Friday, February 1, 2008


Suzhou's history begins at least as early as 514 BC. We were to visit two of Suzhou's famous gardens. The Gardens were built by imperial officials; affluent mandarins who sought to create oases of tranquility intended for inward reflection based on the principles of Shan Shui, or mountains and water, and also the Taoist concepts of natural harmony. They were designed for quiet meditation.

Unfortunately the original gardens were mostly destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion. I know very little Chinese history - that which I do know is from reading Wild Swans (a biography of 3 generations of Chinese women). So I learned today that the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) was lead by Hong Xiuquan, a Christian who had visions which lead him to believe that he was the son of God and brother of Jesus Christ! By 1853 Hong had become bored with waring and instead turned to sensual pursuits (unlike his brother J.C., Hong enjoyed a substantial harem). With Hong thus distracted the Quing military lead by an Englishman, Charles 'Chinese' Gordon were able to overthrow Hong's Empire (wonder if these characters inspired Flash Gordon - fighting the evil Ming). By 1863 Suzhou was returned to Quing. Next the troubled city was captured by the Japanese government in 1937, who also destroyed many of the gardens and in 1949 the communists continued the destruction.

In 1981 China's then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping took control of the city and many of the gardens were rebuilt. Incidentally Xiaping was also the leader responsible for the rise of the water city of Zhouzhang.

So the Gardens... Our tour guide Sheila lead us through the 'Humble Administrators Garden' and the 'Lion Forrest Garden'. Sheila was a very pretty, slim and delicate Chinese girl. The way she walked made me think of elegant Mandarin ladies in formal dress - her toes always hit the ground first and her gate was a floaty hobble.

Snow had fallen heavily during our drive to the Garden and this made for a dramatic scene. The Administrator's garden was far from 'humble'. It is one of Suzhou's largest, most luxuriant classical garden: streams, po9nds, bamboo covered islands connected by traditional bridges and causeways. The Chinese believed that evil is unable to pass except in straight lines, so all of the bridges, zig zagged across the water. The many pagodas were named things like: 'place to listen to rain on roof'' or 'place to sleep listening to the sound of rain on lotus leaves'... As a great advocate of the afternoon snooze myself, I imagined settling down to the sound of the rain outside hitting the lotus leaves in the pond with the soft smell of the flowers floating in on the spring breeze. I feel that the only thing missing from this tranquil scene was a hammock. I could have made a killing in ancient China marketing hammocks! Although perhaps they would have had some trouble climbing into them in those long robes.

On the way out we visited the Bonsai Garden. I have always found Bonsai trees quite magical. Tinsy perfect little trees all knotted and old. Sadly on the one occasion I owned a Bonsai I managed to kill it very quickly.

Our last visit was to the 'Lion Forrest Garden'. This is the only garden to have survived from the Yuan Dynasty. The Garden was inspired by Buddhist ideas, compact yet harmoniously spaced. The garden is filled with limestone rocks, carefully chosen because their shapes resembled lions. We walked through a labyrinth of man made limestone mountains with winding pathways as well as pavilions, terraces and towers. Again I imagined emperors visiting the imperial minister who owned the Garden and drifting around its many walk ways. A nice little glimpse of how ancient China might have been. A far cry from the hustle of modern, neon, Shanghai.

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