Monty Don de­scribes the yin and yang fea­tures of two botanic gar­dens in Jiangsu prov­ince

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

THE Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den, Suzhou, Jiangsu Prov­ince: Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Zhengde, be­tween 1506 and 1521, the site of what is now the Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den in Suzhou was oc­cu­pied by a tem­ple. But it was ap­pro­pri­ated by a tax col­lec­tor called Wang Xianchen who turned it into his private villa, com­plete with gar­den.

The house and gar­den then changed hands re­peat­edly dur­ing the next few cen­turies, with al­ter­ations and ad­di­tions made to the gar­den, so what re­mains to­day is an amal­gam built around the core of the early 16th-cen­tury gar­den. The site was orig­i­nally a swamp and when Wang Xianchen first con­structed the gar­den he used the wa­ter to cre­ate lakes, mak­ing is­lands with the spoil.

The gar­den was the same size as it is to­day but sim­pler, al­though con­tain­ing pav­il­ions and trees as well as the care­fully con­trived wa­ter and stones.

In the lat­ter stages of the Ming dy­nasty (1368-1650), about 100 years af­ter the gar­den was built, it was di­vided into three sec­tions with the west­ern and cen­tral parts be­com­ing the vil­las of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. How­ever, when the Ming dy­nasty was re­placed by the Qing dy­nasty, the gar­den was re­paired and mod­i­fied, es­pe­cially in the early years of the 18th cen­tury.

About 70 years later, un­der Em­peror Qian­long, it was di­vided into two parts: the west­ern end be­com­ing Shu Youan, the Book of Study Gar­dens, and the east­ern be­com­ing Fu Yuan, the Re­stored Gar­den. What the mod­ern vis­i­tor sees is es­sen­tially this late Qing stage of the gar­den, al­though it was not un­til 1949 that the east­ern por­tion was joined to the cen­tre.

The build­ings are all orig­i­nal but have been, and still are be­ing, heav­ily re­stored. We ar­rived at 6am on a very grey, cold day, just as the dark­ness be­came a strug­gling half-light.

A gen­tle rain was fall­ing con­stantly. The stones and white walls, mar­bled with al­gae and damp, al­most merged into the mist. The build­ings loomed out and then dis­ap­peared and the en­tire gar­den never quite took on an out­lined phys­i­cal sub­stance, de­spite the huge stones ev­ery­where.

There are hun­dreds of pots, each on a stone pedestal, con­tain­ing tree pen­jing , the art of cre­at­ing en­tire minia­ture land­scapes in pots through care­fully con­tained and con­trolled trees and stones.

As with ev­ery­thing in China, you start to look for sig­nif­i­cance and mean­ing where in the West you would merely ad­mire. Noth­ing in a Chi­nese gar­den is ir­rel­e­vant.

So the mon­key grass pro­vides the yin to the yang of the stones that it is planted among. Stone is al­ways yang. Wa­ter is al­ways yin. Both are al­ways nec­es­sary.

The first sec­tion of the gar­den, the east­ern end, feels like a pub­lic park fun­nelling you for­ward to­wards the cen­tral sec­tion. I want to linger but my guide al­most man­han­dles me on so that we will have time in the cen­tral sec­tion be­fore the crowds ar­rive. We stride past pines lapped with moss and mag­no­lias try­ing to break into bud.

Huge stones are set like sculp­tures along the way, the more holes and con­tor­tions the bet­ter. Thou­sands of dwarf aza­leas in pots are be­ing placed for a spring fes­ti­val. Their colour is as rude and loud as the in­ces­sant fire­crack­ers that the Chi­nese can­not re­sist. In fact, the Chi­nese love noise of all kinds. But the aza­leas serve to re­in­force the monochromy of the gar­den and the ex­tra­or­di­nary sub­tlety that it con­tains. My eyes nar­row their range and deepen their fo­cus.

The paths that we race along are in them­selves won­der­ful, all mo­saicked stone with a de­cep­tively sim­ple in­tri­cacy. That phrase pops up in my note­books again and again. The walls are white and topped with beau­ti­fully tiled roofs; the colour of the tiles sig­ni­fies rank: yel­low is used for im­pe­rial palaces and tem­ples, green for princes and grey for hu­mil­ity.

The walls all have the mar­bled ap­pear­ance of the best pa­per, the gar­den be­com­ing three­d­i­men­sional against their back­drop. This com­bines to cre­ate great in­ten­sity, na­ture is dis­tilled con­stantly in search of its essence. Ev­ery branch of ev­ery tree is shaped, con­sid­ered and trained so that it looks to have ar­rived at this mo­ment en­tirely by chance.

Con­fu­cian­ism teaches or­der and duty, Tao­ism sim­plic­ity and re­straint. Both of th­ese philoso­phies are to be found in a sin­gle branch in the Chi­nese gar­den.

