The seven-floor square brick tower is said to be named after Li Ming, the 14th son of Li Shimin (AD 599-649), the Tang Dynasty's second emperor. The tower was built to pay tribute to him, who was demoted as the director of Suzhou in AD 680.
What makes the architecture special is the over 200 Buddha statues beautifully carved and neatly aligned on the four sides of the exterior walls. The names of their sponsors were engraved on the stone pillars on the ground floor as well as on the wall bricks.
It was a religious practice for a pious Buddhist, whether rich or poor, to sponsor a statue, big or small, in the temple, with his/her name inscribed together with Buddha. Thus the followers believed that they could stay with Sakyamuni, and be sheltered and blessed forever life after life.
The tower was severely damaged over the dynasties due to civil wars, and was renovated several times in the Yuan and Ming periods (1271-1644). The tower that remains today was predominantly constructed during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279).
There was once a wooden staircase spiraling up to the top, offering a bird's-eye view of the ancient watertown of Litahui, but now it's locked up, and access denied.
Standing at the junction of the Niujiaoke River and Changsan River, which also connect the upper reaches of the Huangpu River, the Li Tower has silently witnessed the town's twists and turns over the centuries.
It was once a busy shipping harbor for merchants from Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, and a thoroughfare for the residents of the western bank of the Maohe River and the southern bank of the Huangpu River traveling toward downtown Songjiang.
Before the tower's major renovation project in 1997, the town maintained a slow pace of life. Two main streets that ran from the south to north were flanked with tea houses, eateries, grocers and households with timber facades, doors and shutters. Few were painted, the natural color of the wood evident after decades of weathering.
The town had two completely wooden buildings – Mei's Pharmacy in the west, and a fruit store in the middle of the street. A few steps away there was the town's only butcher's shop, always with long lines at the door before daybreak, during China's planned economy era.
Life, however, was slow at the time. Locals in pajamas lounged on street corners with their sleepy pet dogs and cats while shopkeepers curled up in their deck-chairs, chatting or napping.
At noon, the tea house and the barber's shop by the Niujiaoke River were the two hottest places in town.
The tea house was kind of a spiritual home for the elderly residents, who could sit and lounge there, idling away the afternoon, chatting, playing chess and mahjong, for only a cup of green tea. But the noisy space would quiet down once the pingtan show began, an artistic form of singing and story-telling that originated in Suzhou in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The artist, wearing heavy makeup, with a big black fan in hand, told anecdotes and "secret histories" of the emperors, heroes and beautiful women. His vivid facial and body language ensured the audience was captivated. They all listened attentively and no one would make a sound.
The barber's shop next door sent out the strong scent of soap, punctuated with the clings and clangs of the scissors and hair clippers. In the north, the snack bar had its busiest hour, when people flocked in to eat wonton, dumplings and steamed buns.
These vivid scenes of life are long gone after the tower's restoration in 1997, and the town's past is a vague memory for the locals today.