ON the last day of 2019, people from all over Suzhou flocked to Hanshan Temple, a landmark in the city in the southeastern Jiangsu province.
For decades, it has been a tradition for the locals to gather on New Year’s Eve at the temple, which is over 1,000 years old. The idea is to bid farewell to the past year and to pray for a smooth year ahead.
And the prayers and wishes are marked by the sound of the temple bell on the top floor of a two-storey tower.
Although tens of thousands of people would head to the temple on New Year’s Eve, only 7,000 lucky enough to get tickets are allowed to enter its compound.
“Gong!” The first chime of the 8.5m-tall metal bell came at 11.40pm when a monk struck it with a huge wooden pole suspended on chains. The surrounding turned quiet.
The monk would strike the bell 108 times, a sacred number in Buddhism.
It is commonly believed that every chime would remove a hindrance a person has to face in life. After the 107th ring, the crowd began counting down to midnight.
“Three, two, one!” The monk made the final strike for the night and the place erupted with cheers.
Although many other temples in China have bell-ringing ceremonies, the one at Hanshan Temple – the name literally translates to Cold Mountain Temple – is especially popular because of a poem written by Zhang Yi.
In it, the Tang dynasty (618-907) poet describes his feelings when he heard the bell while resting in a boat by the riverbank in the wee hours one winter. He was travelling alone in Suzhou and in those days, bell temples were rung to mark the changing hours.
Suzhou is known for its beautiful scenery and classic Chinese gardens.
“Above us, there is heaven. On Earth, there are Su-Hang.”
This is a famous description of the beauty of Su-Hang, which refers to Suzhou and Hangzhou, a city in Zhejiang province. About 160km apart, the two cities are near the Chinese financial hub of Shanghai.
Suzhou has several mansions built in the unique style of the Suzhou courtyard garden.
One of them is the Unesco World Heritage site Tuisi Yuan, located in the ancient water town of Tongli.
Ren Lansheng, an imperial official from the Qing dynasty, built this home in 1885 with 100,000 taels of silver (about three million yuan then) after he had been sacked from the army.
It took two years to complete the construction of the mansion, which occupies an area about the size of a football field.
Although Ren was booted out due to accusations of corruption, some people prefer to focus on how he used his wealth for many good deeds.
It is said that he was very much respected within the community for the various forms of assistance he provided, including solving flood problems and building many rest houses for poor scholars who came to the city for the imperial examinations.
Currently, some 12,000 people still live in the 1,300-year-old Tongli.
Another Suzhou attraction is the Qiyuan Garden, a courtyard mansion next to Taihu lake.
The home was built by merchant Xi Qisun in 1933 in honour of his ancestors who greeted Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty when the latter visited Suzhou in 1699.
Sitting on land as large as five football fields, it is known as The Garden of Taihu Lake.
A key feature of the garden is an old waxberry tree whose actual age remains unknown.
According to historical records, the tree was touched by Emperor Kangxi and some locals believe the “magic touch” has made the tree immortal.
Over the centuries, waxberry trees were planted, but none have lived and flourished as long as this.
Suzhou has a population of 10.7 million with a GDP of 1.86 trillion yuan (RM1.1 trillion).
From here, travellers can go to Shanghai via the high-speed train.
The journey takes between 27 and 56 minutes depending on the number of stops.
Suzhou was where Admiral Zheng He began his voyage to South-East Asia – Melaka was one of his stops – in the 15th century.
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