The long scroll Prosperous Suzhou captures the city’s bustling activity in vivid details.

Suzhou (蘇州), rich in culture, renowned for its great beauty has a long history of 2500 years. It is a prosperous and highly cultural city in southeast China.

The Qianlong Emperor (乾隆皇帝) (1711-1799) (reigned from 1735- 1796) commissioned Xu Yang (徐揚) to draw Prosperous Suzhou (姑蘇繁華圖) after he returned from an inspection trip to the Suzhou and other southern parts of the country in 1751.  Xu Yang was a court painter and a native of Suzhou. It took about 10 years for Xu Yang to complete this long scroll in 1759 (乾隆二十四年).

The long scroll depicts a continuous journey from Mount Lingyan (靈岩山) to the city walls of Suzhou, through the city, cross Stone Lake (石湖) and ending at Tiger Hill (虎丘).

Prosperous Suzhou combines Western linear perspective with traditional Chinese landscape trees and rocks painting methods. The scroll is invaluable from both a historical and an artistic point of view, depicting in sophisticated details the most prosperous city in China in mid-18th century. This enables modern viewers to have a good idea of how Suzhou looks like some 270 years ago before the invention of photography.

The scroll vividly illustrates the picturesque scenery, thriving businesses and the affluent life style of the prosperous city. It is said that there are more than 5,000 human figures, 2,000 architectural structures, 400 boats, 200 shops, 50 bridges, many government offices, and city walls are portrayed in vivid details.

The scroll’s flamboyant expression reflects the highly refined skill of the artist with his acute observation and meticulous arrangement.

The scroll was originally entitled Burgeoning Life in a Resplendent Age (盛世滋生圖).

It is 1225 cm in length and 35.8 cm in width, kept in the Liaoning Provincial Museum (遼寧省博物館).

Boats and boatmen

A junk (帆船) is a type of wooden Chinese sailing ship with sails. They are used to transport cargoes and passengers or used as pleasure boats or houseboats. Pleasure boats are for sight-seeing, catering or other recreational purposes including singing by young women. Houseboats are used as a permanent habitation in inland water where families live, cook and eat.

Sampan (舢舨) are small flat-bottomed wooden boats used for fishing and transportation. Some sampans include a small shelter on board.

The big cargo and passengers junks are moored at the pier. On the right hand side is a sampan with a few passengers.
Boatmen are adjusting the sail of the boat.
Three people climbed up high to fix the sail.
The boat may be about to leave the pier.
A houseboat, a large passenger boats and sampans
A few boatmen are using one long oar to row the boat, heavily laden with neatly arranged cargoes.
Boatmen row the boat with individual oars, with a pilot directing with a gong. This boat has a colourful picture of a dragon at the bow.
A sampan with musicians on board. Two people are blowing the trumpets. Ohers are playing the gong, a pair of cymbals and the drum.
A sampan with a shelter for passengers is for transportation from one place to another.
Lantern boat (燈船) for sightseeing
Small sampans are used for transportation of people and goods.

Big events other than commercial activities

An open-air theatre

An opera or a play is on at the open-air theatre. The stage is decorated beautifully with lanterns and ribbons. People of all ages are in the audience. Some shorter people stand on chairs  to get a good view of the show. The show may be a special celebration in Spring as pink peaches flowers bloom in many parts of the long scroll.

A special area is allocated for women, allowing them to enjoy the play to the full.

A wedding ceremony

A wedding ceremony is at a grand house with many relatives and guests. The house is decorated with lanterns. We can see musicians at the top left hand corner as well as  at the bottom of the painting. There is a bridal sedan chair and two servants carrying gifts in multi-layer boxes. Kids are watching the ceremony with fun.

The bride has a reddish orange veil and the bridegroom is kneeling down with his head lowered to pay respect (kou tou 叩頭) to his be-seated Mother and Father in red and blue dress respectively.

A play for a small group of audience on special occasion

A play or an opera is on the carpet in the middle of a hall. The occasion may be a birthday party (壽讌) for a wealthy or prestigious elderly person. One actor is holding two buckets and an actress sitting on the carpet. The people on the right hand side may be musicians accompanying the opera.


Assembly of government officials

This appears to be the office of a government authority , perhaps the local administrator.


Military training or exercise

Officials assembled neatly around a large field. Two horsemen are riding on sprinting horses in opposite direction. There is a large orange flag waving in the wind. High ranking officials are commanding from a raised pavilion at the foot of the high city wall.


