Where heritage takes root


Suzhou gardens provide a glimpse into the past and a narrative for the future.(China Daily/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 is running a series of reports covering 10 groups of selected sites from across the country. In this installment, we welcome readers to the tranquil classical gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Shortly after dawn, the 680-year-old Lion Grove Garden wakes up to the sound of chirping birds and its moist air is suffused with a floral scent. Mist has not evaporated. With a view of pavilions and rockeries and a sip of green tea, early visitors to this garden in downtown Suzhou, Jiangsu province, can feel a sense of Zenlike inner peace.

When a group of monks during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) first constructed this garden, they may have just wanted to enjoy a quiet retreat, tucked away from urban noise. Nonetheless, in the following centuries, this enchanting garden-most notable for its waterside rockeries resembling the shape of lions-has attracted a constant stream of celebrity guests, who have left a long list of poems, paintings and historical anecdotes.

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

While they will be admiring the same view as their ancient predecessors, against the louder backdrop of the modern world, they may need to work harder to attain a sense of tranquility.

"In recent years, we've tried to restore the historical landscapes of Suzhou's classical gardens, but an exquisite garden cannot be an empty shell," says Bai Lingzhi, deputy director of the planning department of Suzhou Administrative Bureau of Garden and Landscaping.

"We need more creative ideas to usher people into the lifestyle espoused by the gardens and thus promote their aesthetic value in the modern era," she explains.

Consequently, last year, a new project was launched allowing tourists in small groups to reserve places to enter the garden in the early morning before the regular opening time. Their visit ends with them completing the last step in making a traditional folding fan, adding a poem about the garden on its surface.

It is a poetic way to reminisce about the golden age of Suzhou's classical gardens.

"The experience can help us understand the wisdom, refined taste and philosophical worldview of the ancient Chinese literati," Bai explains.

Not every architectural landmark is grand in scale, with splendid decorations, or dazzling colors. Suzhou gardens may just be the opposite.

In 1997 and 2000, nine of the best-known classical gardens of Suzhou, including Lion Grove Garden, Humble Administrator's Garden and Great Wave Pavilion, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List. As UNESCO remarks: "Classical Chinese garden design, which seeks to re-create natural landscapes in miniature, is nowhere better illustrated than in the nine gardens.… The gardens reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture."

Great Wave Pavilion, the oldest extant garden in Suzhou, was first built in the 11th century, though the earliest private garden in the city appeared in historical documentation in the fourth century, according to Cao Guangshu, director of Suzhou Administrative Bureau of Garden and Landscaping.

The 16th to 18th centuries witnessed the peak time of Suzhou classical gardens, following the rise of the city as an economic hub, playing host to around 250 gardens.

Some were inevitably lost to time, but some of the more recent ones kept blossoming. A comprehensive survey from 2015 to 2018 showed that the city is home to 108 classical gardens, 57 of which are in the historical neighborhood of Gusu district.

"Suzhou gardens reveal people's adoration of nature by mixing elements of different natural landscapes into their designs," says He Fengchun, director of the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architecture Design and a veteran in the conservation of the gardens. "They inspire us to pursue harmony with the world around us.

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

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

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

Perhaps, Suzhou gardens epitomize a famous line in the book. It wrote: "Though being artificial, they seemed like natural wonders."

"Unlike their Japanese counterparts, which often follow rigid design formats and unveil the pathos of things, people want to maintain an emotional affinity with nature in Suzhou gardens," He explains. "That affection for life thus brings more diverse scenery and a cozier living environment."

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

For instance, Suzhou gardens were among the favorite destinations of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors when touring southward from Beijing. Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) visited Lion Grove Garden six times.

"If it were not for the emperors' love for Suzhou gardens and their desire to 'transplant' them northward, would there be those grand royal gardens like Chengde Mountain Resort?" He asks.

Regardless of whether those classical gardens in Suzhou were once owned by high officials or nobles, literati or artists, as well as business tycoons, their days as residences have long gone. Nonetheless, these "pearls scattered on a piece of jadeite", as the city's gardens are described by He, have lasting legacies, guiding people how to live.

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

For Bai, from the garden administration, 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 further display of their values can contribute to transforming the whole city into a "park", delivering benefits far beyond tourism.

"Managing a city is more than governing land. People now dig deeper into history and can, as such, delicately cultivate a city's growth in a way that suits them," she says. "Ecological protection and many other urban infrastructure projects can learn from the design ideals of the classical gardens."

Zhu Haijun, director of Suzhou Conservation and Monitoring Center for the Classical Gardens of World Cultural Heritage, considers education programs for the young generation as key to passing down the intangible legacy for the future.

"The future destiny of the classical gardens is in their hands," he says. "We'd 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 literati, under a silvery moon.

By a pond, artists deliver Kunqu performances, an ancient local opera famed for its elegant movements and lyrics, which was listed as a Masterpiece of the 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 slightly waving in the breeze. It is another immersive visiting program that began last year.

The subtle grace of the gardens still flows via the languid canals that snake across Suzhou. Hardly felt, their strength in shaping the city's character seems to linger forever.

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