Plum Blossoms

Spring comes earlier in Jiangsu Province than many other regions in China. While the temperatures in the northern cities are still quite low, Jiangsu’s Wuxian City has already begun to glimpse the promise of spring. Warm temperatures combined with sunshine, the peach and plum blossoms start to bloom early too.

As a result, it is customary for the local people to hold the annual plum blossom festival in the village of Linwudong, which lasts for three weeks. The festival usually takes place during the last week of February and ends approximately the second week of March. Visitors from far and wide are attracted to this famous festival each year.

Fragrant Sea of Snow

Even after the festival is over, while driving around this area, you will be fascinated by the lovely white plum blossoms. The Meiyuan (Plum Garden) on the road to Taihu (Lake Tai) looks particularly pretty in early spring. As far as your eye can see, thousands of plum and peach trees are in full bloom. They look even more beautiful in the bright sunshine of a clear afternoon, especially when viewed from the top of a hill. If you stand on the terrace of the Fucui Tower, located in the Linwudong Village and look down, the sight of the “xiang xue hai” (fragrant sea of snow) will take your breath away.

From the top of the tower or from the terrace of the so-called Jiafu Pavilion (the Overhanging Pavilion), you will also be able to see the Xigongshan (Xigong Hill) opposite and Lake Tai on your left. Inside the pavilion there is a small limestone forest whose rocks were used to support the stone pillars upon which the whole building was built.

Unfortunately, the weather isn’t always kind to visitors who have come especially to see the sight. The visibility may be quite poor due to morning haze or it may rain. Without rain, however, the haze is usually burnt off later in the day. A walk through the plum gardens below is very refreshing. You can stop at one of the many small pavilions, or linger on one of the small bridges to take photographs. Regardless of the weather, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

Radiant with Joy

To get inside the compound, you’ll have to pay 28 RMB. Upon entering, you will see a small courtyard full of plum trees with red ribbons tied into an S-shaped knot around them. This custom of tying a red ribbon around a plum tree is popular in the regions south of the Yangtze River. People here believe that the plum blossom is the queen of flowers and the practice is said to bring good luck and good health – even bringing a healthy baby boy into a family. They call it “xi shang mei shao” meaning “radiant with joy”.

During the festival, cultural activities range from an exhibition of folk costumes to singing of folk songs and dance performances. Villagers set up stalls to sell their handcrafts – straw woven baskets, wooden-carved objects and more. They also bring along the produce, which they have grown on their farms to sell in the market – vegetables, fruit, flowers or plants. The scene is really very colorful.

A Forest of plums

It is believed that the plum blossom has a special position in Chinese classical literature as the blossom represents a symbol of determination and courage. The planting of the plum orchards in Wuxian City has enjoyed a long history, dating as far back as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 24).

Wuxian City’s plum forests occupy an area of about 2000 hectares. They are located mainly at Donghsan (East Hill), Xishan (West Hill) and around Taihu (Tai Lake) which is China’s third largest freshwater lake. Dongshan and Xishan are both situated on the shores of Lake Tai, facing each other. While Dongshan is a peninsula, Xishan is an island. Xishan is a 45-minute drive from Suzhou New District.

To get there from Suzhou you will have to drive past the Marina Yacht Club and the Taihu Lake Pearl Hotel. Immediately after the tollgate you will cross the Taihu Bridge which was opened in 1994. It spans 4418 m. across the lake and divided into three parts linking the three islands. The first part is 1722 m. long, the second 1708 m. and the third 988 m. The third is supposed to be the most beautiful as it has an arch and is adorned with a lamp at an interval of ten meters.

For lunch stop at the Tien Long Restaurant, which overlooks the lake and is reasonably clean by local standards. It’s only a ten-minute drive from the village.

Loved by an Emperor

Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty loved the area so much that he visited it six times. Once he even disguised himself as a commoner and so did his entourage. To thank his Emperor, a subject would have to kneel and bow his head to show respect. However, while in disguise, although his subjects wanted to thank him, they were unable to do so. So they used their index and middle fingers to knock on the dining table instead of kneeling down to say thank you. Since that time when a Chinese wants to thank someone, he can also use his index and middle fingers to knock on the table.

Of Rain and Dragon

Some of you may want to make an excursion to the area, with or without plum blossoms. I’d recommend that you visit Linwu Cave, or Rain Cave, which is situated just below the Fucui Tower. It is a limestone cave, so named because of the stone forest inside the cave. “Lin” means forest and its flat top looks like a roof. “Wu” means a flat roof. It is also called the “Dragon Cave” by the local people because the whole cave resembles the body of a dragon. Some believe that golden dragon ornaments were unearthed in this cave.

In ancient times the area had been used by the Taoist monks as a place to perform their religious ceremony. Due to erosion, the area was blocked off and became a cave floating on the lake. There are ten such Taoist caves in China and this is the ninth. The first is in Zhejiang and the tenth is in Henan.

Inside the karst cave you can see the water lines on the ceilings where the water from the lake had eroded. One area looks just like a palace and hence it is called the Palace Cave. You exit through the Sunrising Cave where rays of sunshine penetrate through the ceiling.

Since you’ll be doing a lot of walking and climbing, do wear comfortable shoes. Whatever you want to do here, I hope you will have a lot of fun and enjoy the place as much as I did.