,” is one of the oldest cities in the Yangtze Basin dating back more than 2,500 years. The city was established in 514 BC as Helü in the Kingdom of Wu and it served as the administrative and commercial center for the rice trade. Suzhou benefited greatly from the construction of The Grand Canal, finding itself strategically positioned by the canal’s completion at the start of the 7th century. During the Song (960–1279 A.D.) and the Yuan (1206–1368) dynasties, Suzhou flourished.
In the 13th century the Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited Suzhou and commented on its splendors offering a great and noble city of elegant canals and bridges, possessed of fine silks and populated by craftsmen, philosophers and merchants.
The city quickly became a center for scholars and the arts as well as an important source of commercial capital and a finance and banking center.
The cultivation of silk worms played no small role in Suzhou’s success story. Based on stone artifacts, historians have traced silk production in the region as early as the Bronze Age. As weaving skills and techniques developed in concert with expanded trade routes, Silk Roads were created to reach as far as Japan, Persia, Greece and Rome. Under the Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, Suzhou’s prominence grew among wealthy landowning families.
Symbols of that wealth can be seen today in Suzhou’s collection of classical gardens, well preserved since the Ming and Qing dynasties. Of the 50 gardens that survived from the original 200 dating back to the 11th century, nine are deemed so extraordinary to have been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Humble Administrator's Garden, Lingering Garden, Master-of-Nets Garden and Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, Blue Wave Pavilion, Lion Grove Garden, Couple’s Garden, Garden of Cultivation and Garden of Retreat and Reflection embody refined sophistication via symbolism designed by masters of landscape and waterscape.
In 1981, Suzhou City was listed by the State Council as one of the four cities with historical and cultural heritage protection. Accordingly, the city has developed into one of China’s most prosperous, gaining in popularity as a tourism destination. In the 1990s, two major industrial parks were developed: the Singapore Industrial Park (SIP) and the Suzhou New District, where 20 percent of the Fortune 500 corporations have established a base in Suzhou. In 2014, The Grand Canal was inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Well-known museums include the Suzhou Silk Museum, Suzhou Museum of Opera and Theatre and the Suzhou Museum, designed by native architect of international repute, I.M. Pei.
Today, Suzhou’s population and economy is among China’s most rapidly expanding. Only 60 miles from Shanghai, the world’s largest metropolitan area, service by bullet train makes for a 25-minute commute.
In Suzhou, the regional Chinese language is called Wu, the subgroup is called Taihu, and the local dialect, one of nine, is known as Suzhounese, considered one of the most elegant, flowing in all of China. Most people are bilingual in Mandarin used in schools, because Suzhounese is not mutually intelligible with either Mandarin or Cantonese. next tip>