I’ve become interested in the role of gardens in China. In the rapid development of grand cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an there is always some space for gardens. Often these are quite small spaces squeezed in between freeways, but they are seen as important spaces for older people to gather for impromptu games of cards or mahjong and the early morning practice of tai chi. These gardens, and the plantings along road verges are always trimly cultivated – well-planned with diverse plantings and pruned into neat shapes.
Plantings on the Bund, Shanghai
There’s a very grand tradition of gardens in China. We were told that there are always four necessary elements to a Chinese garden – a pavilion, some water, rocks, and plants. Overall, the garden represents a person – the pavilion is the frame, the rocks are the bones, the water is the blood and the plants are the hair. Gardens are planned in detail and every aspect has a symbolic, poetic significance. 'Nature' is tamed and wrought to a pattern.
We’ve spent time in the grandest of the gardens - the six centuries old Summer Palace outside Beijing, most closely associated with 18th century Emperor Qianlong who marshaled a 100,000 strong labour force to extend and beautify Kunming Lake.
The Seventeen Arch Bridge
The Summer Palace is also renowned as the residence of reviled Empress Cixi who in the late 1880s diverted the navy budget to beautify the park and build one of the many stone boats scattered throughout China – symbol of the Emperor’s loyalty to his people.
The Marble Boat
Nowadays the Summer Palace and its grounds are thronged with people day-tripping from Beijing - picnickers, three-generation families with their prized one child, young couples and the inevitable tour-groups. There are simple pleasures and attractions - music played on traditional instruments, a man wielding two giant calligraphy brushes to paint poetry with water on the stone pavement, and strolls through the long covered walkways.
The Long Corridor
I've been delighted by the names of some of the gardens. The translation of the Chinese name for the Summer Palace is 'The Garden of Nurtured Harmony'. Perfect, as Chinese gardens are far from natural - they are carefully designed, constructed and nurtured to represent harmony. In the ancient city of Suzhou, whose classical gardens are classified by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage, we visited the small, meticulously planned Master-of-Nets Garden and the much larger Humble Administrator's Garden.
The Humble Administrator's Garden
I'm not sure if it's true, but we were told that a more accurate translation of the name of this latter garden is 'Incompetent Administrator's Garden'. Either 'humble' or 'incompetent' - both are great names.
Within the gardens, the elements are even more charmingly named. Some of the charm might lie in the translation, but who can resist 'The Moon Comes With Breeze Pavilion' - the small pavilion on the left in the photo below, taken in the Master-of-Nets Garden.
So much in China - both the ancient and modern - is laden with symbolism. I've developed my own not very original explanation. In so many ways China is a pragmatic society. Many matters are decided in eminently practical ways. It is, and has always been, relatively non-religious. The symbolism that is evident in artistic expression, architecture, language, and so obvious in the gardens, is a necessary romantic balance to the practicality of everyday life.
One of the nine dragons, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai. The dragon is the ubiquitous symbol of power, strength and good luck.