Painting with Words: Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty

A Cultural Center


Above, there are the halls of Heaven
Below, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou

(popular Chinese saying)

Situated on flat fertile land between Lake Tai and the Yangzi River, Suzhou (present-day Jiangsu province) is one of the oldest cities in the Yangzi delta. Before the Ming dynasty (1369–1644), when it became a leading center of literati culture, Suzhou had enjoyed a prominent political, economic, and cultural position for most of its two thousand-year history. The city was a major transportation hub on the Grand Canal, which stretched 1,100 miles between the former imperial capital Hangzhou to the south and the Ming imperial capital in Beijing far north. Besides the capital, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Suzhou was the largest urban center in the Ming empire and perhaps the entire world.

Shaped like a rectangle, Suzhou was dotted with temples and spacious residences boasting elegant walled gardens. A grid of canals and paved streets, including as many as three hundred stone bridges, crisscrossed the city, which was surrounded by a moat and a towering outer wall. Beyond its water buffer, the city spilled into the surrounding suburbs but soon gave way to a prosperous countryside of small lakes and ponds, rice paddies, and agricultural fields. Rustic villages and temples were nestled in the landscape; larger satellite townships rose farther off. An area of low-forested hills stood to the west of Suzhou, overlooking the broad expanse of Lake Tai and its several nearby islands. Local poets and artists frequently ventured to such rural and suburban locations and even chose these easily accessible sites for their private retreats and retirement homes.