Of course, this is never just gar­den­ing. In China, cal­lig­ra­phy, po­etry, chess, phi­los­o­phy, Con­fu­cian­ism, Tao­ism and mu­sic are all part of the creative process of mak­ing a gar­den.

All walls have lat­tice open­ings to glimpse the view ahead. Ev­ery style of lat­tice has mean­ing. Or so I am told. It is like walk­ing through the streets of Suzhou, a bab­ble of speech in an en­tirely strange tongue. There is noth­ing for it but to let the mind go and just take it in.

There is more wa­ter than land and the paths ne­go­ti­ate the ponds like a maze. As in Suzhou, with its labyrinth of canals, the Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den is a gar­den of build­ings but­tressed by wa­ter. As you go through to the cen­tral area, pass­ing al­most a street of large pav­il­ions flank­ing the wa­ter, a pagoda is glimpsed across the wa­ter, ris­ing into the mist.

The two sec­tions of the gar­den are di­vided by a walled pas­sage­way and the en­trance con­sists of dou­ble doors with a screen im­me­di­ately in front of them. This is good feng shui. Ten­sion is built. Proper con­duct im­plied. This is not just to make the vis­i­tor be­have with ser­vil­ity but to help them es­tab­lish the right at­ti­tude. The Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den is for strolling and the idea is that you walk through it both bring­ing and ac­quir­ing the right frame of mind.

Gar­dens are some­where to con­tem­plate, write po­etry in, to reach beauty of soul as well as art. Through the doors there is a won­der­ful lit­tle pavil­ion with each wall pierced by a large cir­cu­lar open­ing that is half door, half win­dow. Each of th­ese moon gates sym­bol­ises per­fec­tion and frames an as­pect that re­lates to a sea­son, with spring look­ing over the fresh blos­som, sum­mer on to the wa­ter with its lo­tus flow­ers, au­tumn with moon­light on the bam­boos and fi­nally win­ter fac­ing the snow­cov­ered tiles of the pas­sage­way. It is an ex­quis­ite, per­fect build­ing.

There are far more rocks than plants and they are tended with the same rev­er­ence as the rarest spec­i­men in a botanic gar­den. Rocks are revered. One man ap­par­ently adopted one as his brother.

I meet a Mr Wei who is a rock ex­pert and we sit drink­ing the ubiq­ui­tous green tea to shel­ter from the rain while he shows me a few of his col­lec­tion, each care­fully wrapped in lay­ers of cloth. All look a bit like some­thing an­i­mate but the best should sug­gest rather than re­sem­ble.

Ideally ev­ery work of art in China should leave space for the mind to in­ter­pret and travel be­tween like and dis­like as Mr Wei puts it. I am learn­ing that ev­ery­thing is de­signed to be glimpsed. Hazi­ness is much val­ued, with hints and sug­ges­tions a bet­ter route than sign­posts or straight lines.

Ev­ery­thing should be framed or set against a back­drop to cre­ate a com­plete tableau or pic­ture, even if this is tiny or very sim­ple.

Then the crowds pour in — 3000 a day come, more than a mil­lion a year — all in groups led by a guide with a loud­speaker strapped to their chest. The noise is as­ton­ish­ing, like a flock of hun­gry star­lings un­der um­brel­las with a dozen tan­noy sys­tems.

But that is China. Noisy, beau­ti­ful, mys­te­ri­ous, po­etic and with a deep, deep love of rocks. Ev­ery stone in this gar­den is revered and cho­sen for its like­ness to a lion or a part of its anatomy. Pots of red aza­leas put out for a fes­ti­val make a tem­po­rary splash of colour in an oth­er­wise green and grey gar­den. THE Lion Grove Gar­den, Suzhou, Jiangsu Prov­ince: This gar­den was orig­i­nally cre­ated in 1342 by Weize, a fa­mous monk who wanted to make a gar­den to re­mind him of his for­mer home, the Lion Rock on Tianmu Moun­tain.

The en­tire gar­den is de­signed to look like some­thing (a moun­tain) that looks like some­thing else (a lion). Gnarled, pit­ted, holed and con­torted rocks pile on top of each other at ev­ery turn and ev­ery one is sup­posed to sug­gest a lion or some part of its anatomy (al­though at times I have to peer hard to even be­gin to see a re­sem­blance).

In many ways the rocks are like the crowds that pour through it: they speak loudly all at once, all speak­ing in Lion. Lion Grove was cre­ated as a tem­ple gar­den and Mr Wei, the rock mas­ter, elab­o­rates on its cre­ation for me. The story goes that Weize’s teacher rode a lion to the site of the gar­den where it lay down and re­fused to move.

When it shook its mane, hairs flew out and where they touched the ground each one turned into a lion cub. The monk, un­der­stand­ably as­ton­ished at this man­i­fes­ta­tion of the lion as a kind of dan­de­lion, re­garded this as a sign. As one might.

