Where heritage takes root_Chinadaily.com.cn

Suzhou’s gardens offer a glimpse of the past and a narrative of the future, reports Wang Kaihao.

Editor’s Note: China is home to 56 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To find out how these natural and cultural gems still shine and continue to inspire the nation in this new era of development, China Daily publishes a series of reports covering 10 groups of selected sites across the country. In this article, we welcome readers to the serene Classical Gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

Shortly after dawn, the 680-year-old Lion Grove Garden awakens to the sound of birdsong and its humid air is infused with a floral scent. The mist has not evaporated. With a view of pavilions and rock gardens and a sip of green tea, first-time visitors to this garden in downtown Suzhou, Jiangsu Province can feel a sense of Zen-like inner peace.

When a group of monks from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) first built this garden, perhaps they simply wanted to enjoy a quiet retreat away from the city noise. Nevertheless, over the following centuries this enchanting garden – best known for its waterside rockeries resembling the shape of lions – attracted a steady stream of famous guests, who left behind a long list of poems, paintings and historical anecdotes.

The temple disappeared in the mists of time, but the Lion Grove Garden is still a must-see attraction for travelers to Suzhou.

While they will admire the same vantage point as their older predecessors, in the noisier context of the modern world, they may have to work harder to achieve a sense of tranquility.

“In recent years, we have tried to restore the historic landscapes of classical gardens in Suzhou, but an exquisite garden cannot be an empty shell,” said Bai Lingzhi, deputy director of the planning department of the Administrative Bureau of Garden and Landscape. landscaping in Suzhou.

“We need more creative ideas to bring people into the lifestyle of gardens and thus promote their aesthetic value in the modern age,” she explains.

Therefore, last year, a new project was launched allowing tourists in small groups to reserve places to enter the garden early in the morning before the usual opening time. Their tour ends with the final step of making a traditional folding fan, adding a poem about the garden to its surface.

It’s a poetic way to remember the golden age of classical gardens in Suzhou.

“Experience can help us understand the wisdom, refined taste and philosophical worldview of ancient Chinese scholars,” Bai says.

Not all architectural monuments are grandiose, with splendid decorations or dazzling colors. The gardens of Suzhou are perhaps quite the opposite.

In 1997 and 2000, nine of Suzhou’s best-known classical gardens, including Lion Grove Garden, Humble Administrator’s Garden and Great Wave Pavilion, were inscribed on the World Heritage List. As UNESCO observes: “Classical Chinese garden design, which seeks to recreate natural landscapes in miniature, is nowhere better exemplified than in the Nine Gardens.…The gardens reflect the profound metaphysical importance of beauty natural in Chinese culture.

The Great Wave Pavilion, the oldest existing garden in Suzhou, was first built in the 11th century, although the city’s first private garden appeared in historical documentation in the 4th century, according to Cao Guangshu, director of the Administrative Bureau of Garden and Landscaping of Suzhou. .

The 16th and 18th centuries saw the heyday of classical gardens in Suzhou, following the city’s rise as an economic center, hosting around 250 gardens.

Some have inevitably been lost over time, but some of the newer ones have continued to flourish. An in-depth survey from 2015 to 2018 showed that the city is home to 108 classical gardens, including 57 in the historic district of Gusu District.

“Suzhou gardens reveal people’s adoration of nature by blending elements from different natural landscapes into their designs,” said He Fengchun, director of the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architecture and a veteran garden conservationist. . “They inspire us to seek harmony with the world around us.

“Visiting a garden is like unrolling a traditional Chinese landscape painting,” she explains. “Thus, like ancient Chinese paintings, philosophy and morals are hidden in the details of the gardens.”

For example, when choosing plant varieties, people preferred plum blossoms, orchids, bamboos, and chrysanthemums, which are hailed as the “four nobles” by Chinese scholars, representing the noble spirits of culture. traditional.

The Craft of Gardens, or Yuanye, the first Chinese treatise on the art of gardening, was published in 1634 and has been an enduring guideline for the development of gardens not only in China, but also in Japan and other country.

Perhaps Suzhou Gardens epitomizes a famous line from the book. He wrote: “Although man-made, they appeared to be natural wonders.”

“Unlike their Japanese counterparts, who often follow rigid design formats and unveil the pathos of things, people want to maintain an emotional affinity with nature in the gardens of Suzhou,” he explains. “This joie de vivre thus brings more diversified landscapes and a cozier living environment.”

In past centuries, Suzhou has also largely led the development of ancient Chinese landscape gardens as a whole.

For example, the gardens of Suzhou were among the favorite destinations of the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) during their tours south from Beijing. Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) visited Lion Grove Garden six times.

“If it weren’t for the emperors’ love for the gardens of Suzhou and their desire to ‘transplant’ them to the north, would there be such grand royal gardens as Chengde Mountain Resort?” He asks.

Whether these classic Suzhou gardens once belonged to high officials or nobles, scholars or artists, as well as business magnates, their days as residences are long gone. Nevertheless, these “beads scattered on a piece of jadeite”, as the city gardens are described by He, have a lasting legacy, guiding people on how to live.

“With the basic colors of white and black, they set an elegant tone for the further development of Suzhou,” she said. “So we rarely see flashy design in the modern urban construction of this city. The aesthetics of the gardens also make us think about how to create a poetic living environment at home.”

For Bai, from the administration of the gardens, the 108 gardens form a cultural network and create a continuous path through time and space that paves the ethos of this city. She says greater exposure of their values ​​can help turn the whole city into a “park”, providing benefits far beyond tourism.

“Running a city is more than governing a territory. People are now digging deeper into history and as such can delicately cultivate the growth of a city in a way that suits them,” says- she. “Ecological protection and many other urban infrastructure projects can draw inspiration from the design ideals of classical gardens.”

Zhu Haijun, director of the Suzhou Conservation and Monitoring Center for Classical Gardens of World Cultural Heritage, sees education programs for the younger generation as key to passing on intangible heritage for the future.

“The future fate of classical gardens is in their hands,” he says. “We would like to plant a seed in their hearts so that the gardens can continue to thrive through the ages.”

As night falls in the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest among the 108 sites, soft light and a melody imbued with a sense of antiquity combine to evoke a memory of ancient scholars, under a silver moon.

At the edge of a pond, artists present performances of Kunqu, an ancient local opera famous for its elegant movements and lyrics, which has been declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. Digitized versions of traditional Suzhou paintings are projected onto the walls giving the impression of gently undulating in the breeze. This is another immersive tour program that started last year.

The subtle grace of the gardens still flows via the languid canals that meander through Suzhou. Barely felt, their force in shaping the character of the city seems to linger forever.

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