With more than 2,500 years of history, Suzhou is one of the oldest traditional canal towns in China. Inundated with rivers and lakes, the town (now city) has had close ties to water since its birth. By extension, bridges, numbering over one thousand, are also emblems, connecting generations of Suzhounese with the city’s history reflected in its water; yet the bridges tend to be ignored because of their pervasiveness. This essay investigates how and to what extent the often-overlooked bridges of Suzhou influence the economy and culture of the city.
The investigation involves in-depth analysis of historical documents and economic research. Due to the limitations of existing information on Suzhou bridges, most of the data derives from field research and primary sources such as interviews. Although few researchers and historians have paid exclusive attention to the bridges in Suzhou, sources with an original focus on the gardens and canals, as well as county annual reports reveal useful information related to Suzhou's bridges. Using eight iconic bridges (Taihu Bridge, Jinjihu Bridge, Miedu Bridge, Feng Bridge, Xuegao Bridge, Wannian Bridge, Yinjing Bridge, and Triple Bridge) as examples, this essay addresses the immense influence of bridges to present a general picture of traditional Suzhou culture.
In conclusion, the bridges of Suzhou have considerably influenced the city and its culture. Having been omnipresent in the city for thousands of years and countless generations, bridges are symbols of “canal culture,” which enables residents to not only make use of water resources, but flourish because of them. However, resulting from the city’s rapid development, our research does demonstrate that only few locals understand our rich culture. We hope that we can use our research to help Suzhounese learn more about their past. While Suzhou’s bridges are ubiquitous and considered utilitarian, they also have important stories to tell as long as we are willing to listen.