Shantang Canal

As I mentioned in the last post, Shantang Street and the Shantang Canal were created together c.825CE.  Suzhou is essentially a water town, with what is called a double chessboard structure, in which streets and canals sit in parallel. It is in the delta of the Yangtze river (although surprisingly we haven’t yet been to see the river itself) and the larger area is as much water as it is land.  Every empty lot has a pond, which I think it what you naturally get if you dig a hole in the ground.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Historically, the waterways were very active, filled with boat traffic, which probably went faster than the traffic on the narrow streets.  Suzhou is also connected on the Grand Canal, which connects Beijing and Hangzhou (like Suzhou, the canal is very old, with parts dating back to the 5th C BCE; the completed canal dates to about 681 CE, but of course it has been constantly worked and reworked).  This meant that water was central to Suzhou’s role as a center of trade.  Nowadays, there are still ships on the canal and on the Wusong river, but the small canals in the city are pretty quiet, mostly home to tourist boats and cleaning boats.

The Shantang Canal is plied by boats that ferry tourists between Tiger Hill and the tourist end of Shantang Street.  Taking one of these boats provides an opportunity to see traces of Suzhou’s water culture.

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

The boat ride is not all picturesque -- the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

The boat ride is not all picturesque — the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

While Suzhou’s most famous tourist canal street, Pingjiang Lu, runs right next to the canal, for most of its length Shantang Street is separated from the Shantang Canal by the houses that line the canal.  Along its length, small squares connect the street and the water, often facing onto public buildings like temples.

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Theses squares provide access to the water for those on the other side of the street and in the larger neighborhood, and may also provide loading and unloading for boats.  They always have steps leading to the canal.  Similar steps are historically part of Suzhou houses, although in many canal houses (especially in other parts of town) the steps are unused or only visible as traces.

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Back steps lead from a patio to the canal for washing or, historically more than presently, for taking a boat.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal.  Clearly this wall once held a door.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal. Clearly this wall once held a door.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal.  We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal. We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

The side of houses facing towards the canal is very much the back, and houses are often more open to the canal than to the street.

gardening

The houses along Shantang Street face south to the canal, so the canal side creates a great opportunity for gardening, drying clothes (and mops), and sitting in the sun.

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Even more closed houses make use of the southern exposure for a miniature back yard or an outdoor room.

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little room

Canal frontage also creates an opportunity to expand the house a bit by building over the water, whether quite modestly by suspending a porch

porch extending

more boldly with a wooden pop-out

extending house

or pretty much just building half your house over the water on stilts.

wooden house

When you get to the tourist end of the canal, the waterscape is decorated with red lanterns, lit beautifully at night.

shantang lanternsshantang lantern

But the peopled canalscape is much more interesting, and worth paying for a tourist boat to get a chance to see.

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