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Suzhou Culture

Wu is the region in the Jiangnan area (the south of Yangtze River), surrounding Suzhou, in Jiangsu province and Zhejiang province of China. It is also the abbreviation of several kingdoms based in Wu. The two largest cities in the Wu region today are Shanghai and Hangzhou. Most of the region speaks the Wu language and its many dialects. The first Wu nation was established in the late Zhou Dynasty. Once considered as a foreign kingdom to Kingdom Zhou, it emerged to be a power overlord at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period. The most influential Wu nation was the Kingdom of Wu during the period of Three Kingdoms. The city of Suzhou (also called Wu) has traditionally been the capital of the Wu nations. The dialect spoken in Suzhou is usually regarded as the standard Wu language.

Suzhou, the cradle of Wu culture, is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze Basin. 2500 years ago, in the late Shang Dynasty, local tribes who named themselves "Gou Wu" lived in the area which would later become the modern city of Suzhou. The historic Wu Culture has left Suzhou City with a series of attractive landmarks, including the many classical gardens and water townships, the melodic rhythm of Kun Opera and Ping Tan (Suzhou ballad), the Wumen Fine Arts School, the Suzhou handcrafts, and the delicious Jiangsu Cuisine. All of these reflect the character of its people: exquisite, mild and smart.

There are more than 10 types of folk ballads with clear characteristics, including the Prologues, Love Songs, Children Ballads, Ballads of Ceremony, Ballads of Life, Ballads of Current Politics, Ballads of Local Folk Customs and Local Production, Ballads of Laboring, Ballads of Folk Tales and Revolutionary Ballads in Jiangsu Province. Jiangsu Ballads have a long history. Wu Songs are the main part of Jiangsu Ballads and act as a very important role in the history of Chinese literature.

Kun Opera (Kunqu or Kunqiang) is the mother of all Chinese operas, which has a history of over 600 years. It originated in the Kunshan area of Suzhou City in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and has developed to be a musical system in the Ming Dynasty, and came into its golden age in the period of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. In 2001, UNESCO awarded it as one of the Human Beings' Verbal and Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative Work. Kun Opera sounds graceful and haunting and it required good voice control and rhythm as well as attention to every word and sentence. These performance skills are vividly displayed in the 'shuimoqiang' (floating water mill tune) which embodies the distinctive character of the Kun Opera. When performed, the opera is accompanied by various kinds of instruments, such as the flute, Sheng, Xiao (pipe), Sanxian (trichord) and lute. When you are in Suzhou, it will be an interesting experience to enjoy a Kun Opera performance, for example, the Peony Pavilion, A Story of the Screaming Phoenix, the Peach Blossom Fan, or the Palace of Eternity.

Pintan is an ancient performing art of storytelling and ballad singing in Suzhou dialect, being the general name for Pinghua and Tanci. Pinghua, also called Dashu, is performed by a single narrator with a gavel and a fan, relating a historical romance, court cases, martial arts story or heroic epic. The Tanci, which is also called Xiaoshu, is mainly put on by two people, regarding the stories of daily life and love. The instruments used include the Sanxian and lute. This art originally appeared in the Qing Dynasty and was favored by successive monarchs and locals. Its distinctive performing skill consists of storytelling, loud laughter, music-playing and singing. The well-known stories are Love of Wealth and Woe, Yang Naiwu and Xiao Baicai, Meng Lijun, Qin Xiangliang, Wusong and Lin Chong.

The origin of arts and crafts in Wu can be traced back to the Stone Age. The technology and production is more and more skillful with the development of the economy and culture. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Suzhou had fast development in economy and culture; as a result, the arts and crafts were also put into a golden era, with lots of great masters and handicraft producers emerged. Handicraft production, both for daily use and arts collection, were made with a very high level of skill. Today, there are more than 40 professional research institutions and manufacturers with more than 10 thousand employees in Suzhou.

Featured in local style, arts and crafts, especially Su Embroidery, Su Fans, Su-style mahogany furniture, Su-style mounting, Su-style lamps and lanterns, Suzhou has its own characteristics and has received well-deserved fame around the world. Su-style Silk Tapestry and Taohuawu New Year Woodblock Prints are special in this part of the country. Production of the arts and crafts has greatly promoted the culture and trade of Suzhou.

Wu Calligraphy and Painting has a long history, with famous artists that came forth in large numbers. Lu Tanwei from the Liu-Song Dynasty (420-479) and Zhang Sengyao from the Xiao-Liang Dynasty (502-557)were good at figure painting, and are featured because they uniquely decided to try merging calligraphy into paintings. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the development of painting continued in Suzhou, and Zhang Zao was another outstanding representative. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, the painting of landscapes were very popular. “4 Greats of Ming”, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming and Qiu Ying of Ming Dynasty, were the representatives and achieved the leadership of the Wu School of Painting, affecting the painting styles for more than 400 years of Ming and Qing Dynasties. “Early Qing Dynasty 4 Wangs”, Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, Wang Yuan Qi, formed “Yushan Faction” and “Lou Dong Faction”, which produced profound and far-reaching effects in China.

Suzhou, which has a long history and a broad scale, is densely covered by small rivers within the downtown area. Famous for its private gardens, it is crowned with the honor of “City of Gardens” because of its diversified gardens first built in the sixth century B.C. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, there were more than 170 gardens in and out of the city; now only 10 gardens remain, and are treasures to Soochow residents and tourists. The Lingering Garden with the quintessence of garden art, the gorgeous and graceful Humble Administrator's Garden, the exquisite Master-of-Nets Garden, and the Lion Grove Garden with a novel and interesting layout are representatives that have been inscribed on the World Cultural Heritage List. The ancient Surging Wave Pavilion, and Tiger Hill with rich cultural value, not to mention the Happiness Garden with all kinds of good qualities for gardens are other fascinating places for tourists to visit. Thanks to the poem “Mooring to the Maple Bridge at Night” by Zhang Ji of the Tang Dynasty, visitors in the past and present have strived to visit the Maple Bridge and listen to the bell tolls of the Hanshan Temple. The Suzhou Museum designed by Bei Zhaoming, the architect master of Chinese origin, was designed with the perfect combination of modern art and the ancient charm of Suzhou. Since it was open to visitors in 2006, it has become a popular scenic spot for visitors as well as local citizens.