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The Return of Suzhou’s Prodigal Sun
Part 21 - All Along the Watchtower
Returning to Suzhou last Saturday restored our faith in the local climate. Spring, whose arrival I triumphally announced in my last journal, has fled these parts and summer installed itself instead. Temperatures were up to 30°C and brilliant sunshine awaited us. Having left the north-east, where many trees were not yet in bud and the evenings required two fleeces, it was something of a shock to the system.
The long journey began as a bit of a mystery tour for Andrea, who had quite inconveniently insisted on my withholding the details of the trip from her. However, by the time we reached Suzhou railway station, she was aware of at least our first port of call, a night in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, some 450km to the north-west. A little explanation is in order here, for there are many “zhous” throughout China, and there are also many variations that are very similar, for example; Suzhou, Chuzhou, Suizhou and Xuzhou.
It is my opinion, not necessarily a fact, that the “zhou” section of the names refers to a walled city state. The Zhou dynasty (1045-265BC) was dominated by walled cities; is this how the name derived? Back through history and pre-history, China has consisted of these walled cities, and although on a much larger scale, they could be compared to the Greek city states of the first millennia BC, of which Troy was one. (I do know that Troy was in Turkey by the way, but it was Greek.) These city states had some control over much larger areas, but not total control, in times of strife they would retreat behind their walls and leave the wider spread peasantry to fend for itself.
Anyway, the prefixes, Su, Chu, Sui and Xu are, to European ears, very similar. It is my contention that it is possible that they are actually the same word but have been interpreted from the local spoken dialect into different Chinese characters and thus differ in pinyin. Quite obviously Zhengzhou or Hangzhou are completely different, although again would have been city states. It is also interesting that these similar prefixes are congregated around the lands previously controlled by the State of Wu, under the control of Suzhou. Only one of the “zhous” in Jiangsu, Tongzhou, is located in an area that was underwater during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481BC) and it is likely that this was an island anyway.
There are therefore three hypotheses:
1. That “zhou” indicates a walled city state.
2. That Su, Sui, Xu and Chu are derived from the same spoken word.
3. That the term “zhou” in this definition was coined in or before the Spring and Autumn period.
As proving one or all of these is highly unlikely I’ll move on but leave you with the information that the title, “Spring and Autumn Period” is actually a contraction, that it was originally “Spring, Summer and Autumn Period” and emphasises the importance of farming at that time, winter effectively being a dead season. Farming and walled cities, along with taxation and metalwork, forming the four cornerstones, or pillars of civilisation.
The train to Xuzhou proved very civilised and comfortable, the new “D” class trains have a first and second class, both being soft seats, the only difference being that first class has four seats across with a central aisle and second class has five across, split three and two either side of the aisle. Surprisingly the train was late; a fairly unusual occurrence on China railways, but it did pull up, Japanese fashion, exactly where the platform markings said it would. It wasn’t a superfast line, speeds maxing at 160 kilometres per hour, but it was a comfortable journey providing interesting views of cityscapes and countryside.
Basically the line goes from Suzhou to Nanjing to Bengbu and on to Xuzhou, avoiding the lower land of the Jiangsu delta, which stretches all the way up the state, and passing mostly through Anhui Province. Until crossing the Yangtze everything is industry, there is little farmland left, but north of the river there were vast expanses of brilliant green grain crops interspersed with equally large expanses of coal fields and heavy industry. We never worked out what the main crop was, rice is usually easy to spot because of the flooded fields, but this looked like dry soil farming, so we had to suspect it was young wheat plants.
On the entire journey there was evidence of tree planting on an unbelievable scale and the size of the trees suggested they were all less than ten years old. Either the government are reacting to the global environmental norms and planting to offset carbon dioxide production or they are being proactive in attempting to prevent a dustbowl forming. Whatever the motive it was an inspirational sight; I doubt any country could plant this many trees.
Xuzhou proved to be a city of many personalities. It is a major transport hub, being both halfway between Beijing and Nanjing, on the Grand Canal and also on an important east-west trade route. Quite evidently a major agricultural centre on the North China plain it is also home to a massive coalfield. Being the home town of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, Xuzhou was also granted special favours and became the second city of the Chinese Empire for some time.
We didn’t visit the museum, which is an unfortunate omission, instead focussing on padding around half the town. Yu Long Lake is a massive expanse of water to the south-west of the city centre and it is quite obvious that it has been dammed, it’s level raised but its northern limits shifted southwards and new land created for the expansion of the city centre. Some of the parkland and the mountain ranges which jut into the city are attractive, but there’s not really enough going on here to make a special visit; ours was merely to break the journey, five hours on a train is long enough.
Our hotel, the Huang He, gave us views of the Old Yellow River, which, believe it or not, passed this way in one of its former lives, but is now a polluted, canalised channel, with all the romanticism of the Coventry Canal as it leaves that fair city. There are fishermen lining its banks but the floating dead fish appear to outnumber those caught.
Eating in a strange Chinese city can be decidedly tricky, particularly for one as fussy as I, but on this occasion it was Andrea that proved the most conservative. In the end I dragged her into an open courtyard, where we sat outside consuming cheap beer, what seemed to be belly pork and some cold beef tongue, liberally laced with fresh chilli and noodles. With four beers the whole meal only set us back £5 (US$7.60) but proved largely inedible! I enjoyed the chillies and noodles!