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Suzhou’s gardens are microcosms: the ponds and sinuous streams, outcrops of jagged rock, bamboo groves and withered trees deliberately mimic nature’s drama. Called “scholar’s gardens” or, occasionally, “poet’s gardens”, these miniature landscapes were carefully ordered places of retreat, to which Confucian gentlemen, wearied by politics and its corruptions, could escape and reconnect, at least briefly, to nature.
History of the Suzhou gardens
The construction of Suzhou’s gardens began during the Song dynasty and peaked – as China’s bureaucracy became increasingly centralised and aristocrats left large country estates to join in the prosperity of the south’s large cities – during the Ming and Qing dynasties. By the late Ming dynasty, there were over 280 private gardens in Suzhou and landscaping had become an art with established masters.
Landscaping was an intellectual pursuit; it had clear aesthetic goals and a defined array of symbols, borrowed largely from landscape painting, which borrowed, in turn, from China’s homegrown philosophies. Its masters oriented gardens according to the principles of Feng Shui, sought balance in Taoism, and planted flora which Confucians had, in their writing, used as metaphors for human strengths. A garden was an ever evolving masterpiece, different from season to season and from day to day.
Nine of Suzhou’s gardens are now World Heritage listed. Four were added in 1997, another five in 2000. The title ‘garden’ is deceptive: Suzhou’s most visited sites were, in fact, family homes, and recent restorations confuse visitors further. The buildings scattered through these once very active residences are now identically, and very sparsely, furnished. It is difficult to imagine people’s messy lives amongst such austerity, but the gardens were also meeting places, where families entertained and women, whose freedoms were limited, could wander. Literature of the time, including the Ming dynasty classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, often took place almost entirely within a garden’s walls.
Elements of a Chinese Garden
All Chinese gardens, both large and rambling or miniature, chanced upon in a courtyard home, combine a set of identical elements: stone, water, plants and buildings that borrow scenery. The first two, stone and water, are most important. Landscape, in Chinese, is a word crafted from two characters: shan, which means mountain, and shul, which means water. The solidity of stone represents permanence; it is balanced by the fluidity of water, which represents change.
The rocks piled in Suzhou’s gardens, to imitate mountains, or set in rosewood stands and given pride of place inside a garden’s buildings, were selected with enormous care. The most misshapen, pocked by a multitude of holes, are from Taihu Lake. Taihu Rocks, eroded by centuries of lapping water, represent wisdom and immortality. During the Song dynasty, they were the most expensive objects in China.
Rocks were even worshipped, bowed down to, in one case, by the owner of a cluttered garden on the city’s outskirts – but it is difficult for foreign – and, I suspect, most Chinese – tourists to understand why.
Scholar’s rocks, still sold in Suzhou (see Bird and Flower Market, below), are judged by four criteria. They must, most importantly, be natural. Taihu Rocks are occasionally removed from the lake, sculpted and then thrown back, to wash the marks of a human-hand away. Colour, particularly the contrast of different colours, is also important, as is form. Rocks are valued for their resemblance to animals, people or landscapes, or for their conveyance of a feeling. Connoisseurs, able to judge a rock by the attributes above, finally require it to be unique, different, perhaps, in some small detail, or in its unusual form.
The plants in Chinese gardens are symbols of human virtue. The three hardy ‘friends of winter’ – bamboo, pine and the flowering plum – represent strength, courage, flexibility, and integrity. The lotus, which grows in mud but emerges, cleansed, through water, is considered a symbol of purity. The chrysanthemum is a symbol of splendour, thought to demonstrate the beauty of a natural life, and peonies symbolise wealth. Banana trees, also common in classical gardens, are not symbolic, but are planted because their broad leaves rustle in the breeze and amplify the sound of rain dripping from a building’s eaves.
Buildings, like the “Pavillion for Enjoying a Pine Picture” in the Garden of the Master of Nets, are often named for their view of surrounding plants.
Buildings and Borrowed Scenery
The buildings in a Chinese garden are not intrusions, placed clumsily amongst such a careful imitation of nature, but a harmonious part of the whole. Buildings act as a frame: a round archway might give focus to a pile of craggy rocks; a walkway might emphasise the bend of stream; a pavilion might allow the people in it to see above the trees. Lattice windows borrow scenery from both sides of a wall, enlarging the sense of space, and open, at the garden’s perimeter, on to distant hills or the shores of a muddy lake. Even the walls are a part of this landscape painting brought to life, and are described either as the edges of a scroll or mist at the boundaries of a captivating scene.
