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A preserved past amid marvelous modernization

By Ryan Carroll Usher  |  China Daily |  Updated:2023-01-03

As a child, I was obsessed with China. I eagerly devoured every Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee film I could get my hands on, marveled over stories from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and begged my parents to take me to The Jade Palace (our local Chinese restaurant) as often as possible. This obsession, paired with an overactive imagination, filled my mind with dreams of one day traveling to China. I envisioned myself scaling the magnificent Great Wall, exploring the storied Forbidden City, and walking through ancient hutong in search of delicacies.

However, when it finally came time for me to move here three years ago, what shocked me most weren’t just those legendary locations, but how they now exist harmoniously within an ever-modernizing civilization. China is making calculated, concerted efforts toward maintaining a deliberate, delicate dichotomy between preserving its past and forging its way into the future, and few provinces are succeeding at this as much as Jiangsu.

I was recently afforded the incredible opportunity to visit Suzhou in Jiangsu province. Suzhou is a city often compared to Venice thanks to its numerous winding canals. As I walked through the streets, I was instantly impressed by the sheer beauty of it all. This city, which is well over 2,000 years old, has masterfully managed to retain the essence, energy and vitality of its storied past. Riding a boat through its millennia-old canals, passing through its ancient neighborhoods with traditional Suzhou-style white-washed walls, was surreal. I visited Suzhou’s famous classical gardens, which are centuries old and yet perfectly preserved, offering a pocket of serenity in an otherwise bustling city. Walking down Shantang Old Street, which is aptly named as people have been trading wares there for well over 1,000 years, I once again felt like I was deeply connected to the past of Suzhou. The city has protected so much of its past, but more impressively, it has done this despite its rapid modernization.

One of the most perfect examples of this combination of the past and the future is Suzhou’s ever-growing embroidery industry. Suzhou embroidery, or suxiu, is well over 2,000 years old and while the ancient methods of this art form are protected, brave innovations are being made in the industry. Suxiu is now being used in the manufacturing of watches, ties, and other modern clothing. Famous suxiu embroiderers have even collaborated with video game production companies to make authentic costumes for characters, bringing suxiu into the digital realm.

Suzhou’s modernization extends to the booming tech industry in Jiangsu. Suzhou used to rely on importing tech from foreign countries. But now, after years of innovation, it has become a chief exporter of technology to those same nations.

Perhaps the most visually significant indicator of modernization and preservation in Suzhou is its skyline. Despite the rise of dazzlingly lit skyscrapers, city ordinances have regulated the positioning of buildings so that views of ancient monuments, such as the Tiger Hill Pagoda, are unobstructed and can be seen from any direction in the city center.

As I have learned more about Suzhou’s history, the mindset of modernization that exists within its people becomes clearer. Modernization is nothing new to Suzhou, it has been a bastion of innovation throughout history and I eagerly await what modern marvels the city will manifest next.


An aerial view of Suzhou, East China’s Jiangsu province, shows the city’s charm of its traditional buildings and modern development. provided to China Daily

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