On The Trail Of Emperors / by Thomas O'Malley

A version of this Suzhou and Hangzhou travel article appeared in print in the April 2015 edition of Silverkris, the inflight magazine of Singapore Airlines.

Onlookers in fine robes line the edge of the water as the magnificent barge cuts through the canal. In the background I spy grand pagodas and walled gardens overhung by scholar trees. Elaborate theatrical performances are unfolding on stages along the shore, and the great Chang Gate of Suzhou, the Venice of the East, stands ready to receive its most honoured guest. Alas, it’s not me. I'm at the National Museum of China’s new digital gallery in Beijing, and the VIP is none other than the Qianlong emperor, brought to life in an animated rework of a classical scroll painting. Qianlong was the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, ruling from 1735 to 1796 in what was considered a golden age, where he beefed up China’s economy, expanded its borders and enhanced cultural and intellectual life. He’s also, to my mind, China’s greatest tourist.

Back then the CTS (China Travel Service) package tour was still about 200 years from being invented, so Qianlong and his grandfather Kangxi sated their wanderlust by reviving an Imperial tradition that had fallen out of favour in previous dynasties - the grand inspection tour. Every few years the emperor would journey south from Beijing via the Grand Canal, calling at around a dozen cities to levy taxes, inspect troops and flood projects, make religious sacrifices and generally remind the provinces who’s boss.

Strictly speaking, a tourist is defined as one who travels for pleasure, and Qianlong clearly had plenty of business to take care of on route. And yet, both Kangxi and Qianlong commissioned a set of 12 humongous silk scrolls to recount the story of this ultimate pleasure cruise, which is surely the 18th century equivalent of travel photography. And in his 1751 inspection tour of the south, Qianlong was inspired to compose over 500 poems. Most of all, on my own wanderings in the south as both tourist and writer, practically everywhere I went Qianlong had been there, done that, and got the souvenir T-shirt.

The Emperor Arrives at Suzhou

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In 1751, weeks after departing Beijing, Qianlong entered Suzhou to great fanfare. He had travelled over 1000km along the Grand Canal, built a thousand years earlier to ship grain northwards to feed the soldiers standing guard along China’s northern frontier.

Five hours after boarding the bullet train at Beijing South Railway Station, I arrive in Suzhou (in the rain), wondering where the famous canals and gardens are at. Suzhou, at first glance, is much like any other modern Chinese city: big, neon-festooned and no stranger to Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Yet Suzhou was once a byword for high society living, famous for its fine gardens and network of narrow waterways crossed by arched bridges.

I’m directed toward Pingjiang Lu in the centre of town, and eventually the road gives way to a cobbled lane that follows a waterway no wider than a car. Finally, I encounter what remains of the old city. Wooden homesteads line the water, evoking Qianlong’s animated scroll, though the souvenir shops within are a newer edition. Diverting into a quiet side alley I exchange smiles with a lady in a bobble hat, hanging underwear to dry in the bare branches of a tree. Qianlong wouldn’t have been subjected to such blushes, of course - officials went to great lengths  to present a polished façade to woo the emperor, usually at some strain on the tax purse. For a modern day equivalent, think the Beijing Olympics, or the 2014 APEC Summit in Beijing when factories where shut down for days to ensure clear blue skies.

Behind grey stone walls at the north end of Pingjiang Lu is Lion Grove Garden, one of the most famous in Suzhou and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chinese garden design attempts to portray an idealised natural landscape, with glassy pools representing oceans, rocks for mountains, and ornamental trees for forests. What makes Lion Grove unique, though, is its dark heart – a maze of black stratified rocks, hauled out of nearby Lake Tai, which stands in stark contrast to the delicate landscaping surrounding it. This really connected with Qianlong, who made a point of visiting the garden on each of his six tours of the south. He loved it so much, in fact, that he ordered a replica to be built in his summer hunting resort, north of the Great Wall in Chengde.

