The province of Jiangsu consists largely of alluvial plains around the mouth of the Yangtze River. This low-lying land is crossed by a vast network of canals and channels, many of which date back centuries. Today the province has been transformed into an industrial powerhouse, but traces of its former self can still be found in the so-called canal towns. Over the past decade or two, as Jiangsu has been strung with high-tension cables and paved over with concrete, these towns have become increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, nostalgic for the Jiangsu of yesteryear. As a result, many of them have now been reinvented as tourist towns, with entrance charges, restaurants for tour groups and rental gondolas cruising the canals of these “Venices of the East”.
One of the lesser-visited canal towns is Mudu, which we visited for a half-day excursion from Suzhou in April 2014. It is quite easy to reach as Mudu is now the final stop on Line 2 of the Suzhou Metro. The station is still around three kilometres from Mudu Ancient Town, so you can either walk it in about thirty minutes or take a taxi for 12 yuan, which is the minimum fare. When you get there, you will notice an old wooden corridor running besides a narrow canal in the direction of the old town. Follow this and you will soon end up on Shantang Street, which is the main thoroughfare of Old Mudu. It has now been thoroughly revamped for the tourist trade, with souvenir shops selling the usual variety of necklaces, amulets, Chinese teas and local delicacies. The main regional specialty is pearls from nearby Lake Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, and Mudu’s reason-for-being. Apart from perusing the souvenir stalls, the main reason to come here is to soak up the “canal town” atmosphere. Willows droop over stone-lined canals, and tourists sit on the edge of old, stone bridges, peering down at the gondolas which go drifting by.
Sadly, most of the old town has been demolished in recent years, as Mudu has become eaten up by the suburban sprawl of Suzhou, a city of some four million people. Nonetheless, there are still a few streets worth of old houses remaining, with whitewashed facades and black-tiled roofs. Overall, however, to get the most out of Mudu you have to spring for an entrance ticket to the main sights. At the time of our visit, a combination ticket had gone up from 60 to 78 yuan. Having limited time, we bought single tickets for the Mountain Garden and Ancient Pine Villa instead, which totalled 60 yuan. The Ancient Pine Villa (20 yuan entrance) proved to be the highlight of our trip to Mudu. The front of the villa consists of a magnificent wooden building, sometimes referred to as “the tower”. If it hasn’t already been used a setting for Chinese historical drama, it should be, as this is a singularly atmospheric building. Every surface of this wooden building has been carved with phoenixes, birds, flowers and other propitious motifs; the entire structure is a work of art. The creaking floorboards and the garden views make the house a romantic reminder of old China.
In the eighteenth-century, Mudu was a prosperous town of merchants and scholars. It was famous for the high-quality of its metalwork. It was especially known for the quality of its pewter, but its silversmiths were also renowned. Connected with Taihu Lake by a series of canals, it could trade its fine metal products for other goods passing along the Grand Canal. The wealth from all this trade was reflected in the fine buildings and gardens which were created by the merchant elite during this period. As in nearby Suzhou, the wealthy liked to showcase their fine taste and intellect by the building of Taoist-inspired gardens. The Ancient Pine Villa had a beautiful example of a Suzhou-style garden. Here we found a stylized representation of the world of nature, with a pond, a towering rockery symbolising the mountains of China, a pagoda perched high above it all, and trees representing the vegetal world. A beautiful old gingko tree can be found on the grounds, as well as the eponymous pine tree. Said to be over five-hundred years old, the pine on the grounds of this villa is venerable and scaly-barked, adding to the old world charm.
From here we visited Hongyin Mountain Villa, often touted as the most impressive garden and residence in Mudu, costing 40 yuan for a single visit. It boasts two Ming Dynasty gardens, known as the Xiuye Garden and Xiaoyin Garden. While they are far more extensive than the gardens at Ancient Pine Villa, they have been less well-maintained, and overall we found this residence less satisfying than its smaller neighbour. It has a very large lily-pond but at the time of our visit the lilies had withered, giving the garden a rather forlorn look. Still, it is a very good place to see the pitted, limestone rocks for which the Suzhou gardens are famous. The rockeries at Hongyin Mountain Villa are especially dramatic- probably an attempt to create mountain ranges in miniature.
As we left this site, we saw a crowd of Chinese tourists gathering along the canal. A boat was approaching with people in traditional costumes. When the boat reached the landing, a group of servants in Qing Dynasty costumes all sank to their knees and bowed their heads. An important looking personage disembarked from the boat, surrounded by his entourage, and the servants kowtowed before him. This performance, we guessed, was a reenactment of the visit to Mudu of Emperor Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor who had visited Mudu six times. It was a reminder that though Mudu had been swallowed up by modern Suzhou, an industrial city, it was a town with an ancient cultural heritage.