Zhan garden

One of the walks I’d planned in Nanjing included one of the five most famous gardens of Southern China: the Zhan garden. This Ming-era garden was given its present name by the Qing-dynasty Qianlong emperor when he visited the garden, perhaps in the mid-18th century. I’ve been walking through Chinese gardens, puzzling out their aesthetics, and a chance question by a colleague allowed me to reflect on what I’d seen. Sharing a taxi to the airport, he asked “Are they like Japanese gardens?” I thought for a while. Yes, perhaps in their cultural importance they are. But architecturally they are different.

They seem to be laid out in a series of areas connected by passages or moon gates. The most popular area in the Zhan garden is near the western entrance, with a large pool, multiple pavilions, willow trees drooping gracefully into the water (featured photo). This is a wonderfully pretty spot, and a magnet for people taking photos of loved ones, or selfies with them. But linking different scenes is part of the architectural design. So you can walk from here into the southern rockery, with its massive pile of stones and trees. Once you get past that you are in a pool again, surrounded by rocks. This pool held a couple of very sleepy black swans. You could walk across stones into a pavilion, and pass through it into a bamboo grove where a large tribe of sparrows were chirping and flying around. Then somehow there was the sound of falling water, and I walked through a moon gate to see an artistically constructed waterfall in front of me. Trees, flowers, birds, even a cat or two, still and flowing water, a succession of sounds, these seem to make up Chinese gardens. Now that I’ve started paying attention to these gardens, I think I have to keep looking at more.

The garden of peace and comfort

One of the big tourist sights of Shanghai is the Ming-era (16th century) Yu garden. Looking through my photos I realize that I’ve been there in two seasons; once in late spring, 6 May 2015, and once in early winter, 2 November 2018. Did I find it worth visiting twice? In one sense this is a silly question, because gardens are always nice places to spend your time. But we were in Shanghai for only a day; so was it worth going into a garden which was still alive in my memory?

Take a look through my camera on my second day in China. Everything was new; the world vibrated with possibilities; my eyes were not used to China. The Yu garden is divided into six areas. In the third area we came across a beautiful stage called the Feng wu luan yin (literally Phoenix dance and song). My eyes snagged on the beautiful sculptures on the roof, which you can see in the gallery above. Rectangular windows with circular panels set into it also were new to me. I realized later in the trip that they symbolize the cosmos (tiandi); the rectangle is the earth (di) and the circle is heaven (tian). The almost symmetry of the lattice nagged at me.

Although I could appreciate the artistry of the fired-clay sculptures, I certainly missed the layer of literature and somgs which have gathered around the garden, which many tourists will know. The second view was different, not only because a garden is different every time you pass through it, but also because I’d grown a little more used to China. I found it interesting that this garden was being built at roughly the same time as the Mughal gardens in parts of India. The contrast in styles is immense.

Between the two visits, a chance look at a review of a book called The Classical Gardens of Shanghai by Shelly Bryant, made me decide to read it. This put the garden in a broader historical perspective for me. Standing again at the same spot, did I see different things? You decide.