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The Magical China Trip 2012

Chinese Gardens, Suzhou

CHINA | Friday, 12 October 2012 | Views [4689]

Lingering Garden - Auspicious Cloud Capped Peak stone

Lingering Garden - Auspicious Cloud Capped Peak stone

It’s all about the view in China.  Here in the south, with the weather a little milder than other places and the growing season extended, the gardens are designed for summer living or retirement homes.  The vast majority of the gardens began as private places for the rich and wealthy.  Most of the original owners were either very rich merchants or scholars and officials who had pleased the Emperor and so the land was given to that individual upon retirement from service.


Each garden is built around a central lake or pool, with buildings, plants, and stones laid out to please the eye.  A different view is offered in each direction through windows, open walls, and paths.  It gives a whole new meaning to “picture” window.  The classical Chinese garden is enclosed by a wall; it has one or more ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, and an assortment of halls and pavilions within the garden, connected by winding paths and zigzag galleries.  Even the paths across the bridges or along the water are zigzagged so that each turn proffers a slightly different perspective.  By moving from structure to structure, visitors can view a series of carefully composed scenes, unrolling like a scroll of landscape paintings.  To walk in a Chinese garden is to meditate, to be one with nature, and to enjoy beauty.


Today the Chinese gardens are preserved, renovated, and open to the public.  Many of the buildings have been restored to look old.  It is fascinating to see new buildings under construction that look like they should be taken down instead of being created.  But I applaud the motivation that retains the historical while creating endurance.


The gardens that I visited in Suzhou included the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden, Lion’s Grove, and Master of Nets Garden.  There are four main characteristics to an esthetic garden stone:  form (形, xing, pronounced shing), substance (质, zhi, pronounced jer), color (色, se pronounced suh), and texture (纹, wen, pronounced one), as well as softness, transparency, and other factors.  The “Auspicious Cloud-Capped Peak” in the Lingering Garden fits those requirements perfectly.  Each garden is a little different, depending on the personality of its original owner, but much of the beauty follows similar patterns.


Windows are gracefully placed to guide the eye to a spot of beauty such as a rockery, banana tree, special flowering tree, or water.  They are decorated in patterns pleasing to the eye that don’t interfere with the ability to see the picture view.  None of the paths within the garden are straight.  They always lead you around a corner to a new vista or turn you so that you can experience the beauty of the various perspectives of a rock or tree.  Every garden has a living area, a reception area, and resting pavilions where one can take tea, write, think, or simply breathe and be.


The reception areas are of three kinds:  family reception, men’s reception, and women’s reception.  These rooms are standard throughout the gardens and are furnished similarly, with a large hall for the family (grandfather and grandmother at the head of the room), table and chairs for the men, and opium couch for the women – who had bound feet, of course, and couldn’t go outside the home to get a fix.


The Humble Administrator’s Garden site was initially the residence and garden of a Tang Dynasty scholar.  Later in the Yuan Dynasty, it became the monastery garden for the Dahong Temple.  Then, Wang Xiancheng, an Imperial Envoy and poet of the Ming Dynasty appropriated the temple.  In 1510, he retired to his native home of Suzhou after a long persecution by the East Imperial Secret Service, and began work on the garden.  The garden was named after a verse in Pan Yue's Idler's Prose, "I enjoy a carefree life by planting trees and building my own house...I irrigate my garden and grow vegetables for me to eat...such a life suits a retired official like me well."  This verse symbolized Wang's desire to retire from politics and adopt a hermit’s life.  It took 16 years to complete the garden.  Wen Zhenming wrote an essay Notes of Wang's Humble Administrator's Garden, and painted Landscapes of the Humble Administrator's Garden in 1533 CE to commemorate the garden.


Lingering Garden is a renowned classical Chinese garden.  It was commissioned by an impeached and later exonerated official in 1593 CE.  It was initially called the East Garden and became famous in its day.  During the Sino-Japanese War, the garden was abandoned, degenerating into a breeding zone for army horses.  After establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Suzhou government took over and renovated the garden.  It was reopened to the public in 1954.


The Lion Grove Garden is famous for the large and labyrinthine grotto of taihu rock (rocks brought from Lake Taihu) at the garden's center.  The name of the garden derives from the shape of these rocks which are said to resemble lions.  The Lion Grove Garden was built in 1342 CE during the Yuan Dynasty by a Zen Buddhist monk, in memory of his teacher.  (Lake Taihu is a large lake in the Yangtze Delta plain, on the border of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in Eastern China.  It is the third largest freshwater lake in China.)


Master of Nets Garden is considered among the finest gardens in China.  The garden demonstrates Chinese garden designers' adept skills for synthesizing art, nature, and architecture to create unique metaphysical masterpieces.  The Master of the Nets garden, then called Ten Thousand Volume Hall, was first constructed in 1140 by the Deputy Civil Service Minster of the Southern Song Dynasty government.  He was inspired by the simple and solitary life of a fisherman depicted in philosophical writings.  After his death, the garden passed through numerous owners and subsequently fell into disarray until around 1785 when it was restored by a retired government official of the Qing Dynasty.  He drastically redesigned the garden and added multiple buildings, but retained the spirit of the site.  He often referred to himself as a fisherman and renamed the garden the Master of the Nets Garden, as an allusion to the simple life of a fisherman.


As all you who know me know, I am no gardener.  However, my experience of these gardens has touched something within me, an appreciation for formalized beauty.  Chinese gardens are not about the greenery, the water, or even the rocks.  They are symbols of man’s participation with beauty and nature.  They represent the inner self, cultivated, nurtured, and given its highest expression that joy may be created and life appreciated unto its breadth and depth.

Tags: chinese gardens, suzhou


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