Classical gardens are hungry work, so I make a few tentative enquiries among fellow sightseers. “Songhelou,” they say, unanimously. “Order the songshu guiyu”. Worryingly, my dictionary translates this as “squirrel fish”, but I discover a boneless mandarin fish in a tempura batter, bathed in sweet and sour sauce. I also discover that Qianlong raved about the squirrel fish here, a plaque by the entrance proudly reporting the royal link. After a lengthy queue I’m squeezed onto a table in a private room; service is slow, the food is so-so, and I can’t help but feel that for a couple of hundred years Songhelou has been riding on Qianlong’s yellow coattails. After all, an imperial endorsement is just about the best tourist plug a place could hope for.

The Ten Scenic Views Of Hangzhou

Hangzhou was the penultimate stop on Qianlong’s tour, and the terminus of the Grand Canal. Like Suzhou it was the canal that gave Hangzhou its prosperity, but another expanse of water sealed the city’s fame eternal. Crossed by causeways and framed by willow-lined banks and gentle green hills, the dreamlike West Lake (Xihu) has been the muse of poets and retreat of emperors for millennia.

Six hours by bullet train can’t compare to months by royal barge, but just like Qianlong before me, I find myself standing on West Lake’s famous Su Causeway, a 3km promenade across the water, in the chilly pre-dawn. I’m awaiting a glimpse of “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway”, one of the famous xihu shinjing (Ten Scenes of West Lake).

Poets and writers have been compiling lists of their favorite beauty spots in Hangzhou for centuries, but Kangxi and Qianlong took it to another level by ranking the top ten of these and commissioning carved stele (tall stone slabs) inscribed with their own calligraphy to mark the precise viewing position.

As dawn breaks, I watch the glassy lake unveil itself through a line of willow trees, as the peaks of pagodas crown misty hills in the distance. Kangxi decided that this dreamlike vista, to be savored from a particular spot, at a particular time of day, in a particular season, deserved top spot on the Ten Scenes of West Lake list. Judging by the number of early-risers snapping photos alongside me, it’s a sightseeing guide that most tourists to Hangzhou still follow today.

But that wasn't enough for Qianlong. Keen to add to the pantheon, he effectively opened up a brand new tourist area by establishing the “Eight Scenic Spots of Longjing” and once again, “signing” each in stone. Longjing (‘Dragon Well’) is an hour by bicycle from West Lake, a rambling hilly region of green tea cultivation. Its popularity among tourists today – and the sky-high price of Longjing tea - is partly due to the unending enthusiasm of Qianlong.

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The Tourist Emperor

Qianlong, it ought to be remembered, was a Manchu from northern China. In 1644 his people found a way through the Great Wall and conquered Beijing, overthrowing the vastly more populous Han Chinese and establishing the Qing Dynasty. His grandfather Kangxi was the first of his line to be born on Chinese soil. Which, I feel, puts Qianlong’s tour of the south in a certain perspective. In a sense he was a foreigner in an exotic and ancient land. He wished to explore, to learn, and to carve his name into the annals of Chinese history.

Admittedly, today’s China bears little resemblance to Qianlong’s time, yet the travel industry seems at times to follow the blueprint he established. Provincial tourism bureaus maintain a roll call of “scenic spots”, buffing them up for public holidays, though these days it’s China’s growing middle class they seek to impress. Information signs at tourist sites always list facts, figures and superlatives before context – oldest, first, biggest, and so on – as if under royal inspection.

As an outsider I've felt there’s something, dare I say it, a bit dull about what constitutes a tourist experience in China. It seems to be enough to go to a particular mountain or a hill outside a city, to admire the vista, observe a strangely-shaped rock immortalized in a few lines of antique verse, and then eat the local grub. In the context of Qianlong, though, this is a singularly Chinese form of enjoyment rooted in past context. Poetry and literature remain a profound influence on tourism. A humble willow tree in Cambridge, England is inundated with Chinese tourists annually, much to the bewilderment of locals – it was immortalized by Xu Zhimo, a 20th-century poet.

In a country where so much has been razed and rebuilt, you can almost forgive the Chinese tourist industry for its terminal nostalgia. But even Qianlong might have felt it a bit much when, in 1984, the Hangzhou Tourism Bureau had a snappy idea to boost visitors. What did they do? They came up with the “Ten New Scenic Spots of West Lake”.