June 16 – Day 17: The Classical Gardens of Suzhou

Today’s itinerary was truly jam-packed! We visited three of Suzhou’s most well-known classical gardens and then traveled to the headquarters of the city’s Gardens and Landscape Administration Bureau, which maintains both the classical gardens and Suzhou’s urban landscape plantings.

By Chinese standards, Suzhou is a small city: it has just under 7 million residents! Its fertile soil, mild climate, and ample rainfall make it an excellent place to grow plants, and the city has long been renowned as the site of many of China’s most exquisite gardens. The classical gardens of the Ming and Qing dynasties were built not by professional landscape designers, but instead by artists, poets, and philosophers. It is said that they derive their beauty not merely from the plants within them, but from the synthesis of natural, artistic, and philosophical elements present within the overall design.

The Lingering Garden, built just over 500 years ago during the Ming dynasty, covers an area of approximately 5 acres in Suzhou’s Old City district. Widely considered the most beautiful of Suzhou’s classical gardens, it contains both intimate spaces and panoramic views. Within the garden’s central courtyard is a peaceful lotus pond, around which are four elegant pavilions, one for each of the seasons of the year.

A view of the central courtyard at the Lingering Garden

A view of the central courtyard at the Lingering Garden

The group lingering in the Lingering Garden!

The group lingering in the Lingering Garden!

Musicians playing traditional Chinese ballads in the Lingering Garden

Musicians playing traditional Chinese ballads in the Lingering Garden

The next garden we visited, the Master-of-Nets Garden, was built over 850 years ago by a retired Song dynasty official. He originally named the garden “Fisherman’s Retreat” to evoke the peacefulness of the life he wished to live in old age; a later owner changed the name to “Master-of-Nets,” retaining the name’s maritime imagery but elevating its formality. Although this was the smallest garden we visited today (only 1.5 acres!), the division of the space into many garden rooms provided visual interest and made the garden seem much larger than it actually was.

A doorway frames a view of one of the courtyards at the Master-of-Nets Garden

A doorway frames a view of one of the courtyards at the Master-of-Nets Garden

Jon, Naomi, and Andrew hanging out in the rockery at the Master-of-Nets Garden

Jon, Naomi, and Andrew hanging out in the rockery at the Master-of-Nets Garden

A stone pavilion at the Master-of-Nets Garden

A stone pavilion at the Master-of-Nets Garden

The Humble Administrator’s Garden was our third stop. Water is a prominent feature of this garden, covering around 60% of its total area! As we walked through the garden, we admired the beautiful architecture, incredible plants (including a 430-year-old wisteria!), and intriguing rockery formations.

Zigzag bridge at the Humble Administrator's Garden

Zigzag bridge at the Humble Administrator's Garden

 

A pavilion with beautiful cobalt-tinted windows at the Humble Administrator's Garden

A pavilion with beautiful cobalt-tinted windows at the Humble Administrator's Garden

 

Chinese tourists crossing a bridge over the lotus pond at the Humble Administrator's Garden

Chinese tourists crossing a bridge over the lotus pond at the Humble Administrator's Garden

During our afternoon visit to the offices of the Suzhou Gardens and Landscape Administration Bureau, we met with Ms. Wang Lijun, head of the city’s urban greening projects, and Professor Xiang, head of horticulture for the classical gardens. The Bureau currently owns 36 of the 37 classical gardens still extant in the city (between the Ming and Qing dynasties, over 1000 gardens were built in Suzhou; unfortunately, many were destroyed or simply disappeared over the centuries). Of the gardens the Bureau oversees, 20 are open to the public, while the remaining 16 are under renovation and will be opened to public visitation at some point in the future. The Bureau takes historic garden preservation very seriously – as Professor Xiang explained to us, each garden is like a canvas painted with trees: destruction of a single plant specimen can upset the balance of the entire composition.

Our meeting with Ms. Wang Lijun and Professor Xiang at the Suzhou Gardens and Landscape Administration Bureau

Our meeting with Ms. Wang Lijun and Professor Xiang at the Suzhou Gardens and Landscape Administration Bureau

After our day of garden visits, we returned to our hotel to relax and prepare for tomorrow’s excursion – a boat tour of Suzhou’s Grand Canal and a visit to the historic water town of Luzhi. Stay tuned for a full report tomorrow night!

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