I took this photo last year of Suzhou Market Street at the Summer Palace, Yihe Yuan, when visiting Beijing. Whilst Beijing is so large it would take months to explore properly, the Summer Palace should be on everyone’s must see list when visiting the city. Built in the 12th century by the Jin Dynasty Emperor Wányán Liàng, the palace is dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake and, composed of beautiful lakes, gardens and palaces, pavilions and splendid halls beautifully restored and rebuilt after fire and war. When walking around the grounds of the palace it is easy to see why it was the summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi, a green and quiet escape away from the city’s’ noise and grime.
Within the vast palace gardens is Suzhou Market Street full of small teashops, dyers, shoe stores, souvenir shops and hock shops with clerks dressed in Qing Dynasty costume. Today the street is frequented by hundreds of tourists every day, where you can buy anything from Chinese paper kites, blown sugar in the shape of animals to red silk slippers. The small street however, has very romantic beginnings, built all in the name of love. Years ago whilst visiting Suzhou dressed as a pilgrim Emperor Qianlong visited a Buddhist nunnery where he met a beautiful nun. Charmed by her beauty he asked her to be his concubine but she could not as Buddhist regulations were clearly against it. Yet, as any Emperor would do he found a way around his predicament. He built a Quanzong temple which was secluded with a beautiful view for his beauty to live, which served as the Emperor’s temporary palace and he made the beautiful nun his favourite concubine.
On one of his usual visits to Quanzong Temple the Emperor was met by a hand maiden who turned him away. His beauty was sick. She was homesick and wanted to return to see it. So the Emperor promised her in 6 months he would travel with her to Suzhou. Half a year later the Emperor came as promised in his carriage and asked the beauty to go with him to Suzhou. Incredulous, she excitingly boarded the carriage and they left for her home town. However, barely having left the city, the carriage stopped where her hand maiden informed the beauty they were at Suzhou. ‘It is impossible. How could we get to Suzhou in an hour?’ Alighting from the carriage the beauty could not believe her eyes. In front of her was a river that ran through the middle of the street. Shops ran down the two sides of the street selling goods from Suzhou, where shop owners and passer-byes all spoke in Suzhou dialect. The Emperor had ordered a commercial street built near Quanzong Temple. The beauty’s home town had been recreated into a permanent scene for her to visit whenever she was homesick. The street now known as Suzhou Market Street.