Zhan garden

The willow pond and pavillions

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.

Soccer balls and the Forbidden City

The Family and I visited the Forbidden City on a hot day of May last year. We’d not really anticipated how hot Beijing can get, and this day was a special scorcher.Guardian lion in the forbidden city We passed the three main audience halls in the central courtyard and turned into the section called the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, looking for the famous nine-dragon screen in front of the quarters of the famous Qianlong emperor. The sun was almost directly overhead. We had run out of water to drink. After admiring the dragons, we started looking for one of the food stalls inside the palace grounds. As a result, we did not pay too much attention to this guardian lion in front of the Qianlong emperor’s palace.

I was drawn back to my photo of this Tongshi, as bronze guardian lions are called in Mandarin, by an interesting article which connects it with Platonic solids, the design of footballs, and certain chemicals called buckyballs or fullerenes. A football is made by stitching together panels which are either pentagons or hexagons. Regular solids of this kind are called buckyballs. In the picture of one hemisphere of a football you see 6 pentagons. Since a football is symmetric, the half that you can’t see will have another 6 pentagons. A footballIt seems that mathematicians can prove that there must be exactly 12 pentagons on any structure that looks like a buckyball: and that the standard issue football is one such. The football, these new molecules, and Platonic solids like the dodecahedron are all tied together by these 12 pentagons. From the article I learned that the shape of the modern football was anticipated in the year 300 CE by a man named Pappus who lived in Alexandria. This figure was later discussed in a book published in 1509. The book was written by Luca Paccioli and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. In China such solids were first discussed much later, probably for the first time by Wending Mei in 1692.

The lion was made during the Qianlong emperor’s reign, so sometime between the years 1740 CE and 1800 CE. However, when you look carefully at the details, in the featured photo, of the ball held by the lion, you notice that it is not a buckyball. I can see only one pentagon. The article has photos of the bottom of the ball, and counts a few more, but nowhere like the 12 needed to make a buckyball. So it seems that the artist who made this deformed the shape of the ball quite significantly but could not dispense with pentagons. Still I like the fact that this shape brings together Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Qianlong emperor.

The Qianlong Emperor

We walked into a part of the Forbidden City called the Qianlong Garden. A plaque at the entrance told us that this section was built for the use of the Qianlong Emperor after he abdicated. Not being terribly familiar with Chinese imperial history, I had to look this up after getting back to the hotel. It turns out that Qianlong Emperor abdicated in favour of his son after ruling for many years. This was a political move, a show of filial devotion, so that his rule did not exceed that of his grandfather. We read that in actual fact he continued to control the politics of the empire.

From our earlier visit to the Shanghai Museum we knew that the Qianlong Emperor’s time was one where the arts were encouraged and flourished. We entered this section of the palace fully hoping to see wonderful gardens and artifacts. We were not disappointed. Right at the entrance was a wonderful rockery, marred only by large signs asking people not to climb it. Further inside was a gallery lined with panels of beautifully carved deodar wood (see photo above).

pavilionNext to it was this gallery where the not-emperor-in-name would sit with ministers and generals. The channels on the floor (see the photo here) simulated a flowing river down which the company would sail cups of wine for each other. while composing drunken poems. One wonders what matters of state were decided during these parties.

From what I read, the Manchu Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) essentially constructed the modern Chinese nation by conquering a huge territory. He is also said to be responsible for genocide in some parts of his empire. He put the Dalai Lama in power in Tibet, subjugated Xinjiang, Uighurs, Kazhaks. Mongols and Gurkhas. He was unsuccessful in conquering Burma or Vietnam. In his later days, presumably when he spent his time partying, he became dependent on several extremely corrupt officials. This, and his earlier wars depleted the imperial treasury.


Maybe part of this depletion was also due to the fact that he was such a staunch patron of the arts. Museums are full of the creation of this time. The Qianlong Garden holds elegant marvels such as this deer. Apparently a large part of the jade on display in the Forbidden City was collected by him.

He commissioned a catalogue of all important works of Chinese literature. It is claimed that this compilation was a means of destroying or censoring work which objected to Manchu rule over China, or was otherwise critical of the Emperor. It is said that books which were published during the Ming dynasty have suffered especially major changes or destruction.

It is hard to do much research when you are travelling, so I cannot say whether all this information is one-sided. However, if all this were true, then the Qianlong Emperor would be an appropriate symbol of the interesting mixture which makes up China even today.