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China Blog Suzhou’s Gardens

Suzhou’s Gardens

Guide to the Chinese Gardens of Suzhou

Traditional Chinese Gardens – the path to enlightenment through horticulture.
The Zen gardens of Japan derived from China. A spiritual approach is conveyed to every tiny detail of these gardens, although most western visitors may find them beautiful but baffling. To make sense of Zen gardens – the Buddhist gardens of Kyoto for example, you have to start much further back in time in China.

The expression of art and spirituality within gardens in the Far East began here in Suzhou, forty five minutes west of Shanghai. The city has a reputation for having the finest collection of historic gardens in the whole of China.

At this time, 1400 in the Ming dynasty, Suzhou was the bureaucratic centre of China and its gardens flourished. Many gardens were commissioned by scholars, highly cultivated men of the imperial civil service. They practised Daoism, a religion that reveres nature and encourages people to build gardens.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden of Suzhou

The greatest of all southern China’s gardens, the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) was built in the sixteenth century under the Ming Dynasty.

The fact that it’s called the Humble Administrator’s Garden offers a direct clue to the Chinese approach to gardens and life. The term ‘humble’ doesn’t refer to the very wealthy ‘administrator’– Wang Xianchen, a retired government official, who wanted to create a garden that was exquisitely beautiful, but as a Daoist he respected nature and harmony above a display of his wealth and status, therefore he added ‘humble’ to the name of his garden. Of course the humility of the title doesn’t refer to the garden but to the suitably humble and very rich Wang Xianchen.

The garden is visited by 3,000 visitors each day, all tourist groups, each led by a leader with a megaphone so it becomes an extraordinary place. The crowds pour in because this is the model classical Chinese garden. Every element is intended to be viewed as a work of art that captures the fleeting essence of nature. Against the backdrop of white walls the garden becomes a series of calligraphic paintings, every window and door is placed to frame a seemingly natural but highly manicured scene.

The garden is a work of art that reflects elements of nature, seemingly natural but highly choreographed. It’s a strolling garden, a place for doing things, for example calligraphy. It’s an inspiration for four seasons reflected in its architecture.

The pavilions and garden houses are not just summer houses, it’s a strolling garden. The idea is to paint and do calligraphy. The views from four windows in one pavilion represent the four seasons so you get the inspiration from each of the seasons to write or read all tied in with the architecture itself.

Everywhere throughout the garden there are circular moon gates, which symbolise heaven, perfection with Earth beyond them. You see the wonderful curves of the gates picked up in the lines of the trees, and the plants and the branches beyond. Water is an element that is central to all Chinese gardens and like Suzhou itself this is a garden of buildings buttressed by water.

Plants too play a significant role although they too are loaded with symbolism. There are three plants the Chinese call the ‘Three Friends of Good Character’. The pine represents strength and long life, the winter plum dares to flower when nothing else will, and the bamboo because it grows tall and upright and is steadfast.

There are more rocks than plants in the garden; they are mounted on plinths like statues, presented on tables for closer appreciation. The stone here in the Humble Administrator’s Garden is clearly really dominant and most of it is placed in such a way that they occupy the space around them, and they hold great significance and poise and they are clearly saying something; the trouble is realising what they’re saying.
The significance of stones in a Chinese garden

The reason for building a garden for the Chinese is related to nature. The rocks are valued because they represent the natural world – this is the language of Chinese rocks. At first glance the rocks look like mountains; on closer inspection many resemble birds, even people. Who or whatever the stones look like, they are valued because they are completely natural.

Meanings are left deliberately vague because space should be left for the imagination, here in China hints and suggestions are seen as better guides than obvious directions. In every work of art there should be space to travel between ‘like and dislike. This represents the Chinese view on beauty, not clear; that it should leave some space for the imagination. Chinese don’t like to see everything at once.

The Lion Grove Garden of Suzhou

The nearby Lion Grove Garden is given over entirely to the celebration of rocks and stone. Built in 1342 is the oldest Buddhist temple garden in Suzhou. It celebrates the natural world in every guise. Its source of inspiration is the countryside and the trees. A vertical slab of marble looks like a water colour painting of mountains, things are just hinted at.

Once inside the main gate visitors enter a series of small courtyards amongst beautiful buildings filled with works celebrating the natural world in every appearance. The source of inspiration for the gardens is exactly the same one as you see in the paintings and the calligraphic poems on the walls of the buildings, as you pass through. It‘s always the countryside, the natural the trees, and brilliantly just slices of tree. Probably the most valuable thing of the lot is just a slab of marble but it’s revered because it looks like a water colour of mountains, this makes more sense than anything else because this happy accident of things that are just hinted at, that makes sense to visitors of the gardens and the paintings you can see on the walls of the gardens’ buildings e.g. a fantastic series of panels showing just the tops of trees.

In true Chinese oblique fashion the Lion Grove Garden is originally created to look like a mountain to look like a lion. Gnarled, pitted and contorted rocks are piled on top of each other and every one is supposed to resemble a lion or some part of its anatomy. But at times visitors have to per very hard to appreciate a likeness.

How to get the most out of the gardens during your China tours or Holidays?

Let yourself go, lose yourself. This can prove a hard task with thousands of visitors attending each day. However this may be meant literally, so gradually you become confused, you feel lost, displaced, disorientated and when your self disappears you become one with nature. That way the garden will reveal itself, it’s a spiritual experience. The crowds and the noise are fairly unspiritual but don’t let that stop you giving it a go.

Gradually lose yourself in the garden, stop thinking – about stuff, and start concentrating and the here and now. That way the garden will reward itself as a spiritual experience.

