Suzhou's miniaturised works of landscape art were designed as private gardens and hidden within the high, whitewashed walls of family compounds. They were created by the poets and painters, retired mandarins and writers who came to live here in the 15th and 16th centuries. The best way to see the gardens is by bicycle. Everyone in Suzhou cycles, and it's fun bowling along the narrow cobbled streets in the middle of a stream of Chinese bikers. The pace is relaxed, the going is flat, the traffic is light. When you get hungry, you can stop off at a roadside stall for a bowl of steamed dumplings.
Suzhou itself is an old silk-manufacturing town with a network of canals, crossed by humpback bridges, linking up to the nearby Grand Canal and the mouth of the Yangtze river. These waterways were used to transport silk around the country and to feed the lakes and pools in the city's dozens of private gardens. The main canals have been converted into roads, but there are enough canals and bridges left within the old city walls to give an impression of how attractive the place must have been in its prosperous silk-spinning days.
The streets are lined with low, wooden merchants' houses, small shops and pollarded plane trees which provide welcome shade in the hot, humid summer. I was there in winter, when the city is comparatively tourist- free. Visitors should not expect street signs in English - but if you have a map, and can find someone to list the gardens in Chinese characters, it's not hard to find your way around.
Little is known in the West about traditional Chinese gardens, beyond the fact that they influenced gardens in Japan and south-east Asia. They drew on the gardens of the grand imperial palaces in northern China, and their creators were cultured people with a fine sense of aesthetics. The gardens they designed incorporated the artistic aspirations of the time.
A survey in 1956 listed 190 gardens in Suzhou, but many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Only half a dozen have been restored and are open to the public. The most distinguished are the Garden of the Humble Administrator, the Garden to Linger In, the Garden of Harmony, and the Pavilion of Blue Waves. If you have time for only one, it would have to be the Garden of the Master of Nets: created by an official who thought he could attain happiness if he became a simple fisherman, it incorporates every aspect typical of the genre.
The element of surprise, for example, is crucial. When you clamber off your bike and enter the dark entrance halls of these canalside houses, you have no idea what to expect. Within the compound, the land - sometimes the size of a hockey pitch, sometimes much bigger - has been sculpted into hills and valleys, mountains and ravines, with pools and streams, all on a miniature scale. Craggy rocks, shrubs and trees, and ornamental terraced buildings are arranged as though brushed in by a painter. The composition, a distillation of nature, seeks to convey the essence of a natural landscape.
There is a prescribed route, a winding narrow path that takes you through every element of the garden. The path is sometimes paved, sometimes patterned with pebbles. It climbs up and over hills, around groups of large rocks, over bridges and alongside lakes, and through pavilion after pavilion. These open-sided halls or galleries with upturned eaves, usually approached via a courtyard, help subdivide the garden into separate but linked areas. Their tall, lattice side-screens swing open in the summer to allow breezes cooled by a pool to circulate. Within the dark, chestnut-panelled interiors are elegant, sparse groups of furniture: a high scroll table placed between carved thrones, a reclining wooden couch with silk cushions, stone tablets inscribed with poems.
The pavilions were essentially open-air studios where the householder and his family would write or paint, listen to music or compose poetry, meet friends, or just sit and contemplate. The main pavilion usually looks on to a pool edged with banks and peaks of strangely shaped pitted rocks, collected fanatically by wealthy aristocrats from nearby lakes.
Follow the winding path, and every few steps you will come across a fresh scene or a new vista: a pool filled with waterlilies, a group of evergreens against a white wall, drifts of bamboo, a pagoda reflected in the water. Look back and you will see familiar scenes from different angles. Ever- changing views through the seasons is what Chinese gardens aspire to, and the Suzhou designers were masters of the art.
Formal gardens developing in the West at the same time tended to have fountains or statues at their centre, whereas the core of classical Chinese gardens is invariably a lake. To Chinese eyes, a sheet of water is not empty. It is full of reflections - of the beauty around it, the different seasons, scudding clouds, or the full moon. It is brimming with creative possibilities. One corner may be crossed by a low zig-zag bridge made of slabs of stone set at angles. Another may have a "dry boat" or barge- like structure to symbolise the philosophical concept of the mind floating, carefree, like an untied boat.
The design of the gardens reflected the romantic movement then flourishing in the arts in China. In scroll painting, poetry and essays, landscapes of towering mountains, forests and lakes sought to capture the Confucian ideals of kinship and harmony between nature and man. The compact masterpieces at Suzhou, too, are a union of artistic ideals. They are the spirit (or chi) of gardens as well as the form.
Just as a hand-scroll painting is unrolled section by section, so the scenes in a classical Chinese garden unfold. One may be framed by a moongate, another viewed from a covered passageway walled on one side. These curving walkways acted as partitions, and were made into ornamental features using calligraphy inscriptions and stone windows of different shapes, carved with fretwork flower patterns so that the visitor peering through gets a keyhole view. "Borrowed landscape" is another device. In the Garden to Linger In, a distant view of a pagoda is framed to bring it within the walls.
Whereas Western designers are concerned with size and sweeps of flat lawn or terraces, the Chinese aim at waves of interest created by a series of three-dimensional backdrops. Colour and scent are peripheral, though the designers made some use of seasonal plants: wintersweet, bamboo and early-flowering prunus in winter; magnolia and peonies in spring; wisteria, lotus and roses in summer; acers in autumn.
Scale is of vital importance. So-called "hills" rarely exceed 20ft in height, so they don't dwarf other elements. Tall trees are set at a distance in groups of threes and fives. Lakes are no more than 20-30 yards across, so the viewer can focus on the other side. The structure is so perfectly proportioned that the garden looks right all year round.
One of the fundamental principles is the balance between yin and yang - soft and hard, emptiness and solidity, revealed and concealed. Active waters are complemented by passive hills, heights by depths. The swish of bamboo, the splash of a stream, jumping fish, even the winding of wisteria and gnarled tree trunks, all add movement and energy to a still scene.
Visit the gardens today and you will find that 16th-century beauty has been tempered by 20th-century vulgarity. Some pavilions have been turned into teahouses or shops with cement stools, garish signs and yellow umbrellas. New, hooped bamboo fencing is everywhere. Unsightly ceramic dragons and frogs, the oriental equivalent of garden gnomes, have been thrown in for good measure. Don't be put off by the kitsch. China has few historic sites left after the Cultural Revolution, and Suzhou and its gardens are among the best. !Reuse content