The gar­den is about a hectare and con­tains 22 pav­il­ions and more than 70 dis­plays of care­fully cho­sen rocks and bam­boos or ste­les. It was ini­tially fa­mous as a re­treat for painters and cal­lig­ra­phers but over the cen­turies fell into de­cline un­til it was bought in 1918 by a Mr Pei and given to the state when the com­mu­nists took over. Ap­par­ently it sur­vived des­e­cra­tion through the sim­ple ex­pe­di­ent of shut­ting its doors.

I en­ter through a small, per­fectly pro­por­tioned court that leads to the guest hall. It is the first of a se­ries of en­closed spa­ces that draw you into the gar­den in­cre­men­tally, the build­ings larger than the spa­ces they en­close.

In the next court a Mag­no­li­ax­soulangeana is open­ing its white petals against grey rocks. A cherry is in bud. It is an in­ti­mate space. All the stone in this gar­den comes from nearby Lake Taiu, which pro­vides rock par­tic­u­larly prized for its holes, as the chem­i­cal com­posi- tion of the lake eroded the lime­stone ir­reg­u­larly, cre­at­ing the fan­tas­tic shapes and the uni­form grey colour­ing of the stone. Nar­row borders of stones and bam­boo are set against each wall to cre­ate ide­alised land­scapes; the white­wash of the walls is par­tic­u­larly prized for the stains, fad­ing paint and mould, all en­cour­aged as part of the com­po­si­tion.

Then you turn through a qua­tre­foil door­way that frames an ab­surdly life­like stone shaped like a lion’s head, to see a vast pile of stones, layer of grey con­tor­tion heaped upon twisted, bony rock. This — and you can only see a small part of it to be­gin with — is the stone moun­tain, built as a maze, sym­bol­is­ing the jour­ney of life, where the trav­eller en­ters fear­fully, gets thor­oughly lost, is amazed but even­tu­ally finds that they ar­rive ex­actly where they are.

It is fab­u­lous. A won­der­fully kitsch ex­trav­a­ganza whose seed — vis­ually at least — falls from the same plant as the Vic­to­rian stumpery or the Ge­or­gian grotto. This is not to den­i­grate or be­lit­tle it at all. In its own way it is sub­lime, and twist­ing and shuf­fling through it (al­beit ne­go­ti­at­ing the con­stant throng of vis­i­tors) is good fun. The mil­lions of hands, grasp­ing at rocks as cor­ners are turned and nar­row steps climbed, have worn newels of the lime­stone shiny smooth.

Rocks be­ing very yang, of course, have to be bal­anced by wa­ter, which is very yin, and so you come out of the rocky maze to an open pool banked by tiers of th­ese rocks, which dou­ble them­selves in the black wa­ter. The stones are all in­di­vid­u­als.

The ef­fect is mas­sive but, as ever, noth­ing is ca­sual. Each one is cho­sen.

On the open side of the pond are more build­ings con­tain­ing a dis­play of paint­ings, cal­lig­ra­phy and, tellingly, the most prized pos­ses­sion of all, a cut slab of mar­ble whose col­orations sug­gest a range of moun­tains. It is a re­minder that ev­ery­thing re­turns to the moun­tains and that they are the source of in­spi­ra­tion for nat­u­ral har­mony and beauty.

To cap­ture that essence in a gar­den, even in one sin­gle pen­jing tree or a tableau of pine, bam­boo and stone just a me­tre wide and set against a stained wall, is the goal of ev­ery Chi­nese gar­den, and with­out un­der­stand­ing that it is all merely fas­ci­nat­ingly strange, stretch­ing the no­tion of gar­den­ing far across the cul­tural hori­zon.

Bring the Yel­low Moun­tains into the gar­den and it be­comes the tran­scen­den­tal spirit of na­ture and hu­man­ity in per­fect har­mony. And even the most hor­ti­cul­tur­ally blink­ered Westerner would agree that that is the ul­ti­mate rea­son for gar­den­ing. This is an edited ex­tract from Aroundthe Worldin80Gar­dens by Monty Don (Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son/Ha­chette Livre Aus­tralia, $59.99).


A one-day Suzhou gar­den tour is in­cluded in a three-day Flight Cen­tre pack­age based in Shang­hai. From $619 a per­son with break­fasts, two lunches and vis­its to the Yu Gar­den, Jade Bud­dha Tem­ple and the Bund in Shang­hai. More: 131 600; www.flight­cen­tre.com.au.

Pic­tures: Kerry Richard­son and David Henderson, from AroundtheWorldin80Gar­dens

Rock art: Au­thor Monty Don strolls through the Lion Grove Gar­den at Suzhou, where ev­ery gnarled rock is sup­posed to sug­gest a lion, or some part of its anatomy

Wa­ter view: Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den

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