This kind of garden is known as a stroll garden, its winding path representing the Buddhist road to enlightenment. As you turn a corner, crossing over a bridge a deeply bizarre sight comes into view across the small lake – lions growing out of a stone. The totally surreal landscape is created by limestone dredged from the bottom of a local lake.

All the trees and plants are carefully pruned to mimic weather beaten plants of the wild. The effect is overwhelmingly grey. But monochrome isn’t dreary but looks like a good black and white film. It’s wonderfully kitsch extravaganza, it’s odd, baroque and culturally confusing, like a Georgian grotto.

Still baffled by these Chinese gardens? Then consider that stones are valued because they suggest the natural world, they hint at it. To understand Chinese gardens further visitors may have to venture into the Chinese countryside.

A bus trip takes visitors 70km west to the city of Huangshan in Anhui province. An area revered by Chinese artists for its natural beauty. Visit the old city quarter of Tongshi; famous for its water colour painters and calligraphists. Much of their work is inspired by the same landscape that visitors have come to see.

Chinese gardens seem to have been inspired by paintings. The garden is a kind of wish for people to have a better environment. For example, in Suzhou some of the gardens are designed by painters of a particular landscape e.g. the Yellow Mountain. Very important is the harmony between nature and human beings, the same is true of gardens. We can see the direct relationship between the Yellow Mountain, Chinese art and the gardens in Suzhou. For example, the Welcoming Guest Pine is a famous image celebrated throughout China; it’s like an old friend who can give you a big hug. The same element is present in Chinese gardens. There seems to be a clear line from Huangshan to the art to the garden.

If the ancient gardens were inspired by even older paintings of a particular landscape that remains a profound inspiration to artists of he present day, visitors are obliged to come and see for themselves.

These are the Yellow Mountains, grazed with seventy seven peaks in its sixty square miles – there’s a lot to look at and admire: Suzhou’s gardens reproduce the trees found here in this landscape, for example the Welcome Guest Pine painting depicts a scene with steps ascending.

As you ascend the mountain, views from the cable car show trees growing out of solid rock, how do they do that? Some of the trees look like the trees pruned in the Suzhou gardens. That is the effect the garden designers have been going for, reproducing everything with such care and beauty that explains everything.

A staggering piece of landscape as you are ever likely to see reveals itself as you reach near the top of your climb. You see the paintings and you see the gardens and they seem to be a caricature almost, almost a cartoon image of mountains and you realise you haven’t seen the half of it, that’s it.

Gaze out at the Welcome Guest Pine painting, with steps ascending it’s just like the view shown in the famous painting. If you really want to understand the gardens you want to come here, which makes it a bit tricky for the average garden trip visitor that’s the way it has to be.

Seeing trees grow out of the rock, as you negotiate up and down the steep steps clinging to the mountainside you immediately understand what is known as Penjing in China or Bonsai in Japan, a sort of stunted growth that is probably hundreds of years old. It completely makes sense of why they go to the trouble to reproduce it and why it’s so valuable.

The name Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), originates from the Yellow Emperor who is thought to have become immortal here in he eight century. As well as being beautiful this mountain inspires right mindedness and spiritual purity.

All the padlocks are bizarre, strung out in swags like this but there’s a sweet story behind them. Lovers come here, with this fantastic view and they put a padlock on with both their names engraved onto the padlock, they lock it and throw away the key so the union can’t be broken until they find that same key and unlock the padlock. It’s a hell of a drop and a big commitment.

When you come up here and see the view for yourself, you realise instantly why this has had such a profound impact on Chinese art and culture. You’d want to paint it all your life. You’d want to make a garden that held that secret of this place. It is magical up here. A visit to the Yellow Mountain may provide the key to unlock Chinese gardens.

The grandest of all Chinese gardens is found to the north in the Chinese capital Beijing. Chairman Mao died thirty years ago but it seems just like yesterday, just to be can seem astonishing. The first thing you see on entering is a rock with pine branches coming down, straight from the Yellow Mountain possibly?

The New Imperial Summer Palace Beijing was built as a summer retreat for the imperial family, far away from the heat of the Forbidden City. That retreat is now visited by over five million visitors, they are mostly Chinese.

There’s a connecting line running from the Yellow Mountain via Suzhou’s gardens to the imperial gardens, the largest imperial gardens in China. Its scale is vast compared to Suzhou in space, time and concept.

First impressions are of a beautiful place, absolutely lovely. But it is vast and a visitors’ map guide, which can be purchased cheaply on your way in will help you get your bearings. Where you’re standing, near the entrance is but a tiny part, the garden is 283 hectares (700 acres), three quarters is water. So you can see that compared to the Suzhou gardens it’s unimaginably vast but you have all day.

The first garden was built in the twelve century, and it represents a build up of over eight hundred years of use, misuse, big in space and time and concept.

The bridge that spans the canal, Kubla Khan built to link the palace to the Forbidden City. The emperor would arrive down the canal, come under this extraordinary bridge and entered the fairyland and magical space of the palace.

Like the gardens of Suzhou were built on Buddhist and Daoist beliefs but is built on an almost unimaginable grand scale. Lakes were enlarged in the Qing dynasty – by the eighteenth century Qianlong Emperor – using ten thousand labourers, in a peach shape (a Chinese symbol for longevity) for his mother. Longevity hill was created from the spoils.

The overall impression is unforgettable, even if it is made up of snatched glimpses through the mist. The essence of what’s been tried to be achieved in Chinese gardens, accidental beauty is revealed here too.

Article originally posted by Phil Stanley and Headseast: 30th October 2013

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