In 1504, Michelangelo unveiled his masterpiece, the 17-foot sculpture of David. It still stands in Florence, Italy.
That same year, Leonardo da Vinci worked on a commission that forever changed the face of portraiture. He called his work, La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa, which is displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Around that same time on the other side of the planet in Suzhou, China, a government administrator named Wang Xianchen started to build a garden that would grow over the centuries into 14 acres. Wang may never be a household name outside of his homeland, but his idea that the life of a humble man could embrace nature continues to capture the imagination of millions of visitors.
Located in the Yangtze Province, about 70 miles from Shanghai, The Humble Administrator’s Garden is one of the four most famous public gardens in China. In 1997, it was named part of a collective UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
My group stepped off the coach on Dongbei Street within sight of the entrance to The Humble Administrator’s Garden. On the short drive from the hotel, our MoreFunAsia tour guide, Cathy, had briefed us about the history of the garden that began five centuries ago. Armed with a bilingual map and her words that Chinese gardens are built, not planted, we thought we were prepared for what lay beyond the garden’s gate. Like many instances during our tour of Suzhou, we were delighted to be so wrong.
The map shows a bird’s-eye view of the garden anchored by a lake and carved into three sections — eastern, middle and western. Each area boasts its own poetic landscape, changing waterscape and romantic structures for the owner to sit and be one with his surroundings. The exquisite buildings include pavilions, towers and shelters; many are named to honor the view — perhaps of lotus, water lilies, azaleas or the variety of birds that make the garden their home.
There’s the Orange Pavilion, where citrus trees flourish; the All Blue Pavilion is built on a large pond that reflects the color of the sky and the Hall of 18 Camellias captures the scent of the blooms on a summer night. There are more than 20 such structures. Some names reflect the purpose of the shelter, like the “Keep and Listen” Pavilion or the “With Whom Should I Sit?” Pavilion.
Stepping through another moon gate (circular doorway), my group was greeted by a great swath of lotus stretching above a large pond divided by a serpentine bridge. We could see masses of water lilies on the other side. In China, walks and footbridges often zig and zag; the design is thought to confuse evil spirits that are believed to slither along the ground. Keeping evil spirits at bay is another reason that gardens often require guests to step over a door’s threshold to enter. In Feng Shui, such a threshold protects and controls the movement of good Chi; in the case of a garden, the threshold keeps it inside the grounds.
A Chinese garden is often compared to a scroll painting. The scroll unrolls to present a series of scenes of a carefully composed story. On a simple stroll in The Humble Administrator’s Garden, visitors are greeted by real-life scenes that were carefully composed to provide a story of harmony that began more than 500 years ago.
MoreFunAsia Tour Operator
ASTA, IATA, PATA, USTOA
Article by Mary Lu Laffey