Suzhou, a beautiful tourism city, located in southeast China, is famous for its rich history and classical architectural styles. It is known by its nickname, “Venice of the East”, because of rivers and streams everywhere in the city. When people talk about Suzhou, the first thing that pops up in their minds would be the Classical Gardens of Suzhou. Indeed, these gardens are landmarks of the city. Their architectural styles also reflect culture and history from Song to Qing Dynasty.
However, in this blog, I would like to show you something different about Suzhou. Suzhou is my hometown, and I spent almost my whole life living in Suzhou Old Town. The Old Town is a chessboard layout area at the centre of the city. Its history can date back to the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC). Except for the Classical Gardens, local people also visit old Buddhist and Taoist temples in the Old Town. As one of the cultural centres around the Yangtze River basin, Suzhou has a deep and rich connection with Chinese traditional religions, such as Buddhism. Although China is an atheist country, 75% of religious people believe in Buddhism.
Here is the travel guide of three selected Buddhism temples and pagodas in Suzhou Old Town. I will include their background stories as well since some of the stories are really interesting. The four sites below are my favourite ones either with interesting stories or rich history. As a local, I will try my best to advise you “how to travel like a local Chinese”.
History of the temple
Hanshan Temple, a direct translation in English as “Cold Mountain Temple”, is the most famous Buddhist temple in Suzhou. It locates in the Town of Fengqiao (lit. Maple Bridge Town), about 5km west of the Suzhou Old Town.
The temple was founded during the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (386-589 AD). Its name derives from a legendary monk Hanshan. He is said to be a poet as well. But this figure only associated with a large collection of poems, Taoism and Chan tradition. There is no accurate record of the existence of this monk. No one knows if he actually lived or not. Nevertheless, he is still an important influencer of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. Not until the end of the Tang Dynasty, upon the monk Hanshan’s pass away, his poems started being popular among East Asia. At that time, dated back to the Song Dynasty, people still called this temple “Maple Bridge Temple”. But after Hanshan’s death, the monks in “Maple Bridge Temple” started to honour him. The temple then changed its name to “Hanshan Temple” and passed down to this day.
There is a well-known poem by a Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ji, called “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge”. The poem goes like this:
The moon is going down
And the crows make a ruckus
The sky is covered with frost
There are maples on the riverbank
And the lights of fishing boats
Drift with the current
I fall into a sad sleep
from the monastery on Cold Mountain
The sound of the bell
Reaches the guest boat at midnight
The poem describes the melancholy scene of a dejected traveller, moored at night at Fengqiao, hearing the bells of Hanshan Temple. Both Chinese and Japanese people adore the poem. Interestingly, Japan has a temple that has the same name as Hanshan Temple in Suzhou.
Visit as if a Suzhou local
Hanshan Temple is a big and busy temple since it became one of the major Buddhist temples a long time ago. A lot of people go there every day to pray or pay a visit. There is an entry fee of 20 CNY (approximately 3 USD) for each adult. Kids and the elderly are free for visiting. There are lots of parking and many bus routes to go there. I recommend going there by bus because the parking lot is usually full. Hanshan Temple is open 7 days a week, from 7 am to 5.30 pm.
The temple has a wide collection of ancient relics on display. But the temple is already commercialized; most relics there are copies of real works. Although these relics are not real, the bronze bells are of a long history. The temple experienced up to 7 times of fire hazard in the past. Only these bells survived in those fires. The most recent temple renovation was during Qing Dynasty.
As I mentioned, the temple aims to make money from tourists. I don’t recommend you to buy souvenirs or anything except for food from the temple. Those souvenir shops are managed seperately from the temple itself, but they share profit. So the things in those shops are very expensive. However, the vegetarian meals in the temple are very delicious. The price of one vegetarian noodle is 15 CNY (less than 3 USD). It is a reasonable price for food.
Something special at Hanshan Temple
There are two events that I like at Hanshan Temple. The first one is the most famous and popular, probably is also the biggest event during a year in Suzhou. It is the bell-ringing ceremony on Chinese New Year’s eve. The ceremony is a major tourist event too. Both domestic and overseas travellers come to Hanshan Temple to join the ceremony. On New Year’s eve, the monk will ring the old bell 108 times. In Buddhism, there are 108 kinds of inner trouble and sins in people’s minds. Ringing the bell can help get rid of one trouble. Upon ringing the bell 108 times, monks pray for good luck and health for the coming new year.
After monks finishing the ceremony, visitors can also go ring the bell by themselves to wish for fortune. It is very engaging as you can ring the bell and touch the bell too. Usually, local media will stream the ceremony on air for people who cannot go to the temple. It is for public safety concern because too many people gathering there would cause the trampling accident, which happened before. I heard a rumour that the temple will limit the number of visitors on New Year’s eve.
Free Laba Congee give away
Another event seems like only local people know it. Hanshan Temple has a tradition of giving away free Laba Congee – a traditional congee made of many kinds of rice, beans and fruits – on the 8th of December (Lunar calendar). The custom comes from ancient Indian Buddhists. People make the congee in honour of the Buddha who accomplished his enlightenment on this day. Hanshan Temple has this tradition too. They will provide people who visit the temple on that day a bowl of free Laba Congee.
The monks and Buddhists voluntarily start preparing for free Laba Congee one week before the 8th of December (Lunar calendar). People can donate ingredients of the congee to the temple as well. On that day, people would queue up for so long to get one bowl of congee. Because Laba Congee from the temple means good luck and happiness. I also queued for congee give away when I was young. My grandparents are Buddhists, so they would bring me along to the temple very early in the morning. The temple has a limited congee supply, so it is normal that you find they run out of congee when it’s finally your turn. Be early!
