by Hunter Zhu
Graphic and media design
I spent this weekend in Suzhou, a city that is widely hailed as a “Paradise on Earth.” It has had a strong cultural and artistic significance in China for centuries as many painters and poets have journeyed south of the Yangtze River to Suzhou since the Tang and Song dynasties. Affluent and wealthy individuals, such as politicians and businessmen, have also invested in the area’s lands to build private property and sprawling gardens. Most of these gardens have been preserved since the Ming and Qing dynasties, when they were either renovated or rebuilt. This has made Suzhou famous for its exquisite classical gardens, which blend into a natural scenery of mountains, lakes, and quaint bridges over charming creeks. Suzhou currently boasts the largest number and greatest artistic quality of classical gardens in the country.
First, I visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden which is found in the northeastern part of Old Suzhou.Protected and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the most famous and most visited classical garden of Suzhou. The Humble Administrator’s Garden was constructed in the early 16th century by the dismissed imperial official Wang Xiancheng when he returned to his hometown. There are several stories that explain its purpose. One claims that Wang Xiancheng felt regret and wanted to redeem himself by retiring to a simpler life in which he strived to become worthy of tending a garden. Many ancient scholars have shared similar desires to return to a humbler, rural existence. The second story says that he gave the garden its “Humble” name to sarcastically mock the gentility, since the lavish grounds explicitly express opulence and grandiosity. Another maintains that Wang Xiancheng just wanted to display his own taste. The Humble Administrator’s Garden covers an area of about 52 ,000 square meters (12.85 acres) and is divided into three sections: Eastern, Central, and Western. The Central Garden encompasses virtually the entire attraction. Meanwhile the Eastern Garden is vast and open and the Western Garden showcases the traditional architecture of previous owners’ residences. The facility is built around water, surrounded by rivers and mountains. The grounds feature beautiful pavilions, blooming flowers, lush foliage, and characteristics that are distinct to the southern region of the Yangtze River.
The Hall of Distance Fragrance, also known as the Hall of Drifting Fragrance, is the Humble Administrator’s Garden’s main building and centerpiece which was originally built to entertain visitors. A large lotus pond lies in front, while the hall is made up of three open rooms and is surrounded by four walls made of panoptic windows. The interiors are not obstructed by any pillars, and the windows afford excellent views of the outside surroundings. Turning around inside to gaze outward at the changing of the seasons is an experience reminiscent to viewing artwork on a scroll.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is more than 400 years old, boasting numerous distinguished owners of accomplishment and influence. The grounds and structures have been continuously repaired and renovated by a number of renowned craftsmen over the years. The rolling landscape and flora blend in seamlessly with Suzhou’s natural surroundings. There is no sense of artificiality. All of these things have helped make the Humble Administrator’s Garden a world-renowned site of cultural heritage, historic art, and traditional architecture that has attracted throngs of tourists from all over China and the world. In fact, on October 19, 2018, King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway made a visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden as part of their trip to China.
Early this November, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was the venue for the “Chinese Classical Garden Encounters British Traditional Manor: Picture Exhibition of Humble Administrator’s Garden and Castle Howard.” Castle Howard is one of the United Kingdom's finest stately mansions and a surviving example of the British Baroque architectural style, while the Humble Administrator’s Garden serves as an excellent example of a Chinese classical garden. The exhibit represents an ideal nexus between both Eastern and Western traditions and love for classical gardens.
Afterwards, I visited the Suzhou Museum which is located right next to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, with only a wall separating the two attractions. The museum boasts a comprehensive collection and fuses both modern and ancient architecture along with innovative outdoor landscaping. The Suzhou Museum was designed by the world-famous architect Ieoh Ming Pei (I. M. Pei) in 1999 when he was 85 years old. He was born in Canton, Guangzhou and was raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai before moving to the United States. As a child, he spent many fond summers frolicking in the gardens of Suzhou. He put his love for Suzhou and his Chinese roots into the geometric design of the building, later on saying that he considers the museum as his autobiography. I. M. Pei always insisted on integrating buildings with their surroundings. For the Suzhou Museum, he meticulously designed it to complement the adjacent Humble Administrator's Garden using features that represented the city and its famous gardens. He used the existing monochromatic shades of many of Suzhou’s buildings and combined both traditional and modern architectural styles. The Suzhou Museum is punctuated with geometric shapes such as triangles, parallelograms, and rhombi. I. M. Pei also utilized parallel lines to give the space a sense of rhythm. A fifth of the area houses a garden that he filled with pavilions, ponds, rockeries, and flowering Chinese wisteria. The grounds of the Suzhou Museum retain the true essence of Suzhou’s classical gardens, while tastefully incorporating contemporary landscaping trends and innovative breakthroughs.