The Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai was my introduction to classical Chinese gardening. The garden is hidden in the Yuyuan Tourist Mart in the old city—a shopping area made up of rows of stores housed in buildings imitating the architecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasty. How could a garden considered to be a classical masterpiece possibly be there? But when I finally found the entrance after much wandering around I discovered a paradise and the birds were singing.
I really didn’t know anything about classical Chinese gardens before entering this one and my overwhelming impression was that it is very different from classical English gardens. There are no borders of shrubs and flowers; colour is not very important. I later learned that a masterful garden here recreates the natural landscape in miniature form. It does this through a variety of structures that are connected by winding paths and a series of carefully composed scenes. The garden itself is surrounded by a wall, which is usually painted white. There is always a pond with pavilions and other structures arranged around it to help separate the scenes so they are not revealed all at once. Views are given descriptive names such as “where the wind whistles through the bamboo stalks”.
The Yuyuan Garden is divided into six general areas by ‘dragon’ walls. There are 48 scenic views, which is incredible considering its size. Its most famous feature is the Giant Artificial Hill that was made out of huangshi stones that were piled up in an artistic design by a famous architect. The rockery at its peak is 12 meters high. It is so wide and deep that there are cliffs and valleys and hidden paths and caves. It’s all miniature but perfect. Before Shanghai became a city of skyscrapers you could see the white sails of boats as they cruised down the Huangpu River (which is a few blocks over) when you were at the top. The workmanship of the Hill is incredible.
The structures have wonderful sounding names such as the Happy Fish Waterside Pavilion, the Thousand Flower Hall, the Hall of Mildness, and the Zigzag Bridge. Along with the structures, the views are also framed by windows and doors. The views don’t have to be wide, perhaps a view of a branch of a pine tree, or the plum tree that is in bloom, or a grove of bamboo.
Classical gardens first appeared in China over 3,000 years ago during the Shang and Zhou dynasties and continued to evolve. This garden was built by an administrator about 400 years ago to please his aging parents. There have been many changes and expansions over the years and today it occupies an area of 2 hectares (5 acres).
This garden is a place of enjoyment, crowded with visitors who were hiding from one another in the caves, counting the fish, scampering up the winding paths, taking photos. It’s an exquisite place, far removed from the clamour that is just beyond its walls.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
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