Garden Memories of an Illustrious Past: A Weekend Visit to Suzhou


As everyone knows, Suzhou is famous for its Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) gardens, built by wealthy families as retreats from busy urban life and cultural centers for them to meet with their fellow elites (the best English-language academic study of these gardens is Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China).  The name “garden” is a bit misleading.  These large walled-in compounds were designed to be both living quarters for urban elites and miniature worlds, with complex yet aesthetically satisfying arrangements of mountains, rivers, oceans, and forests represented by well-placed rocks, ponds, creeks, and bonsai gardens.  Thus, they represented the fantasy of man’s domination and control over the natural world, or if you prefer a more euphemistic term, man’s “harmony” with nature.  

At the time these gardens were built, China was the most prosperous and urbanized realm on the planet, , and the Jiangnan region was the world’s most productive agricultural and economic center.  Suzhou merchants and officials reaped the rewards of a burgeoning local industry in silk textiles.  (Over in Shanghai, cotton was king.)  In order to escape the urban bustle without leaving the city, and to distinguish themselves from the merchants (with whom they had strong interfamilial ties and economic co-dependencies) literati-officials built these gardens to show off their command of high culture.  

The designers and owners invested these gardens with myriad symbols and representations of cultural authority.  The pavilions, structures, inner courtyards, rocks, streams, and ponds were all given clever labels with literary allusions stretching back centuries in time.  Each hall and structure contained many cultural artifacts:  paintings, collections of precious things, calligraphic carvings.  There was almost always a reading room or study, often located in a remote part of the garden.  They also built halls dedicated to ancestral worship, another activity that separated the elites from the great unwashed, and halls for meditation--sometimes associated with Chan Buddhism--and self-cultivation, the hallmark of the neo-Confucian literatus.  The entire complex was meant to focus the mind, heighten and cultivate one’s aesthetic and moral sensitivities.

How these gardens were used in practice is another question.  The Chinese novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of Red Chambers) contains many rich descriptions of elite family life in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) China, and describes in detail how people used these gardens for their personal pleasure.  Even today there is a sexual connotation with garden culture.  With all their beautiful walks, their nooks and crannies and little hideaways, these were without doubt wonderful places for men and women--or men and men--to carry out their romantic affairs.  But they were also great spots to hold gatherings amongst the urban elites and cultivate guanxi among literati and officials.  Poetry writing and drinking parties—a practice that goes back to ancient times--were also part of the garden experience.

Today the visitor heads to Suzhou and visits one or more of the many gardens open to the public.  These gardens have of course gone through many vissicitudes—namely changes in ownership over the centuries, the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s, the revolutionary campaigns of the twentieth century, and Japanese occupation in the 1940s.  After the Mao years they were carefully restored to their original glory or a semblance thereof and opened to the public, guarded and protected as national and international treasures.  

The contemporary tourist experience of the gardens is to perambulate through them within the span of an hour or two, passing through the pavilions, halls, ponds, courtyards, corridors, and yards with miniature gardens.  Depending on the garden and the season, one is often surrounded by other tourists snapping photos of each other amidst the scenery, but occasionally it is possible to find a peaceful and unoccupied grotto or hall to quietly contemplate the scene for a bit before the next photo-snapping group is ushered in.

For my mother’s last weekend in China, we took her to Suzhou.  Our friends Lawrence and Ran-Ran decided to join us, along with their ten-month old daughter Samantha.  For a while, I was taking visitors or student groups to the Lingering Garden (liu yuan).  This time we chose to visit the Garden of the Master of Nets, a much smaller garden that is touted by the Lonely Planet Guide as by far the best.  I agree that it has great charm, but I also found the Humble Administrator’s Garden delightful.  Divided into a western, central, and eastern section, this is the largest of the Ming gardens in Suzhou.  As our guide pointed out, one of the delights of the garden is the view looking out over the main pond, where beyond the garden walls you can see one of Suzhou’s pagodas rising up in the distance.  Taking our 3-year old daughter Sarah through this huge garden wasn’t easy—after a day of touring the city in hot, muggy, and rainy weather, we were all pretty exhausted.  But she did enjoy the ducks that were enclosed in a little fenced in area of the pond under one of the halls, and insisted on taking a photo of them with my camera.

After the gardens and a friendly dinner with one of Lawrence’s business colleagues, we retreated to the Suzhou Sheraton.  We had taken my father and step-mother to Suzhou a few years ago and also stayed in this hotel, and had fond memories of it.  Designed to harmonize with the old buildings and gardens of the city, it is definitely worth the price, especially when your folks are paying the bill ; )

Like most cities in China, Suzhou is rapidly modernizing, and high-rises are sprouting up everywhere.  Fortunately for the tourist trade, much of the inner section of the city is being preserved and developers are prevented from building there, so the old neighborhoods and canals that make this city so charming can still be found today, but who knows how much longer this situation will last.  

On Sunday we headed over to the Pan-men Gate, a tourist site located just behind the Sheraton, featuring remnants of the city wall and the “illustrious light” Pagoda (rui guang ta) which dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  Unlike the pagoda at Tiger Hill, you can climb inside this one.  Despite the steep staircases, both Sarah and my mother Liz made it all the way up to the top of the pagoda.  Mom had to conquer her fear of heights and I have a wonderful backlit shot of her trying to control a panic attack, but to her credit she made it to the very top chamber.  

After that we decided to hit the Suzhou Museum, which was well worth the visit, not so much for the contents, which are not too impressive when compared with the Shanghai Museum, but for the design and structure of the building.  Designed by I.M. Pei, this building is also meant to complement the old architecture of the city.

Our final stop before heading back to Shanghai was the Bookworm, a café, bookstore, and used-book swap station, started in Beijing by Alex Pearson and now branching to other Chinese cities.  We waited over an hour for the lunches we ordered there.   But the food was good when it came, and the manager was very apologetic and assured us that this was unusual for them.  The Bookworm is a bit hard to find as it’s located along a canal just off a small street branching from Shiquan Jie.  I wish they would set one of these places up in Shanghai, but we have so many other great things here it’s hard to complain.

I have uploaded photos of the Humble Administrator's Garden, Master of Nets Garden, Pan Men and Pagoda, and Suzhou Museum onto my Suzhou photo page.