Famous for its gardens, beautiful women and silk, the ancient and moated city of SUZHOU, just sixty minutes from Shanghai by train, lies at the point where the rail line meets the Grand Canal, about 30km to the east of Tai Hu. The town itself is built on a network of interlocking canals whose waters feed the series of renowned classical gardens which are Suzhou's pride and glory. Though Suzhou is now a boom town, with industrial towns springing up all round the outskirts, its centre is crisscrossed with water and dotted with greenery, and retains enough traces of its original character to merit a visit of at least several days.
He Lu, semi-mythical ruler of the Kingdom of Wu, is said to have founded Suzhou in 600 BC as his capital, but it was the arrival of the Grand Canal more than a thousand years later that marked the beginning of the city's prosperity. The silk trade, too, was established early here, flourishing under the Tang and thoroughly booming when the whole imperial court moved south under the Song. To this day, silk remains an important source of Suzhou's income.
With the imperial capital close by at Hangzhou, Suzhou attracted an overspill of scholars, officials and merchants, bringing wealth and patronage with them. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo reported "six thousand bridges, clever merchants, cunning men of all crafts, very wise men called Sages and great natural physicians". These were the people responsible for carving out the intricate gardens that now represent Suzhou's primary attractions. When the first Ming emperor founded his capital at Nanjing, the city continued to enjoy a privileged position within the orbit of the court and to flourish as a centre for the production of wood block and the weaving of silk. The business was transformed by the gathering of the workforce into great sheds in a manner not seen in the West until the coming of the Industrial Revolution three centuries later.
Until recently, Suzhou's good fortune had been to avoid the ravages of history, despite suffering brief periods of occupation by the Taipings in the 1860s and by the Japanese during World War II. The 2,500-year-old city walls, however, which even in 1925 were still an effective defence against rampaging warlords, were almost entirely demolished after 1949, and the parts of the old city that still survive ? moats, gates, tree-lined canals, stone bridges, cobblestoned streets and whitewashed old houses ? are disappearing fast. Soon there may be little more than the famous gardens themselves to provide testimony to the city's past.