The Grass is Greener Near Shanghai

The Chinese classical gardens of Suzhou feel centuries away from the city's skyscrapers.  
Chinese Gardens
With its ponds, pagodas and masterful use of space, the 16th-century Humble Administrator’s Garden is among the finest of Suzhou’s classical gardens. Photo by: Leonid Andronov/shutterstock

The Mughal gardens, with their Persian-inspired pools, fountains and canals, sought to recreate heaven on earth. The baroque gardens of Europe, such as Paris’s Versailles Garden, flaunted man’s ability to impose order and symmetry on nature. Chinese gardens however tell a different story. Built for philosophers, poets, and government officials to escape from the outside world, where they could reflect on the ideal harmony between nature and man.

A 1.5-hour train ride west of Shanghai lies one such place—in fact, the gardens of the city of Suzhou are some of the best-preserved classical gardens in China. Originally built between the fourth century B.C. and eighteenth centuries, their design lends a surreal charm to one of the oldest cities in the Yangtze Basin. Today, over 50 gardens survive from nearly 200 private gardens; the oldest dates back to the 11th century. Nine of them are designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As I walk along the cobbled path leading to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, one of the four key classical gardens, I see how water lies at the very heart of this early 16th-century construction. All its spaces, walkways and pavilions are built to focus on the ponds; pagodas rise from some like floating houses. The halls and pavilions have elegant names, each describing the aspect of the garden it oversees—The Hall of 18 Camellias, The Bamboo Pavilion, The Hall of Distant Fragrance (for the lotuses); there’s even a 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks Hall. When I tire of walking, I sit beneath a cherry blossom tree and take in the panorama, to the soundtrack of flute strains from my audio guide. Tranquillity washes over me; this was possibly what the creator intended too.

Chinese Gardens 2

Suzhou’s attractions include the dream-like Grand Canal, the world’s longest and oldest canal. Photo by: Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy Stock Photo/India Picture

Chinese Gardens 3

The Suzhou Museum is a modernist interpretation of a Chinese palace, and weaves in many elements of Suzhou’s gardens. Photo by: Tibor Bognár/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

 

A five-minute-walk away from the Humble Administrator’s Garden lies the Lion Grove Garden, built in 1342 by the disciples of legendary Chan master, Zhongfeng Mingben as a tribute to him. Tall tales follow me as I walk around the place—there’s the Standing-in-the-Snow Hall, named after a devout Zen Buddhist who stood in the snow for a whole night to worship his master; the Sleeping Clouds Chamber, a meditation tower named after the cloud-shaped rocks surrounding it. Plum trees surround the Pavilion for Greeting the Plum Blossoms, which displays ancient wooden furniture and pottery inside.

The formations inside Lion Grove garden pique my interest. The Nine Lions Peak, which give the surrounding garden its name, is a rockery of taihu stones piled ingeniously to resemble lions in different postures —roaring, fighting, resting. Taihu rocks are oddly shaped limestone rocks from Lake Tai in the Yangtze plain, and are believed to allow qi, or life force, to flow freely over their surfaces. These rock arrangements, paired with plants or water bodies, served as places of contemplation for scholars. While time and wind has weathered the Nine Lions Peak so that the outline of the lions is barely visible, I am fascinated by the fact that the rocks lie intact with no visible binding material. There are a number of rockeries in the garden’s pond, networks of labyrinthine grottos and bridges where children play hide-and-seek, while I play find-the-way-out-without-a-map.

Chinese Gardens 1

The Nine Lions Peak surrounded by the Lion’s Grove Garden is a rockery of taihu stones piled ingeniously to resemble lions in different postures. Photo by: Paul Rushton/Alamy Stock Photo/India Picture

After a morning spent in verdant bliss, a 10-minute bus ride takes me to the Grand Canal, the world’s longest and oldest. Construction of this 2,000-kilometre-long waterway began in the fifth century B.C. and today, it connects Beijing in north China to Zhejiang province in the south. I eschew touristy cruises for a stroll down the canal-side Shantang Street. The Grand Canal is part of the reason Marco Polo is said to have called Suzhou the ‘Venice of the East.’ From the 500-year old Tonggui Bridge arching over the canal, I watch camera-toting tourists take selfies in cruise boats drifting past waterside homes. Little shops along the banks sell everything from soup-filled dumplings and plum cakes to squid-on-a-stick. I make a second lunch out of them all, after effusive use of pointing and sign language.

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The Suzhou Museum is a portal into the region’s culture and history. Designed by the Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, who built the Louvre Pyramid, the building is a modernist interpretation of a Chinese palace, and weaves in many elements of Suzhou’s gardens. Inside, artefacts from the Wu kingdom (of which Suzhou was the capital) abound—glazed pottery (a rare olive green celadon bowl is the museum’s oldest and most valued treasure), calligraphy and paintings from the Wu School, characterised by light brushstrokes and inscriptions are lovely to behold. I am struck by one piece in particular, which seems like a painting of a Chinese village, but on closer look turns out to be a delicately embroidered tapestry.

As my return train nears Shanghai, skyscrapers loom in the distance, but my mind continues to amble through Suzhou’s gardens. They served as oases of peace for the Chinese of yore, and their memories do the same for me.

  • Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.

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