Suzhou’s history is long, but this is the short history for travellers looking for a little background. This is part of our Suzhou travel guide.
- Suzhou travel guide
- Getting around Suzhou
- Things to do in Suzhou
- Suzhou gardens
- Budget accommodation in Suzhou
- Suzhou hostels
- Find flights to and from Suzhou
The currents of Suzhou’s history are closely tied to its waterways. The city straddles a number of the Yangzi Delta’s narrow veins as well as the Grand Canal, China’s north-south artery until floods changed the course of the Yellow River in 1855. It is also a short distance from Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China. Fish and shrimps netted in Tai are an important part of local cuisine.
A purpose-built capital
Suzhou was established towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), a time of intermittent warfare between the feudal states that then dominated China. It was a purpose-built capital: the Wu king Helü ordered its construction after assassinating his cousin, in 514 BCE, to take his crown. The ruthless king was soon at war with his neighbours, the Chu. Aided by Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War on Qionglong Mountain, just outside the city, he successfully expanded his kingdom, and his son, King Fuchai, inherited the south’s most powerful state.
Love and disaster
In 486 BCE, Fuchai built the Han Canal, a 185 kilometre connection between the Yangzi and Huai Rivers that was later incorporated into the Grand Canal. He intended to carry troops along it to the north, and his military campaigns there were initially successful. But Fuchai is best remembered for his distractions. His focus on the north left Wu exposed to its neighbours and, in 482 BCE, while Fuchai was away, Suzhou was occupied for a short time by armies of the Yue king, Goujian. In the later part of his reign, Fuchai’s infatuation with one of the four great beauties of ancient China, Xi Shi, led eventually to the fall of the Wu kingdom and his own suicide in 473 BCE.
The Grand Canal of Suzhou
After almost a thousand years of relative obscurity, Suzhou re-entered the annals of Chinese history with the construction of the Grand Canal. The canal was built during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), using compulsory labour. Five million peasants were forced to work on the project; almost three million died, mostly of starvation.
Despite its horrific cost, the Grand Canal is considered a exceptional achievement. It is the world’s longest man made river and it immediately, and permanently, transformed China’s economy. Grain and goods could now be transported from the fertile, rice-growing south to the political centres of the north. By 735 CE, just over a hundred years later, thousands of boats were transporting about 165,000 tons of grain along the canal each year. The country’s agricultural and commercial centre had shifted – from the Yellow River valley, considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation, to the Yangzi Delta, the engine of China’s economy to this day.
The wealthiest city in the world?
Suzhou became one of the wealthiest cities in China; a place of learning, culture and trade, largely removed from the vicissitudes of war and politics. It was governed by poets – like Bai Juyi, who ordered the construction of the Shantang Canal in 825 CE, which you can still stroll beside today, and was isolated enough for government officials to retire to – building the city’s World Heritage listed gardens in the process. When Choe Bu, a shipwrecked Korean official, made his way home along the Grand Canal in 1488 CE, he described Suzhou as China’s most refined, prosperous city. He wrote that “all the treasures of land and sea, such as thin silks, gauzes, gold, silver, jewels, crafts, arts, and rich and great merchants are there [and] … merchantmen and junks from Henan, Hebei, and Fujian gather like clouds.”
Towards the modern city
The city had taken on a shape its current residents would recognise. A wall, punctuated by six gates, had been built along the banks of a rectangular moat. Inside it, twenty canals pumped commerce through the city’s heart. Today, the moat is called the Waicheng River. Its course still marks the limits of the old city, now surrounded by urban sprawl, and although many of the canals have been plugged, or enveloped by heaving double carriageways, is still possible to lose yourself, and most images of modernity, along their banks. Panmen Gate, at the rectangle’s south-east corner, still stands, but the rest of the old wall is gone, replaced in places by recent imitations.
Armies did, inevitably, march through Suzhou. Most were on their way to other places, but arrived with enough violence to destroy large parts of the city. The quaint homes of today, which possess a seemingly timeless connection to the water around them, are often relatively new – built after 1863, perhaps, when the Taiping Heavenly Army captured the city, or 1937, when it was bombed by the Japanese.
Perhaps the largest change in Suzhou’s fortunes has, however, been the arrival of an upstart neighbour. Shanghai has, to some extent, robbed the ancient city of its long-standing importance. It has moved Suzhou from the centre to the periphery; once one of Suzhou’s many feeders, Shanghai has become the fed.
This page by Iain Manley, who arrived in China at the end of an eighteen month overland journey from London and stayed for three years. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium pedlars of old Singapore, was published last year. You can find him at Old World Wandering, his award winning collection of overland travel stories.