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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Weaves its spell in China

Suzhou is one of China’s leading cultural cities, reputedly producing the most scholars and silk. ONE of the questions I am most frequently asked by friends and readers of this column is, “What is the best place to visit in China?” There is, of course, no “best” or “favourite”, as every destination has its own merits. However, there are places I never tire of re-visiting, chief amongst them the Jiangnan region on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Changjiang).

For centuries, this land of “soft streams and warm mountains” (to borrow a phrase from Feng Xiaogang’s movie The Banquet) – with its lakes, canals, gardens and pavilions – defined the image of the Middle Kingdom. This was and still is the heartland of tea and silk; of scholars, calligraphers and literary pursuits; of folksongs and opera and sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities.

In ancient times, Jiangnan was also famed for pretty women. The fragile, tragic heroine Lin Daiyu from the 18th century classic Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, hailed from Suzhou where women were renowned for delicate looks, gentle demeanour and soft speech.

Unfortunately, when we asked to meet some contemporary Suzhou beauties, our guide said, tongue-in-cheek: “They have all been married off to overseas Chinese from places like Taiwan, Singapore and beyond.”

Perhaps it was their diet of freshwater fish, or because they lived in a centre of sericulture, but Suzhou ladies of old certainly had good skin. My maternal great-great-grandmother was a Suzhou native who lived to a very ripe old age. Her porcelain skin, my mother recalled, remained wrinkle-free till the end.

It is often said silk pillows and silk quilts are key to good skin (and a good night’s sleep). Cool in summer, warm in winter, light and soft, these “cloud blankets” (yunbei) were formerly the preserve of the imperial family. Nowadays, silk quilts are accessible to all and can even be found in some tourist hotel rooms.

Silk production was a state secret in ancient times. Today, the Suzhou #1 Silk Mill conducts tours where the entire production process, from worm cultivation to the assembly lines where filaments from snowy cocoons are reeled, is open to inspection.

Suzhou’s silkworms reputedly yield the longest strands, up to 1,750m, compared with just 800m from Sichuan’s cocoons and a mere 200m for those from Guangdong.

Twin cocoons are bred for quilts and handstretched on a series of inverted U-shaped bamboo frames of increasing size, until finally the fibres are pulled into quilt-sized rectangles. The process is repeated many times, layer upon layer. I was told on a previous visit that a quilt comprises anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 cocoons depending on the weight (summer or winter) and size.

Suzhou is famous for its garden villas with their rockeries, lotus ponds and winding reflexology paths. Nine of these residential havens of retired scholars and officials, mainly of the Ming and Qing dynasties, are on Unesco’s World Heritage list.

So admired are these gardens that a part of the Zhongwangfu, formerly abode of Suzhou’s highest official, was modelled on one of the nine Unesco-listed estates, Zhuozhengyuan (Humble Administrator’s Garden).

Constructed on a 10,650 square metre-site in the 1860’s, Zhongwangfu became residence of the province’s governor though it was subsequently destroyed by Qing troops.

The complex has since been restored and is now part of the new Suzhou Museum designed by American architect IM Pei, himself of Suzhou ancestry. It is not unusual for museums to have a gallery with a stage devoted to local opera but Zhongwangfu’s opera stage is unique in its location inside a historical building. The hall is reputedly the largest such indoor facility in Jiangnan.

One evening, we attended a sampling of 600-year-old Kunqu opera at Zhongwangfu. This Ming dynasty art form is the highly refined precursor of Beijing and other Chinese operas, and was listed by Unesco as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001. Kunqu’s lilting melodies, graceful dances and exquisite costumes are mesmerising. A single opera can carry on for days.
Silk cocoons being stretched on bamboo frames to make quilts at Suzhou #1 Silk Mill.

It was dark as we entered Zhongwangfu’s imposing gate and wound our way through the narrow corridors. Unlike at the crowded Liuyuan (Lingering Garden) earlier, not a soul was in sight and mercifully, no raucous tour guides with microphones.

In the opera hall stood a simple raised stage with two red-curtained doorways and a small table for a prop. After a comedic scene from a piece called 15 Strings of Cash, the female protagonist of that most beloved of Kunqu classics, Peony Pavilion, emerged and together with the male lead, performed an extract from the episode where she dreams of her lover.

The scene unfolded onstage to the accompaniment of percussion and flute. Though I could not understand a single word of the arias, I was enchanted by the melancholic yearning in the youthful actors’ voices, the carefully choreographed tossing of their trailing “water” sleeves and their controlled hand movements. Their eerie wails seemed to emanate from deep within their souls.

As we left Zhongwangfu, a soft rain began to fall, heightening the sense of longing and nostalgia created by the precious performance in that vast mansion. It was at that moment that Suzhou seemed most charming.

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