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Bridging the gap between now and then

By Zhao Xu | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-05-30 07:31

Canals and bridges have been symbolic of Suzhou, in today's Jiangsu province, for more than a millennium. CHINA DAILY

"Aiming for perfection — that's what it's all about," says Pei. "Another aspect of the story, as President Xi has rightfully noted, is the sense of innovation that has infused Suzhou's history."

According to Pei, despite being steeped in classical education, the elite members of the Suzhou society championed for an overhaul of the country's archaic educational system in the late 19th century, when China was facing both internal and external crises.

Less than 400 meters north of the Niujia Lane is another alleyway where Pan Zuyin (1830-90), one of the best-known grandsons of Pan Shi'en, had lived. Like his grandfather, Pan Zuyin proved himself a top achiever both in, and outside of, the exam halls; unlike his grandfather, the younger Pan built for himself and his family a much more spacious abode, and demonstrated a much greater passion for antiques, particularly ancient bronzeware.

In late 1937, around the time Suzhou fell to the invading Japanese army, the posterity of Pan Zuyin, fully aware of the importance of the two giant pieces of ritual bronze he had collected, buried them right there, inside their residence. There, the vessels lay underground for 16 years, before they were dug out and donated to the country in 1953. Today, their replicas are standing where the originals had been buried, reminding every visitor of the city's travails and triumph.

Back in 1937, the Ruan family left too, before returning eight years later in 1945, after Japan's official surrender in September that year.

In 1958, 12-year-old Ruan watched as workers poured dirt into the little canal running in front of his door. "The dirt came from the old city walls that were being pulled down at the same time," he says. More canals in the neighborhood, as well as elsewhere in Suzhou, were filled up for the construction of roads in the 1950s and, later, in the 1970s, air-raid shelters.

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