Classical Chinese architecture is almost always symmetrical. Suzhou’s garden are an exception and were instead intended to flow. After wandering through a garden, it is difficult to know if you have seen all of it, and this lends, to the small courtyards and sometimes dusty rooms, a feeling of intimacy. Enclosures entirely surrounded by walls or other natural barriers were private spaces, designed for the enjoyment of a single person.
The best Suzhou gardens to visit
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is Suzhou’s largest and most visited garden. It covers five sprawling hectares, an area large enough to give even its horde of visitors space. The garden’s long, green lawns and disconnected buildings are, however, atypical, and it is not the best place to get a quick sense of what Suzhou’s gardens are about.
The garden was built by a retired Ming dynasty official in 1509. Wang Xianchen wanted to spend his last years planting vegetables and cultivating trees: humble activities, from which the garden is said to have taken its name. It has since been sold, resold, dug up, replanted and rebuilt. It took its present shape during the late Qing dynasty.
The best time to visit is at sunset, when tour groups have left in search of dinner and the sun casts long shadows over the garden’s lotus filled ponds. A bonsai enclosure at its western edge contains a number of prize winning trees. The oldest, a wizened papaya, was planted 400 years ago.
The Garden of the Master of Nets
The Garden of the Master of the Nets is Suzhou’s smallest, best preserved and, some say, most perfect garden. It is only one-tenth the size of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, but its five hundred square metres feel larger, perhaps because its layout is a little like a magician’s trick.
The garden is in a neighbourhood of winding alleys and shabby homes, removed from the nearby bustle of Shiquan Jie. Its high perimeter walls take only a few minutes to walk around but inside, past the narrow entrance hall, space is stretched. The rooms, courtyards and garden at the property’s centre can take hours to move through. Everywhere, a choice of exits disorient visitors, leading some along a circuitous, but enjoyable, path.
The garden was built in 1140, by a southern official. Its owner, bothered by bureaucracy and backbiting, declared that he would rather be a fisherman, and the garden was originally called the Fisherman’s Retreat. It fell into disrepair not long after his death and was only restored in the late 18th century, by another government official, who gave it its present name.
The main garden is to the site’s west. It has a large pond at its centre, stocked with sluggish goldfish. A path loops around the pond, interrupted very briefly by a tiny arched bridge. Most of the buildings, including the former residents’ living quarters, are to the site’s east. The Peony Cottage, in the north-west corner, was the model for the Ming Hall in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
You can visit the garden during the day, when you might catch residents of the surrounding area washing clothes at a stone well near the entrance, as well as at night, when visitors are entertained by a program of poetry recital, Kunqu Opera, Pingtan and performances of traditional music (19:30 to 21:00, ¥80).
The Couple’s Retreat
The Couple’s Retreat, originally called She Yuan, was built in the 18th century. In 1874 it was bought by an official who expanded it, and later retired there. His years of retirement with his wife gave the garden its current name.
The 800 square metre garden is divided into two parts, at the properties eastern and western sides. The residential quarters are in the middle, and water flows on three sides. The eastern garden is the most striking, with a central rockery and a beautiful waterside pavilion, ‘Amongst the Mountains and the Water’, which took its name from a Song Dynasty poem about nature’s intoxicating powers. Visitors look onto the water through the pavilion’s ornate wooden edges, illustrating the concept of ‘borrowed scenery’.
In one of the residential quarters’ rooms, where gift stalls sell knickknacks and silk pyjamas, Pingtan performances are held every day, whenever an audience appears. A solo visitor can comprise an audience, we were assured.
The Garden of Cultivation
The Ming dynasty Garden of Cultivation, although also a World Heritage site, is much less visited than most of Suzhou’s gardens and is, partly for this reason, many a local’s favourite. On summer weekends, tour groups jostle through the city’s better-known gardens, but the Garden of Cultivation, often referred to as the Herb Garden, its original name, remains a place where the intended tranquillity and transcendence of a Chinese garden can still be appreciated.
The garden’s size and design are similar to the Garden of the Master of Nets. It has a large pond at one end and living quarters at the other. The pond is buttressed by a large pile of rocks – a mini-mountain which you can clamber up to get a better sense of the garden’s layout – and has a tea garden at its edge, where pensioners while away the day. The Hall of Erudition, where the owner would have received guests, has captivating examples of classical Chinese art on its walls.
This page by Iain Manley, who arrived in China at the end of an eighteen month overland journey from London and stayed for three years. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium pedlars of old Singapore, was published last year. You can find him at Old World Wandering, his award winning collection of overland travel stories.