Suzhou creates "people-oriented" cultural service

China Plus Published: 2019-07-31 15:54:31
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Written by Yin Xiuqi, narrated by Wu Jia.

The Suzhou Public Culture Center

Children playing, old folk chatting or walking—this is a common after-dinner scene in the parks or squares of many Chinese cities, before the sun sets.

The square we're standing in now is part of a complex called the "Suzhou Municipal Center of Public Culture".

When we approach the group in the square, a man with glasses nods his head.

He identifies himself as Mr. Jiang, and tells us he takes his grandson to play in the complex of the Suzhou public culture center at dusk every day.

The 70-year-old retiree says the public culture center is part of his daily life:

"I have seen the Suzhou Gallery, the Celebrity Museum and other venues here. The facilities are fairly good. The exhibitions in the Suzhou Gallery are free. Before the public culture center had been built, there wasn't really a good place for us residents to hang out and enjoy cultural resources. Now we can easily access the cultural services provided by the public culture center."

Established in 2011, the Suzhou public culture center is a 22-thousand square meter complex and stands at the center of the old town. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Established in 2011, the Suzhou public culture center is a 22-thousand square meter complex and stands at the center of the old town. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Qian Yiying, director of the center, explains why the city has built the facilities:

"In 2011, we established the Suzhou Municipal Center of Public Culture in an effort to integrate free cultural resources and upgrade cultural services in the city. With the center, we can arrange more easily for artists to hold activities such as calligraphy classes and lectures on traditional Chinese painting or oil painting."

The center incorporates three major venues—the Suzhou Gallery, the Suzhou Celebrity Museum and a theatre.

Qian adds that the service the center provides is colorful and mostly free of charge:

"All our venues, including the Suzhou Gallery and the other venues, are open to the public for free. The themed exhibitions held in the gallery every year are also free. We also hold educational activities related to the exhibitions. For example, the art classes and children's handicraft workshop are held two or three times a month in the gallery. These activities are very popular. We publish information about them online or on WeChat. They are free for Suzhou residents."

Besides the indoor activities, Qian says the outdoor space of the complex is accessible 24 hours a day for people nearby, unlike museums or libraries:

"You can see there are no walls separating our center from the surrounding communities. The communities are so close that we can even smell their food from our offices when they cook at noon. After five o'clock when we leave our offices, many old people and children living in the surrounding communities come to this complex to exercise or play. In the morning, if we come early, say, at 7 o'clock, we can see them doing various kinds of activities here, such as sword dancing and shadow boxing, etc."

In addition to its easy access to local residents, Qian says the center also serves as an ideal window on the history and culture of Suzhou for tourists:

"The location of the cultural center is good. Several hundred meters to the north is Suzhou Railway Station. As well as local residents, many tourists come here after they've seen the famous Suzhou gardens. Some tourists tell us they came to our gallery to see what kind of arts Suzhou offers. And they come to the Celebrity Museum to find out about famous people who were born or grew up or had ancestral roots in Suzhou. Through these visits, the tourists can get a deeper understanding of the history, culture and people of Suzhou."

Suzhou is well known for its rich cultural heritage and tourist sites, such as the picturesque traditional Chinese gardens, water towns and Buddhist temples.

According to local government statistics, tourists from home and abroad made a total of 130 million visits to the city in 2018.

A report by the Beijing-based newspaper China Tourism News puts Suzhou in the fifth place among 338 Chinese cities in terms of its influence on tourists.

Qian Yiying says the Suzhou government aimed to integrate cultural and tourist resources when choosing where to put the public culture center:

"The city government has given great support to building the public culture infrastructure. Usually, city authorities choose a new city district or a remote area to build such things. But our complex is in the center of the old town of Suzhou."

The old town of Suzhou is home to most of the city's historic sites. Any tourist coming to the city will almost certainly visit it.

But the location means that the height of the center's buildings is restricted.

"Because our center is in the old town, buildings here are not allowed to be higher than the Beisi Pagoda. So the buildings are two or three-storied. These buildings should not be taller than 19 meters to preserve the historic buildings and views of the old town."

The 76-meter-tall Beisi Pagoda, also known as Gratitude-Paying Temple, dates back 1,700 years and is listed as a major historic site under national protection.

The Suzhou Gallery aims to provide a bridge between amateur artists living in Suzhou and their fellow residents. [Photo: Chinaplus]

The Suzhou Gallery aims to provide a bridge between amateur artists living in Suzhou and their fellow residents. [Photo: Chinaplus]

The Suzhou Gallery

Since 2017, an annual major exhibition called Beautiful Jiangnan has been put on in the Suzhou Gallery.

This summer, the exhibition showcases more than 200 oil paintings by artists from across the country.

Gao Xiang, a manager of the Suzhou Gallery, elaborates:

"The Beautiful Jiangnan exhibition draws works from oil painters living across the country. Both professional and amateur artists can submit their works. This year, we have received more than 52-hundred oil paintings. After the review process, 175 paintings were selected for the exhibition. Twenty-nine works by some well-established artists are also included in the exhibition. These 29 works are meant to improve the aesthetic standard of the exhibition."

In fact the exhibition was about to open to the public so we were just able to get a glimpse before it opened.

Around an 800-square-meter exhibition hall, various sized oil paintings artistically showcase life in Jiangnan.

Jiangnan is a term describing a geo-cultural region which includes parts of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces as well as Shanghai. Suzhou has long been one of the centers of this renowned geo-cultural region in China.

