Every Chinese garden has doors: either the mystic moon doors, or the mysteriously locked doors of various pavilions. The Ming era Zhan garden of Nanjing was no exception. This is supposed to have belonged to the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who then gave it to his general, Xu Da. This one also had ornate windows in pavilions where you could sit and look out at the garden (featured photo). The pavilion faced a beautiful pool, and the view out of the window did not look that good.
One of my favourite photos of doors I this garden was of this unassuming door at the side of a large pavilion which contained part of the museum of the Taiping revolution. It wasn’t the door itself which fascinated me, the the beautiful courtyard, and the view into the illuminated space of the museum.
This black stained door in a white wall, with brass fittings and a lock was exactly the kind of mysterious door I had noticed elsewhere. What could lie behind it? Historical archives or gardening tools? There is nothing that tells you about the space behind. Quite mysterious.
This looked like a special moon gate to me. Most moon gates are simply round openings in walls. This has a couple of extra notches cut into it. Is that meaningful, or just a decorative touch? I don’t know.
If you are a casual tourist like me the Yu garden of Shanghai could be the only classical Ming period (16th century) garden that you get to see. The featured photo shows you most of the special features of these gardens: white walls enclose it, pierced by round doors called moon gates, large areas of water are surrounded by trees and rocks, and there are pavilions where you are supposed to sit and enjoy the view. It is worthwhile checking out these pavilions, because the garden was designed so that the view from each pavilion is a set piece to enjoy.
What you see in the photo above is one of these set pieces. I was lucky to be able to capture this view in a little moment when there were no people in the frame. The garden was quiet, and I could hear the soft rustle of leaves. When the Ming dynasty official, Pan Yun Duan, had this garden built in 1565 I am sure the soundscape was also part of the design.
This becomes clearer in another part of the garden, a view of which you see in the photo above. The tiny waterfall is designed to produce a gentle sound of water. After meeting the sound of falling water in tens of upmarket shops across China, I am inclined to think that you are meant to hear a classical Chinese garden as well as look at it. This must be a part of culture which is so deep that little is written about it. In the same way no one really writes about the fact that a traditional Indian garden engages the sense of smell more than sight.
One of the pavilions has a view of the very special stone called Yu Ling Long (玉玲珑, exquisite jade rock) which you see in the photo above. Understanding why this is exquisite takes you to the heart of Chinese aesthetics, and its preference for artful asymmetry. The stone, said to have been collected and lost by the northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong, is said to be shou, zhou, lou, and tou (ie, it is slender, gnarly, full of channels and holes). The holes are said to be such that if you light incense at the base, the smoke pours out from each of the 72 holes in the rock. Also, it is said that, the channels are such that if you pour water at the top, it flows out of each of these holes. Since there is no demonstration of this, I expect these are the usual superlatives which you have to take for granted.
Around the tranquil pond in front of this, I noticed sparrows and turtles. Turtles are supposed to be symbols of longevity, and good luck, on par with dragons and the phoenix. Placing them in the pool was symbolic of good health and long life. Maybe I could have considered the sparrows to stand in for the phoenix. In that case I could count this as a wonderfully lucky sighting.
I am quite certain that this view is not meant to be special, just that foreigners like me find it very typical of China. The pavilion on water and the banana trees around it looked to me like a transformed village house from Assam, Bengal, or Odisha: the kind of parallel with a difference which I use as a private scheme to understand China. This garden has been destroyed many times, and rebuilt again. It is unlikely that there is a single unified design any longer.
This young girl who wheeled her suitcase up to the water’s edge and then sat down to start feeding fish, however, acted within the design parameters of the garden. The carp were seeded here to be looked at, admired, and fed. There was soon a crowd around her. She kept reaching into the suitcase and bringing out feed. That is when it struck me that the large number of people whom I saw wheeling around suitcases were not out-of-towners enjoying a stroll through Shanghai. They are locals. The wheeled suitcase is preferred over a backpack by many people in China. I find that a garden is a good place for people watching.
I like to enter China through Shanghai. In my mind this is ChinaLite; many people can speak English, they are used to tourists, and the city is a mash up of old and picturesque China and the brash new China. We’d given ourselves a day of indulgence, full blown tourist treatment, before traveling on. Our hotel was a five minute walk from the famous 16th century Garden of Peace and Comfort: more popularly known as the Yu garden, 豫园. We had a long breakfast and walked over to the garden.
In this SaturdayLite post I wanted to show you that the garden is not just a place for foreign tourists. Nothing in China is. Just as in India, the local crowd of tourists far outnumbers foreigners. I did a bit of guerilla photography, but the trio posing at the moon gate in the featured photo noticed us. We had a nice conversation: their sentences peppered with a few words of English, ours with a word or two of Putonghua. We established that they were from Shanghai, and we were from India. We walked through parts of the garden at roughly the same pace, and they continued to point out interesting things to us.
This moon gate is not typical, since there is a closed door behind it. But I like it for another reason: the lattice work on the door behind it (visible through the glass) is typically Chinese. When you look carefully at it you notice that the symmetry is very subtle. The top and bottom halves are not simply copies of each other. This subtlety, the refusal of obvious symmetries, is a hallmark of Chinese art and architecture.
So many more aesthetic alternatives become available when you reject symmetries. One example is in the undulating walls which separate different sections of the garden. When you look carefully above the gates which open in the walls, you notice that the undulations are the bodies of dragons; their heads are seen above the gates which pierce the wall. The one in the photo above shows a little toad below the dragon. Many animals in Chinese architecture seem to have symbolic value. The toad symbolizes longevity. Together with the dragon, it symbolized a long life full of good fortune. A very appropriate symbol for a garden of peace and comfort.