Suzhou

I have just finished uploading my photos of our visit to Suzhou, China to my Picasa website. Here I will continue my effort to catch up with our trip narrative.

When I left off, we were fighting a traffic jam getting from Shanghai to Suzhou. Our first stop along the way was Tong Li, another World Heritage city. Tong Li is famous for its gardens and canals and its age, it is over one thousand years years old. Actually, from a tourist point of view, this entire area is known for its gardens and canals and virtually all of my photos are of gardens or canals.

The gardens are very formal, very engineered spaces. Every plant, every building, every window is designed to create serene, peaceful vignettes. One really admires both the imagination of the designer and the tremendous patience it took to create these scenes. The elements of the design are set by tradition: limestone rocks that have been submerged in water for as much as one hundred years, bonsai arrangements, ponds with carp, tile roofed buildings, and plastered brick walls. Garden design was clearly a rich man’s hobby, or at least the gardens that are featured on contemporary tours were of such a scale that their creation would only have been possible for someone of considerable wealth. The name of one garden is even a bit of a spoof on this reality. The garden is called “The Humble Administrator’s Garden” suggesting the work of someone of modest means. But in fact, we were told that the garden was created by a fabulously wealthy man who “retired” to Suzhou from the court in Beijing in a timely fashion: after falling out of favor with the emperor, but before losing the fortune he accumulated due to his high office. The name he applied to the garden was a joking reference to his loss of status. After arrival in Suzhou, he was just “a humble administrator.”

These formal gardens are a tourist photographer’s dream. A criticism I have of my own photography is that most of my subjects are the cliches of the tourist photographer, the cliches of the picture postcard. How cheap is it to take pictures of flowers, statutes, monuments, and children? Use the “rule of thirds” and the postcard photographer’s trick of upping the color saturation and it is easy to create a pleasing photograph. The people whose photographs I really admire, like Greg Spaid or Patty Hovis, can envision and create photos that are truly artistic. But mostly I settle for the postcard shots and formal gardens are full of opportunities for such photos, as you can see.

The canal part of the local tourist attractions come from an important development in Chinese history, the “Grand Canal” that connected northern and southern China. I am no historian, but I would not be surprised if the creation of the “Grand Canal” is the primary reason why China today is one large country (in the east, we leave the controversy over Tibet and the Islamic regions of western China for another blog) and not two smaller countries. Chinese civilization grew alongside two major rivers, what we in the West call the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the south. The Grand Canal provided an inland water route between these two great river valleys connecting these two threads of a developing civilization. A “grand canal” needs subsidiary canals and this need created a pattern of development that led to Suzhou being referred to as the “Venice of the East.”

So mostly my photos alternate between gardens and canals. There is really only one thematic aside: Suzhou is a historic center of Chinese silk manufacture. So there are a few photos of our visit to a silk factory/museum. Though clearly intended as a place to attract tourists with an interest in silk and money to spend to a place where they can be relieved of their tourist dollars, this was one of the least offensive of such tourist “attractions.” You can see actual silk worms munching on mulberry leaves and spinning their cocoons. We saw the machines where the cocoons are unraveled to make silk thread. Of special interest to me was an operating Jacquard loom. This was an ancestor of the punch cards of the early days of computing (“early days” that included my years as an undergraduate!). The patterns woven by the Jacquard loom are “stored” by punching holes in rectangular cards that are about one foot by two feet in size. The cards are chained together with cloth strips and folded into a stack. The loom “reads in” one card at a time and weaves a section of cloth according to the “instructions” on the card. Then it reads in the next card and weaves the next section. The card chain forms a closed loop, so the pattern eventually repeats. See the Wikipedia article on Jacquard looms for some more illustrative photos than I was able to manage.

So that is it for my photos of China. Next up: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.

Tim

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