HEARTS OF STONE
Monty Don describes the yin and yang features of two botanic gardens in Jiangsu province
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.
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