Historic landscape and water heritage of Suzhou beyond the tourist gaze

Wang, Yi Wen; Nolf, Christian


Since the 1980s, the city branding of Suzhou has increasingly capitalised on its cultural heritage. Structures and places such as classical gardens, historic streets, city walls and gates were turned into cultural ‘goods’ – being protected, repurposed or reconstructed by heritage and tourism sectors. Such ‘Heritage’ has been vigorously promoted by tourism industries to catch and monopolise the ‘tourist gaze’. This selective perception of historical relics has resulted in excessive commodification of ‘Heritage’, while ignoring the immaterial and less perceptual ‘heritage’ currently under threat from development and urbanisation. Drawing a conceptual distinction between ‘Heritage’ and ‘heritage’, this chapter examines the role of water in forming the regional identity of Suzhou – its water ‘heritage’. From the canal network in the walled city to the polder system in the rural lands, the man-made water landscape of Suzhou not only embodies indigenous techniques for hydraulic engineering, but also reflects the ancestral relationship between water and social life. Drawing on historical maps, documents and existing studies, this chapter provides a panoramic view of Suzhou’s historical reconciliation with water and aims to unveil less well-known, undervalued and residual historic landscapes, thereby elucidating their cultural significance to the regional identity of Suzhou, beyond the tourist gaze.