Suzhou, readers should know by now, is the City of Silk. Its an ancient tradition kept alive in glorious technicolour on soft fabric.
Suzhou is also a city that’s pretty proud of its attempt to keep traditional culture alive as it rushes rapidly towards increasingly greater urban development.
Yet while the ancient city is heritage listed, folks who have lived there for generations often receive “you must move” notices from the local authorities, while their homes are ‘renovated’ to become tourist areas.
Nevertheless, along Ping Jiang Lu, a very old canal street that is now a hub of tea-houses, coffee shops, silk stores and fashion photographers, one can still see the local folk across the canal hanging out their washing in front of their white washed houses.
Has Suzhou succeeded in this traditional-modern blend?
Thomas Fisher of Suzhou Xian Jiao Tong Liverpool University has just completed a study on just that. He talks about the difference between “heritage reconstruction” and “heritage re-creation”, with tangible and intangible qualities.
Fisher investigates the Suzhou Number 1 Silk Factory, which uses old fashioned machines in a tourist ‘museum’ whereby visitors watch the weavers on their looms, and buy overpriced silks at the museum shop.
In doing so, he invokes the mathematician Leibniz, the Yi Jing, an English Countess, Lord Byron and “ the untold story of Suzhou’s role in the invention of computing”.
During the industrial revolution, Joseph Jaquard invented a loom with punctured holes which lift different coloured silk threads through, to create a multicultured fabric. A couple of mathemeticians later and an English translation by Ada Lovelace, ( the aforementioned Countess whose dad was Lord Byron) who also added her own genius, we get the Bernoulli numbers, detailed in Countess Ada Lovelace’s notes – making her the world’s first computer programmer.
Jaquard was the first person to invent a machine using Leibniz’s binary numbers.
Today,Suzhou’s silk weavers are abandoning their punchcard-controlled Jacquard looms in favour of their semiconductor-controlled successors while the city’s urbanmodernisation and service industries embrace digital technologies inspiredby the Jacquard loom. The Chinese company Lenovo has taken over IBM’s“Thinkpad” business, and Suzhou students perform their university examinations on MCQ cards, a derivative of the Hollerith card.
Meanwhile, workers unravel silk threads from silkworm cocoons, much like they have done for centuries.