Dispatch: Experiencing the Yin and Yang of China in Suzhou
Photos by Will McGough
It’s the end of my first visit to China.
The low light of the twilight is especially grey thanks to the pollution. It hovers over the city like a thin blanket, muting out the orb of the sun and spreading its light evenly throughout the sky.
It’s warm, though, and from the bridge of the canal I can see the water flow down under the rest of the bridges. Straight in front of me is another three-arched bridge, and off to the right is a much smaller single-arched stone crossing. The trees grow up out of the concrete like it’s mixed with Miracle-Gro, the leaves and branches weeping down over the railing and toward the water. There’s a walking path going along the water and through the trees and I can see all the people going up and over the bridge and then turning down the river toward me.
A local told me that the Chinese are fond of taking walks after dinner. True to form, all along the river and in the adjacent park are slow-strollers, people meandering along the path and stopping to put their arms up on the railing. I can see that many of the children go on walks with their grandparents. One of the young girls lets out a scream as she darts after a ball in the park. Otherwise, it’s impressively peaceful and quiet here in what the Chinese would consider a “small” city of 10 million people.
I’m in Suzhou, a secondary city that sits west of Shanghai. It’s not quite on the international tourism map yet, but it really does have a lot to offer.
The city has historical ties to more than 2,500 years of dynastic ruling, evidenced by its skyline, dotted with the pointed-top, banana-sloped rooftops of ancient temples. It’s got a wonderful canal system, with peaceful, localized places to walk — like the section I’m currently looking down upon — and other more vibrant “waterfront” style sections, like Pingjiang Road or Tongli, with shops and vendors and restaurants.
Then there’s Suzhou’s beloved classic gardens, like the Humble Administrator’s Garden, and The Wormwood Institute, a school of massage that uses a burning piece of wood to transfer heat and heal the body. Just outside the city to the south are the rolling hills of the tea plantations in Suzhou Shangfangshan National Forest.
There’s certainly a lot to do. But more importantly, there’s a wide range of things to do, and I’ve had the chance to experience both urban and rural China in one short trip. I’ve been given a well-rounded glimpse at what makes the Chinese tick here in a lesser-known city, hidden in the shadow of Shanghai.
And I’ve got to be honest: They are confusing, contradictory people.
For example, last night, I was walking along Pingjiang Road, perhaps the most popular strip of the canal. There are small shops and street food vendors and bridge after bridge crossing the canal. A lot of locals live on the adjacent streets, and I began to notice a polarity in their actions. I remember navigating between the waddling crowd. I remember seeing a twenty-something girl in a bright pink Hello Kitty outfit wearing costume-caliber bunny ears. She was eating an ice cream. As I looked closer, I saw the ice cream cone also had bunny ears on it.
I followed her. Not in a weird way. I just wanted to learn more, and to see what she would do next. At the next block, after the ice cream was done, the girl with the bright pink Hello Kitty outfit and the bunny ears approached another vendor. She bought two chicken feet. The toes were curled, and the skin looked like it had been out in the sun too long. She chomped down, breaking the bones with her teeth, laughing with her friends about whatever (I don’t speak Chinese).
She accompanied her friends to another vendor; one you could smell long before you could see it. It sold a popular dish called “stinky tofu.” It smelled like fermented milk. I could barely stand the smell, let alone consider putting it in my mouth. Yet there was the girl with the pink Hello Kitty outfit and the bunny ears, who had eaten the bunny-eared ice cream, right there in the thick of it, placing an order.
It was a humorous case study indeed, one that’s no doubt way out there on the extreme end. But it did stick with me as a first-time visitor. I found these visions of black on white to be revealing.
The Chinese do a lot of things very responsibly. They take walks after dinner, embody strong family ties, and drink green tea fanatically (you will see people carrying around tea in all different types of containers). Most Chinese don’t seem to drink alcohol in excess, if ever. They turn to herbs and natural remedies before considering prescribed pills. They are so calm here by the canal, walking off their dinner and embracing health and family, the stresses of city life so far away.
Yet, at the very same time, I look up at the sky and can’t see through the pollution. I know that a few blocks away there’s congestion and traffic from here to high heaven. I know that they’ll put almost anything in their mouths, and that nothing can gross them out, regardless of how skittish their outfit might make them out to be. I know that for a long time the country had a one-child limit, and that everyone my age grew up as an only child. I know a lot of other things about the country’s politics, some that you certainly know as well, that make me wary.
It is no wonder the ancient Chinese came up with the philosophy of yin and yang, a theory in which seemingly contrary forces turn out to be complementary in the long run.
How else are they to explain themselves?
I know it’s only one visit. But I’ve learned a lot. Most notably, that I want to come back and learn more.
Where to Stay:
Blossom Hill Inn – A Beautiful hotel within walking distance of Pingjiang Road, modeled after an emperor’s summer vacation mansion.
Tea picking at Biluochun Tea Plantation; Tiger Hill; Walking the twisting canalside streets in Tongli; Lunchtime noodles at Tong De Xing Noodle Restaurant; Suzhou Silk Factory; Massage at the Wormwood Institute; Humble Administrator’s Garden.
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