Pre-Suzhou, my impression of China centered on its capacity for technological advancement, its economic heft, its industry, and its megacities. Post-Suzhou, I’ve seen how China values and approaches holistic health. The city of Suzhou is a natural retreat—especially for residents of Shanghai, its nearest mega-neighbor—where the terms “wellness” and “self-care” aren’t hollow. Here, they genuinely apply. Wellness is founded on an intentional slowness that, unlike in the States, is highly valued. Self-care in Suzhou is traditional, time-tested, and essential to the ritual of daily life—and opportunities to engage are everywhere.
Tai Chi at Suzhou’s Central Park
On any given morning or evening, tai chi is practiced in public parks and neighborhood pavilions all across Suzhou. I attempted it for the first time in Central Park, an enormous green space located in Suzhou Industrial Park, the city’s tech and finance hub. In contrast to this part of Suzhou, tai chi is all about slow flow. My instructor, Teacher Wong, is a soft-spoken retiree dressed head-to-toe in purple velvet. Tai chi has been part of his daily routine for the last 13 years. “Before I practiced,” he says, “It was easy to be sick. [Tai chi] helps you to be healthy.” Each movement is formulated to shift the energies of the body and spirit, and even a beginner can immediately feel the positive effect on the mind. “You get deep into your own world,” Wong says. For visitors, lessons are best booked through tour guides, who often have connections with many different local tai chi masters.
Bonsai Sculpting at Tiger Hill’s Penjing Garden
Tiger Hill is most famously the site of a leaning pagoda known as the Pisa of China (complete with buried treasure lore). Among its other attractions is Penjing Garden, home to the Wanjing Mountain Villa Bonsai Exhibition, an enormous garden dedicated to the study and cultivation of bonsai trees. In the Suzhou style, well-tended bonsai are shaped into cloud forms—clouds are synonymous with perfection. There in the garden, visitors can enjoy the live creation of bonsai works by students and masters. I met a trainee named Huang Hui who teaches me how a bonsai begins, how to properly wrap gardener’s wire around pliable young limbs. His movements are practiced and graceful, but he is, by his own admission, far from mastery. “Just learning how to water takes five years,” he says. “I’m still a student. You’re always a student in China.”
See more of Suzhou’s impressive historical gardens and thousand-year-old streets.
Gondola Rides at Tongli, Pingjiang Road, and Shantang Street
Suzhou is famous for its canal neighborhoods, which date back hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years. The most ancient of these is Tongli, where you can take a gondola ride along one of its 15 canals year-round. Though Tongli is largely a retirement community, it’s a vibrant, cultured place, where the deeply traditional and super-modern meet. Keep an eye out for fishing gondolas, which are equipped with actual hawks. Other excellent spots for gondola thrill-seekers: Pingjiang Road, which is also a local hotspot for shopping, and Shantang Street, where the gondolas are slightly more like ferries.
In Suzhou, one fishing spot is the secret behind the city’s distinct food culture.
Heat Treatment at Moxibustion Institute
While you’re in Tongli, get a curative treatment at The Moxibustion Institute. In the realm of cupping and stone massage, moxibustion focuses on the healing powers of heat. A bundle of aromatic herbs (moxa) is lit and allowed to smoke heavily as it’s moved over the core and limbs. According to Sang Jian, the head of the Institute, a thousand people pass through its doors each year seeking the particular restorative quality of moxibustion. “This treatment is like giving yourself a sunny day,” he explains. “It’s like it gives you a sun inside your body.” As the Institute does not typically offer treatments to visitors, appointments are best booked through local tour guides who can guide guests in the right direction.
Lingering Garden, Humble Administrator’s Garden, and Couple’s Retreat Garden
Don’t miss Suzhou’s gardens. The city has 69 preserved classical gardens, each with a fascinating history, each a masterpiece of traditional design. Highlights for me were the Lingering Garden, the Couple’s Retreat Garden just off Pingjiang Road, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, next door to I.M. Pei’s world-renowned Suzhou Museum.
Embroidery at Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute
The last of Suzhou’s claims to fame is silk embroidery. This region is known for its two-sided style, meaning there is no tangle of threads visible on a finished piece, and its practitioners—“masters of animals,” “masters of birds,” “masters of trees,” etc.—spend their multi-decade careers embroidering elements of the natural world to a degree of fineness that is mind-boggling. The studios at Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute are large and sunlit. I met Chen Wei, a master of fish, who patiently explains how she never loses her patience, despite doing the same thing day after day, year after year. “This job makes the heart calm down,” she says. “The happiest feeling is finishing a piece and receiving appreciation from others.”
Interviews by Emma Glassman-Hughes.