Nov 16, 2012

The design of Chinese Classical Gardens

The city of SuZhou 蘇州 is a must visit to any visitor who intends to stay for a few days in Shanghai. The last time I traveled to Shanghai, I did day-trips to Suzhou, strolling around its numerous Chinese Classical Gardens, mostly built from the Sung to Ming Dynasty, and the one I like most was the cozy Humble Administrator's Garden 拙政園.

The nine famous Gardens in SuZhou has been included in the World Heritage List of Unesco, and acclaimed as "masterpieces of Chinese landscape garden design in which art, nature, and ideas are integrated perfectly to create ensembles of great beauty and peaceful harmony". An interesting question is: how does a Chinese Classical Garden's design differ from other architectural structures, and in particular, how does its aesthetics differ from its western counter-parts?

The Humble Administrator's Garden had been the site of the residence of Suzhou notables since the 2nd century AD. It was built in Ming Dynasty by a Royal Inspector (御史) Mr. Wang (王献臣) who spent 16 years to build the Garden under the supervision of the famous painter and artist Mr. Man (文征明). The office of the Royal Inspectors was like today HK's ICAC (independent Commission Against Corruption), having a direct line of command from the Emperor. Apparently Wang couldn't win trust from his Emperor, and he therefore retired early to the South, bought the site, built a Garden there, and named himself the Human Administrator.

The Garden's central section is a recreation of the scenery of the Lower Yangtze. Rising from the lake are the tree covered east and West Hills, each crowned by a pavilion. The variety of plant species is spectacular, and the main reason that it is named one of the Four Great Classical Gardens 四大名園 in China. Suzhou got two out of four (the other one is Lingering Garden 留園).

The most prominent design feature of a Chinese Classical Garden is that it refuses to show you everything at one time. A visitor has to explore the interior like a maze. There are walls to block your view, with an entrance, often round, to lead you further in. From time to time there will be different shapes of openings, oftentimes with built in patterned decorative grids, that allow you to have a glimpse of what lies ahead, like a life painting hanging on the wall. The paths are winding, aiming at aiding you to view the interior, be it a pond or a pagoda, from different angles.

Just when you feel tired, there will be a resting place in the form of a pavilion (舘), with wooden grids on the windows to artistically frame your view to the outside. On the way, the path will lead to to walk closer to a pond, where there will always be the sound of running water, with fish and sometimes tortoise too, glistening on a cloudless day. Meticulously manicured plants as miniature banyans or their like will be scattering here and there. And just when you feel too constrained by its winding path, there, on the next turn, will appear a miniature high-mount, which you can climb with a few steps, sometimes there will be a pagoda on top too, and you will have a panoramic view, not of the whole garden, but of the section that you have just visited, and you can trace with your eyes your various points of perspectives.

In the west, architectures were built to impress, and sometimes to intimidate, people. And we say Wow! In Chinese Classic Gardens, we don't have a big Wow, but we have lots of little Wows, as planned by the designer of the garden as he managed the view of every step that we are going to take.

The layout plan of Humble Administrator's Garden

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