A distribution of relief to elderly people

Several people casually dressed with peasants’ hats are bowing to a high ranking official on a sedan chair. Some officers are about to distribute things to them. The green rim banner and the blue umbrella near the sedan chair indicate the high ranking of the official.


Shops of all trades

Fabrics (布) Shops
Cotton (棉花) shops, fabrics (布) Shops
Boot (靴) shop
Hat shop, boot (靴) shop
Container (盤盒) shop, bamboo matt (𥱊) shop
Bamboo ware (竹器) shop, pot plant shop
(From the left) iron and copper ware (鐵銅器) shop, food (粮食) shop, rice (米) store, garment (成衣) shop
Jinhua Ham (金華火腿) shop.  Jinhua ham is a dry-cured ham named after the city Jinhua, in eastern China. This delicacy is still popular nowadays.
Copper ware (銅器) shop
(From the top left) a fine art gallery with paintings and a herbal medicine (藥行) shop, where the person facing the window may be the doctor (醫師) and the other person may be the patient.  At the ground floor is a money exchange shop (兌換錢庄).
Shop selling goods from other provinces (各省雜貨)
(From the left) wine (酒) shop, cake (荳餅) shop, oil and wine (油酒) store, food store (粮食)
Cake (糕餅) shop
Pot plant, bonsai (盆景) and flower (花草) shop
Goods from northern and southern provinces (南北雜貨), lamp (紗燈) shop
Painting dealer
Bookshop for contemporary and antique (古今書籍) books
Gold, silver and jewellery (金銀首飾) shop, paper (紙張) shop
Fine fan (雅扇) shop
(From the left) food store (粮食油酒荳餅老行), tobacco shop (煙行), hotel (客寓), firewood and coal (柴炭) shop
Musical instrument (pipa 琵琶 and other plucked instruments 絃子) shop


Farmers and fishermen

Farming is very important in China. People in those days used simple tools for farming, growing rice, wheat, corn and vegetables. Oxen helped with ploughing the soil and transportation.

Farmers working in the field
A farmer adding fertilisers to the field
Oxen are commonly used to plough the field.
A fisherman with his net


People of all sorts of trades

Silk fabrics making workshops
Two people are winding silk threads onto frames of 4 posts.
A woman is preparing newly woven-silk.
Workshop for dyeing fabrics (染坊) into various colours


A pottery making warehouse (缸罈窑) and shop (發客)
Two people are drying newly-made tiles on the beach.
Two ironmongers are busy beating heated metals. They are making farming ploughs (鐵造田器).


Workmen are laying tiles on the roof tops. Two carpenters are sawing a piece of timber.


A maid looking after pigs


A butcher weighing a piece of meat. Two pigs are hung on the hooks.
A butcher is handling the carcase of a small animal


Porters use shoulder poles to carry evenly distributed loads on both sides of their shoulders.
Porters carrying parcels wrapped in red with shoulder yokes to a house decorated with red ribbons on the doorway. The red wrappings on the parcels depicts gifts for special occasions probably birthday gifts to an elderly person. The following image shows the inside of the house.


Inside the house a private banquet is on. Two waiters, one already in the dining hall and the other walking towards the dining hall, are serving the guests. Each waiter is holding a tray with two dishes of food.


Two porters carrying a piece of heavy furniture.
A fast food hawker is walking past. A customer with a bowl is approaching to buy from the hawker.


A hawker displays paintings and stationery on the ground. Customers bent down to inspect the goods.


An acrobat is performing on a rope with a long balancing rod. Her breath-taking performance draws a large crowd of spectators.


Under his booth, a fortune teller (神相) (on the right) is talking to his customer with other people watching behind. The fortune teller can make a prediction based on reading the customer’s face and birth details.
A fortune teller (測字) seated at the table asks his customer to find a character (word). From the character the fortune teller can foretell the man’s future.

Please continue to read Part 2 of this webpage.

Prosperous Suzhou 姑蘇繁華圖 (Part 2) – Patrick Siu Chinese Calligraphy & Landscape Painting 蕭燿漢談書畫



This page was written in memory of my late friend Angela Pong who gave me the book Prosperous Suzhou published by the Commercial Press (Hong Kong).



Tang, ETY, LK Yim (1990) Prosperous Suzhou 姑蘇繁華圖, painted by Xu Yang, 1759, Qing Dynasty, The Commercial Press (Hong Kong), ISBN 962 07 5113 2

冼懿穎 (2009) 我的大手筆 天堂夢姑蘇繁華圖, Commercial Press (Hong Kong), ISBN 978 962 07 5566 8