Beauty and tradition combine for inspiration

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A performer plays xiao, Chinese vertical bamboo flute, in the Lingering Garden. — Courtesy of the Lingering Garden

Two of Suzhou's major attractions give visitors an opportunity to lose themselves amid lush scenery and traditional Chinese performances that include music, dance and opera.

The Lingering Garden – a vast oasis

The Lingering Garden in Suzhou is really, as its name implies, a place that can retain its visitors. People often sojourn here not just for the garden's exquisite beauty, also for its size. It's like a palace where the pavilions and halls seem to go on forever and become more secluded the farther in you go.

The first time I visited the garden, I got lost roaming around, wandering deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of garden courtyards until I found myself passing the same arched doorway twice. The experience made me sympathize with the sufferings of those handmaids who worked for the rich families. It seems impossible that they could make it when sent out to look for someone if the family owns a building complex that measures more than 23,000 square meters, as the Lingering Garden does.

I nearly missed my train back to Shanghai just because it took me so long to find my way out of the garden.

When Qian Jianfeng, deputy director of the management office with the Lingering Garden, shuffled through the halls and corridors and led me all the way to the performance at Guanyun Peak, I couldn't help but ask him: "How do you manage to find your way in the maze of the garden?"

Xie replied, only half in jest: "You will get to know this place like the back of your hand once you knock your head on one of the pillars, just like we all did sometime on a night patrol."

As we spoke, a clear twang of pipa (Chinese lute) stirred up the crowd, while six female dancers in bright costume filed onto the stage set against a peak of delicately piled-up stones from Taihu Lake. The gentle dance posed a strong contrast to the grotesque stone peak towering above the courtyard.

The dance is part of a campaign the Lingering Garden recently launched to showcase the old daily life there.

Live performances include traditional Chinese music, Kunqu and Suzhou opera, and pingtan (Suzhou-style musical storytelling). They add color to the normal tour of the garden, widely regarded as one of the four best classical gardens in China.

The other three are the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou, the Summer Palace in Beijing, and the Summer Resort in Chengde.

Titled "Seeking Dreams," the campaign aims to "bring dreams (of living like the former owners) back to life," said Ye Feng, who also heads the garden's management office.

"Before, visitors could only marvel at the imposing views in the garden and imagine how the squires lived here. Now they can see with their eyes and get a better idea of the garden, how the bewildering architectural forms function and how the life was," he said.

The dance was performed outside among the stones and greenery, as the original drama hall was destroyed during warfare. Inside a nearby pavilion, folk art including fruit-pit carving and Suzhou-style embroidery are on display. Almost every Chinese born later than the 1970s has read about the craftsmanship in Chinese textbooks, but seeing it brought to life takes things to a whole new level.

A pingtan show is performed by eight female actresses in Wufengxian Pavilion, a signature venue in the complex where the former owners used to host guests.

The show features xiaodiao --— another style of pingtan focused on singing and physical acting.

"Xiaodiao is more demanding because the gestures should be highly synchronized, lyrics clear in a mellow tone and the aria resounding and harmonious," said Hu Jie, one of the eight performers.

She and other actresses started rehearsing for the show two months before coming to the stage. The 15-minute show is staged five times daily and consists of "highly focused acting" according to Hu. "It's performed live and close-up, so we can very easily get distracted," she said. "But it's worth the effort because we never expected so big an audience. Some of them might not understand the lyrics but they play the rhythm with the music."

Performances of traditional Chinese instruments such as flute, guqin and erhu scatter in the garden. A specially designed Suzhou opera piece telling the tale of the Sheng Huaixuan, the last owner of the garden, is played every two days in the auditorium hall.

The campaign runs through November 2.

Admission: 55 yuan

Tel: 0512-6533-7903

Opening hours: 7:30am-5pm

Address: 338 Liuyuan Rd

Tiger Hill – temple fair and an ancient, leaning pagoda

In three days, Tiger Hill in Suzhou will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its annual temple fair. One of the three major events at Tiger Hill, this year's fair lasts for 20 days, running through the week-long National Day holiday until October 19.

Suzhou has a long history of holding temple fairs at the mountain in autumn. In old times when people had little entertainment, the temple fair was a prime festive event where folks could unwind, celebrate the autumn harvest, satisfy their craving for delicacies and otherwise just have fun.

"For many Suzhou seniors, it's a must-have event," said Tan Qiuyi, head of the management office at Tiger Hill.

Standing in the northwest suburbs of Suzhou, Tiger Hill is a signature spot in the city that rises 36 meters. Built in AD 327, the Tiger Hill Temple is still prosperous today, though most of its buildings were destroyed long ago, leaving behind only the ancient pagoda. The pagoda's timber has been burned repeatedly by warfare and from lightning strikes, yet it still stands, albeit at a slant to the northeast. Therefore, it is also known as "China's Leaning Tower of Pisa."

Every year, the fair is held at the foot of where the old temple used to exist. Normally the fair would last for two months at most, but now it's shortened to three weeks due to budget considerations.

"The biggest challenge is to be creative and manage to attract the youngsters," said Tan, recalling the past 20 years. "We used to travel around the country to invite performers to the fair, such as stilt-walkers from Henan Province, drummers from Shanxi and acrobats from Wuqiao, Hebei."

But for years the ticket revenue failed to cover the expenses to invite performing troupes. So the office decided to scale back the events and concentrate on the display of local folk arts. A parade with dancing lions and dragons will tour around the hill daily (but not during National Day holiday). Apart from regular musical and acrobatics shows, an array of stalls selling local snacks and cuisines will line outside the west end of Duanliang Pavilion.

"This year's fair will offer visitors outside Suzhou a taste of authentic Suzhou culture and a chance for young people to get immersed in local arts and tradition, and at the same time will entertain local seniors with remembrances of the good old days," Tan said.

After the fair, head east along Hill Ring Road to Wanjing Manor, which houses more than 600 miniature trees in tray scenery, or penjing in Chinese.

Widely known as bonsai in Japanese, the art of miniature trees and rockery originated in China. The techniques of making tray scenery and its arrangement styles vary around the country. In Suzhou, the penjing are miniatures of Suzhou garden art.

"Many Westerners don't like penjing because they think the natural growing process of plants is hindered and they are made into a composition by being cruelly tied or bound up. But Chinese see the power of life and the beauty of rebirth since all the plants in tray scenery grow on the dead gnarled tree stools," said my tour guide surnamed Yan. "Through the miniature scenery, Chinese see the passing of time, changing of seasons and cycle of life and death."

Tour guides at Tiger Hill are highly recommended, especially if you plan to visit the tray scenery manor. The well-learned, English-speaking ladies can give you a better idea about the art and its techniques. Visitors can even try their hand at arranging simple tray sceneries if they book ahead.

Admission: 80 yuan

Tel: 0512-6723-2305, 0512-6532-3488

Opening hours: 7am-5:30pm

Address: Jinchang District, Tiger Hill Scenic Area

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