History of the temple
Xiyuan (lit. West Garden) Temple is a Buddhist temple located in the Suzhou Old Town. It is a part of the “Lingering Garden” which is another popular tourist destination in Suzhou. The temple was originally founded during the Yuan Dynasty. A wealthy noble family in the Ming Dynasty merged it with the Lingering Garden. The war between the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the Qing Dynasty destroyed the temple once. A monk raised money from the crowd and rebuilt it when the war finished.
The temple has a 700-year long history. The government was going to make it another tourist destination, just like what they had done to Hanshan Temple to make more money. However, after the temple reformed in 2018, monks decided to exit the 4A Tourist Destination programme. The monks thought the temple should be better off with its original purpose, as to serve local Buddhists and people come along to seek enlightment.
Visit as if a Suzhou local
I would recommend people going there by public transportation. There are few bus routes you can take, so book a taxi would be a better choice. The temple locates in the Old Town and it’s very difficult to find parking nearby. Although it is near two large tourist destinations (Lingering Garden and Hanshan Temple), there is no plan for district development for years. I always go there by bus since the bus route is easier for me as I live in the Old Town. The traffic leaves the temple alone, buses and cars won’t go near the temple to disturb the peace. Therefore, wear comfortable shoes as it requires some walking to visit the temple.
There is an entry fee of only 5 CNY (approximately 0.78 USD), but the monks will give you three joss sticks. The temple is not for commercial tourism purpose, nor is it commercialized as Hanshan Temple. The temple owns only a few souvenir shops. The price is fair and reasonable. You can also have lunch in the temple. The vegetarian noodle in Xiyuan Temple is very famous among locals.
Something special at Xiyuan Temple
In Xiyuan Temple, there is a Free Life Pond for people to free aquatic to accumulate their “merit”. But this is not what makes the pond and the temple so special. Two Yangtze giant softshell turtles were living in the pond. Yangtze giant softshell turtle is an extremely rare and critically endangered species. This turtle species is already functionally distinct upon the death of a female turtle in 2019. Because this was the only turtle engaged with breeding. There are only 4 individuals left in this world. It is said the two turtles in the Free Life Pond are a pair of male and female, but the female one is hardly detected. The female turtle’s existence is still a question. But the male one had died in 2007.
There are lots of folklores about the two turtles in Xiyuan Temple. The most popular one is that the turtles can bless the temple as well as people visiting the temple. There are two bronze turtle scuptures placed at side of the Free Life Pond in hornor of the two Yangtze giant softshell turtles living here for hundreds of years.
When I was young, my grandparents brought me to Xiyuan Temple. I always asked them to buy fish from a nearby fish market and then free them into the pond. Although people know there are two endangered turtles here, none would disturb turtles by making noises or staying for too long. There was once I think I actually saw one turtle coming from the bottom of the water. I saw a giant round shadow floating freely in the pond. It poked its head out of the water to breathe, then quickly went back into the pond again.
History of the pagoda
The historic site of construction for Beisi Pagoda dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD). The Emperor of Wu Kingdom, Sun Quan, built this pagoda in honour of his wet nurse. The current structure was constructed in Ming Dynasty, but official renovation in the following era till 2006 helps to preserve its wooden eaves and bannisters.
It isn’t easy to know how Beisi Pagoda looked like it was built under Sun Quan’s reign. However, the current style of the pagoda was made between 1131 and 1162, during the Song Dynasty. A Buddhist monk, Dayuan, led the construction of the pagoda. But a fire destroyed it at the end of the Song Dynasty. Beisi Pagoda then was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty.
Visit as if a Suzhou local
Beisi Pagoda locates at Bao’en Temple on Renmin Road. Both the pagoda and the temple are open to visitors for free, but some of the levels in the pagoda are private-owned by the temple. The temple has a collection of ancient relics found inside the pagoda, including some ancient hand scripts on silk or bamboo. Notably, there is also the biggest lacquer carving art in China – Prosperous Suzhou, displaying in the temple. The carving was done in 1986, but the original work was completed in 1759, during the Qing Dynasty.
Since the site is on Renmin Road, the main road in Suzhou city centre, I would recommend taking underground line 4 and exit from exit 5. Renmin Road is always very crowded, and traffic jam is a common thing. It is also hard to find parking in the Old Town. Visiting the pagoda by bus or by car sometimes can be stressful.
The site is tranquil despite located on the main road. Only a few visitors and Buddhists are on-site on usual days. You can take three free joss sticks at the entrance. If lucky enough, you can hear monks chanting. Sometimes, they will hold public Sutra seminars, and everyone can join upon registration.
Something interesting about Beisi Pagoda
It is said that the main road in Suzhou city centre, Renmin Road, is a “Dragon’s Vein” lies on the ground. “Dragon’s Vein” is an important concept in ancient Chinese history because the ancient Chinese emperors thought they were inheritors of the dragon. According to folklore, back in Ming Dynasty, the first emperor Zhu Yuanzhang visited Suzhou after conquering southeast China. When he walked on Renmin Road, he felt weird, as if something went wrong. He also felt the ground underneath his foot had some hidden power. The emperor later asked his adviser: “Why do I feel something is sleeping under the ground?” His adviser examined the landscape and reported to him: “It is because you are stepping on the ‘Dragon’s Vein’.”
The emperor started to afraid. The “Dragon’s Vein” was too powerful. It can easily foster another emperor material and replace him. Zhu Yuanzhang ordered his army to get ready to destroy the road. His adviser stopped him: “There is no need to destroy the road, as there is a pagoda standing at the end of the road.” The pagoda is Beisi Pagoda. It turned out that Beisi Pagoda was built to suppress the power of the “Dragon’s Vein”. This giant pagoda worked as a nail on the dragon’s tail. So the dragon won’t be able to do anything except protecting the area it currently lay on. The emperor then relaxed and cancelled the order as he left.