Gao Xiang adds that consideration is given so that viewers better understand the art:

"There's a name tag of each of the works in the exhibition. And there is a quick response code on the tag. You can scan the code and then listen to the artists themselves explaining their own works to you."

If previous years are anything to go by, Gao expects some five to six hundred people a day will come to see the exhibition.

Qian Yiying, director of the Suzhou public culture center and Gao Xiang's boss, says the gallery has provided a bridge between amateur artists living in Suzhou and their fellow residents.

"One of the bus drivers in Suzhou is an art lover. He's done a lot of paintings over the years. So we gave him a 400 square meter exhibition room so he could showcase his works. This kind of service has been welcomed by both amateur artists and people coming to see the exhibition."

On average the gallery holds 30 different exhibitions a year.

But Mr. Jiang, who we met at the beginning of our story, expects more down-to-earth exhibitions.

"The content of the exhibitions is mainly highbrow. It's not easy for the ordinary people to understand the art works on show in the gallery. For example, you can't appreciate oil paintings if you don't have basic knowledge about art."

Suzhou has certainly given the public a cultural center to tap into. But at the same time the residents' cultural needs, like those of Mr. Jiang, are increasing and nuanced, presenting the center with a challenge.

To meet it, Qian Yiying says her center will try to improve its services:

"Suzhou has good conditions in terms of cultural infrastructure and resources. Meanwhile, residents of Suzhou have more cultural and aesthetic needs compared with a lot of other cities. So when the theatre, the gallery and other venues hold activities, we have to take into consideration these nuanced and high level needs. For example, we have to make our exhibitions fit the aesthetic tastes of the residents to make them popular. "

There are more than 10 million people living in Suzhou. The Suzhou public culture center holds an average of 1,000 cultural activities a year, serving 300,000 citizens on average.

Chinese American architect Ieoh Ming Pei is among the hundreds of celebrities honored in the Suzhou Celebrity Museum. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Chinese American architect Ieoh Ming Pei is among the hundreds of celebrities honored in the Suzhou Celebrity Museum. [Photo: Chinaplus]

The Celebrity Museum and Pingtan

Suzhou's long history and rich cultural resources has given birth to countless celebrities from ancient times to the modern era.

With traditional and modern multimedia technology, the display at the Museum centers on about 450 celebrities.

These celebrities include famous poets, scholars and architects, such as the Chinese American architect Ieoh Ming Pei, who died earlier this year.

In 2017, the museum and nearby gallery jointly held an exhibition on the life and achievements of Pei to celebrate his then 100th birthday.

Pei was born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. But his family roots can be traced to Suzhou. He had also designed the Suzhou Museum, about one thousand meters to the southeast of the Suzhou public culture center.

In one of the Suzhou Celebrity Museum's exhibition halls, automatic interactive activities are put in place to help viewers remember celebrities in a relaxed way.

In a meters-long corridor, projectors hanging on the ceilings screen questions or pictures about them on the floor.

If you get it wrong by stepping on the wrong answers, you will have to do it again. If you get it right, you can move forward and get to know another celebrity.

Qian Yiying, director of the Suzhou public culture center, says the quizzes are especially popular with children:

"Viewers can participate in interactive activities to help find out more about the famous people of Suzhou. With these activities, they'll get a deep impression. The children even do the tests again and again for fun and knowledge."

The museum is not just an ideal place for children to learn in fun. Adults are also impressed by it.

Sixty-three year old Zhao Ou has lived in Suzhou for two decades. He was a teacher at Suzhou University of Science and Technology before he retired in 2017.

The retiree had worked and lived in Beijing and Qinghai Province, northwestern China, before he moved to Suzhou.

Zhao Ou says it's the first time he has visited the Suzhou Celebrity Museum as he lives in the faraway new town of Suzhou:

"I wanted to see the Chinese oil paintings in the Suzhou Gallery. But the exhibition is not ready to open to the public. So the staff there asked me to go to the Celebrity Museum. It's really worth a visit. Generation after generation of Suzhou people making national fame is like clusters of shining stars. As far as I know, Suzhou has been leading the nation in terms of its cultural influence since the Tang Dynasty. I have been to many places across China. In my opinion, the infrastructure and the cultural service in Suzhou are among the best in the country."

Next to the Celebrity Museum is a medium-sized theatre, where residents can enjoy dramas and other performances by day or at night.

Jiao Zhenyu, one of the managers of the theatre, says there are four to five performances a month in the 543-seat theatre.

Most of the performances are free of charge. Others are cheap, around 50 yuan per ticket.

"Our theatre focuses on providing public service rather than making profit. There are 30 to 40 free performances for residents every year. They can get a ticket just with their ID card. The performances include Kunqu Opera and Pingtan," explains Jiao.

Pingtan, also known as Suzhou Pingtan, involves singing and storytelling, and is performed solo, in duet or as a trio.

The small three-stringed plucked instrument and Pipa or lute are used as accompaniment. The Ban, or wooden clappers, produces various styles of tone and melody.

The traditional Chinese art form is popular in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, as well as in the city of Shanghai.

For older people, Jiao Zhenyu says managers at the theatre carefully set the times for the Pingtan and other kinds of performances to be staged:

"We give performances both in the afternoon and in the evening. You know, it's inconvenient for elderly people to get out and watch a performance in the evening. So we schedule many of the performances to begin at 1:30 or 2pm."

Actually, Suzhou is leading and contributing to the national efforts to bring quality cultural service to ordinary people. In 2017, the Public Cultural Service Guarantee Law took effect in China.

The law requires county-level governments and above to improve community centers, build more of them and offer more products online. It stipulates that public cultural services must be "people-oriented".

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