Small stone bridges over gently flowing rivers and residential houses on the riverside all combined make Suzhou beautiful. But the real beauty lies far from the eye-catching gates hidden in deep alleys. Inside these gates are the most exquisite gardens of China. They are poetry in themselves.
The most well-known of Suzhou gardens is the Garden of the Humble Administrator, Lingering Garden, Garden of a Fisherman and Villa of Green. These were inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage in 1997. In 2000, Canglang Pavilion Garden, Lion Forest Garden, Yipu Garden, Ouyuan Garden and Tuisi Garden were also added to the list. All these gardens were owned by private citizens. The oldest is the Canglang Pavilion Garden, which was built in the 1lth century. The rest were all constructed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when the construction of gardens was at its peak.
The classic Chinese garden is first of all a place to live, then a place to stroll around and then a place where one can enjoy the beauty of the garden. Hence, rocks, water surface, architecture, trees and flowers are indispensable elements to building a garden.
Suzhou is a part of the Yangtze River Delta, the "land of abundance" where rivers crisscross and lakes dot. The pleasant climate is favorable for the growth of flowers and trees, which are naturally important for gardens. Moreover, the area abounds in strange-shaped rocks, which can be easily assembled into artificial rockery of various shapes and sizes in the garden. Economic prosperity naturally nurtures culture. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, for example, Suzhou produced 60 zhuangyuan, scholars who emerged out to be the best after having passed highest imperial examinations. No other place in the country was match for Suzhou in this regard. At the time, Suzhou was regarded as "the most prosperous and romantic places in this world to live in". Suzhou was really an ideal place to build gardens. According to historical records, there were more than 300 gardens in Suzhou during the peak of garden construction.
Building good gardens of course needed money. But what was more important was the culture embodied in the garden. The tastes of the garden owner, who set the requirements, and the professional proficiency of the garden designer, were especially important. A saying goes: "A garden reflects the fine taste of its owner who is free of vulgar interests." Suzhou gardens' owners were officials, men of letters and rich merchants. Of the officials, those in retirement and those who had been dismissed from their posts made up the majority. Some owners were themselves men of letters or painters. They either designed the gardens themselves or worked out design plans in collaboration with professional designers. In addition, outstanding garden designers were accomplished in arts.
Garden of a Fisherman
Most of the gardens are in the back alleys of Suzhou City, neighboring whitewashed and black-tile residential houses. The gardens are walled, preventing worldly hubbubs from entering and keeping the exquisite beauty within. Garden gates usually look plaintive, as if telling the passers- by that the garden owners wanted to be hermits. Pushing open the gate, one sees small bridges over ponds or flowing water, rocks, pavilions, winding paths, trees, flowers, etc.. Suzhou gardens are aptly called "nature in the city".
As a matter of fact, the gardens reflect the owners' ideas of leisure which included being far from the world cares. Chinese intellectuals had a tradition of turning to nature and artistic accomplishments to please themselves when in political disgrace or oblivion. This, for example, finds expression in the Returning to Pastoral Life House in Garden of the Humble Administrator. In Garden of a Fisherman, a tablet states outright: "I am going to be a fisherman." The name of Yipu Garden suggests it is a place to plant flowers and grass. Ouyuan Garden means the husband and wife retire to farming life in pair. Bai Juyi, a famed poet in the Tang Dynasty, made it clear that a small residence with a pond, bamboo groves, bridges, books, wine, songs and music was enough for a white-bearded man to live in leisurely and pleasantly until one's death.
Suzhou gardens are often private gardens affiliated to private mansions. The largest is Garden of the Humble Administrator, which covers 50,000 square meters, and the smallest is the Villa of Green, which covers 2,100 square meters. Although not very large, the garden with its multi-dimensional space offers beautiful scenery as one strolls in the garden.
The region where Suzhou is located is not hilly or mountainous. Even if it were, the mountains or hills could not be incorporated into the gardens. So, artificial rockery was created, so that the garden owners could enjoy the pleasure brought by natural mountains and rivers while staying in the city. The beauty of the artificial rockery lies in the inter-relations between the main pieces and the secondary pieces and the high and low rocks. In some cases, earthen mounds are studded with rocks and in other cases, rocks that were laid together are covered with soil. Flowers and trees are planted on the mounds formed by rocks. Suzhou is on the Taihu Lake and Taihu rocks have ever been a favorite of the garden builders. The cold rocks seem to take on life after being arranged by the garden builders. In Lion Forest Garden, for example, the rolling rocks create an impression that there are peaks and canyons. When visitors happen to be separated by the rocks, they find it difficult to find each other among the maze created by the bristling rocks.
Water surface plays an important role in Suzhou gardens. In Garden of the Humble Administrator, for example, water surface accounts for three-fifths of the total area. It is more than a static big pond. Instead, water surface is shaped by mounds, bridges, corridors and pavilions. There are winding creeks and irregularly shaped ponds, which look natural.
Buildings in the gardens are ingeniously designed and laid out according to the garden owners' needs for strolling, entertaining guests or reading. Most of the houses, halls, pavilions and corridors are small and exquisite, full of vigor. The layout of the architecture in Lingering Garden is worth special mention. One who steps on a winding long corridor immediately enters the garden gate. Walking along the corridor for a while, one feels relaxed. Then there come various kinds of architecture, which divide the garden into a few integral parts. In the middle section are found rocks form screens and ponds. Buildings dominate the eastern part. In the west section, winding streams and luxuriant trees make one feel that one is in the wilderness.
In Suzhou gardens, one often sees outside trees or flowers framed by windows and mounds planted with a group of trees or orchid groves. These are meticulously designed by garden owners in order to bring about pictorial effects.
Although the gardens are small in size, they somehow reflect a sort of largeness through their layout. The Garden of a fisherman is an example in this regard. Covering an area not yet one-sixth of Garden of the Humble Administratively, it is so well laid out that there are gardens within gardens, scenery beyond scenery, which is all well juxtaposed in a seemingly multi-dimensional space. The many houses and halls do not look crowded. The mounds and ponds are small but not cramped.
One can never expect to see through a garden at one glimpse. Often, a piece of artificial rockery, or a wall, or an architecture, or a grove of flowers not far from the entrance serves as a screen, which denies the visitor the privilege to see through the garden. The winding paths and corridors and other such "screens" are found everywhere. Therefore while strolling in a garden, one often doubts if one can still go along when suddenly the path or corridor leads one into a new scene. The Lingering Garden is the most representative in this regard.
Although the scenery in a garden as a whole is limited, scenes change with one's steps, and the same scene changes with the seasons. The same pond can offer a visitor golden fish and lotus flowers when one sits quietly by it. However, the pond, when looked in contrast to the surrounding scenery, turns into a picture. In summer, one feels refreshing breeze sitting by the pond. In autumn, one can enjoy pattering of the rain on the withered lotus leaves.
Every gateway and every window are frames of beautiful scenery. In this end, Suzhou gardens are more like painting scrolls. The gateways and windows serve as links between different sections of a garden, helping strengthen the sense of space.
Some gardens make the best use of outside landscapes, a kind of "borrowing scenery". Canglang Pavilion Garden is an example. Rocks are predominant within the garden. But through the 100 or so windows along the corridor, one sees water surface outside the garden; the rocks within and the water outside complement each other. In the morning and in the twilight, the misty water surface adds pastoral beauty to the garden.
Understanding and appreciating Suzhou gardens requires one to be aware of the Chinese culture, because the gardens embody the quintessence of the traditional Chinese architecture, painting, poetry, calligraphy and engraving art.
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