The city’s network of interlinked canals feed Suzhou’s classical gardens, the city’s main attractions and pride. With the arrival of the Grand Canal (the longest canal on earth with its staggering 1,800km) during the Sui dynasty, Suzhou prospered into a bustling trading port. The silk trade was established early on and silk still remains a key source of income.
Suzhou’s reputation for being a haven for scholars and artists was established early on during the dynastic era. With the imperial court a short distance away in Hangzhou, craftsmen, scholars and officials were attracted to the thriving canal town. These men were primarily responsible for creating the city’s classical gardens which were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1997. The most famous garden is the Zhuozheng Yuan, or the Humble Administrator’s Garden which is the largest and dates back 500 years. And to the west of the city lies the Lingering Garden famous for its trees and blossoms.
When the Ming dynasty established its capital in Nanjing, Suzhou continued to enjoy a position of privilege and continued to be patronised by court officials and craftsmen. During the Ming era, its reputation as a centre for silk-weaving and wood production was cemented.
A great way to experience Suzhou is to walk or bike along the numerous canals and soak in the hive of activity in small neighbourhoods and waterway alleys. Six north-south canals and fourteen east-west canals criss-cross each other within the old city walls enclosed by moats.
Although the old part of the city is still present in the centre, Suzhou has boomed into a high-tech manufacturing hotspot and has become the world’s biggest producer of laptop computers. The 288sq km Industrial Park just outside the city bears testimony to the fast-paced rush towards modernization that the city has experienced since the early 1990’s. Just twenty years ago, the same area was farmland.