A Plan for Suzhou
The bones of the old city lay stretched along modern avenues and tepid waterways, much the same as they did 2500 years ago. The 82 kilometres of waterways that once formed an efficient transport, communication, irrigation and flood relief system within an urban space, are now a crisscross of sludgy water laden with decaying rubbish.
I was sitting in Pingjiang Lu, one of the old canal streets that has undergone numerous transformations in the past few years, watching the old folk across the canal hang out their washing and rinse their dinner dishes in the brackish water. Walking south to Gan Jiang Lu, I noticed a foreign boy that I knew, pausing to look at the Ping Jiang Tu, the Song Dynasty map of Suzhou engraved on stone at the entrance to this renovated old street.
As we chatted about the city’s formation, I mentioned the city’s founder.
The boy – an educated thirty something – laughed in disbelief.
“The Duke of Wu?” he said, ”you sure you don’t mean the Dukes of Hazzard?”
What the foreign boy didn’t know was something every native inhabitant of this gridded town knew: it’s founder was surnamed Wu. He was, according to which ancient warring state you care to believe in – a prince, a prime minister, or perhaps, even a Duke.
Wu Zixu, Prince of the State of Chu in around 500 BC, left that state located near today’s Wuhan and headed south-east. He ran into another Prince, named Helu, who commissioned him to plan and build a capital for the state of Wu.
His first task was to xiang tu chang shui : “observe the earth and taste the waters” – that is to say, find arable land with a plentiful water supply. Wu Zixu, it’s said, planned the city on “cosmological principles”. If he invoked the heavens, he must have had an inside contact, because Suzhou has been a prosperous town ever since. During the Tang and Song dynasties, market stalls and business streets flourished. Both the population and economy expanded to the point that Marco Polo claimed few cities in the world could compare in size, beauty and wealth. During the Ming, surplus agricultural goods led to such a prosperous economy that Suzhou was one of the highest taxed areas in China. Never the country’s capital, yet always a vibrant, cultured city, Suzhou’s GDP is currently second only to Shanghai.
The old town of Suzhou sits, in almost rectangular format, between a square of waterways surrounded by invisible walls and the ghosts of the old city gates. Wu Zixu planned the city gates to face all the cardinal directions, hoping to access the cosmic qi flowing from north to south.
The city walls are long gone, replaced by a cavalcade of Volkswagons and Chang’an Fords. Only some of the gates remain, – the fabled Pan Men being the most well-known – and some have been rebuilt. The Xiang Men, recently reconstructed, glitters gaily at night over the moat that divides the old city from the new.
If you stand atop the Pan Men Gate, or by the moat corner at Osmanthus Park and close your eyes for a moment, perhaps you will feel the breath of the ancient city, whispering to you from 2500 years ago.
Next time you are at the Suzhou Railways Station, take a walk in front of the south entrance, where you will see three giant rocks carved into the likeness of old men. The last one is Wu Zixu. Hollowed out of a large granite boulder, his bearded face looks up to the morning sun, with his rocky hand stretching out towards the heavens.
Perhaps he is harnessing the cosmic qi for all of us blessed to call Suzhou home.