Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Summer Travels 2012 - Part 1: The Garden of the Humble Administrator in Suzhou, China

The first stop on my trip this summer was Shanghai, where I visited a friend from high school. She currently lives in Norway where she attends business school but since her parents live in Shanghai she has been spending her summers there visiting them and interning. Apart from exploring the city, eating lots and doing a fair bit of people watching, we also took a day trip to Suzhou, about half an hour by train west of Shanghai. For centuries, Suzhou was one of the richest cities in China, and to this day it is very famous for its aristocratic gardens, a large number of which are preserved and are now major tourist attractions. They are also the main model for what has come to be seen as the quintessential "Chinese garden" and most Chinese gardens elsewhere in the world, such as the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, are based on them. The largest of the Suzhou gardens - and the first we visited - is the Zhuō Zhèng Yuán 拙政园 or "Garden of the Humble Administrator," though British art historian Craig Clunas in his fascinating 1996 book Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China prefers the alternative translation "Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician". It was first created by a retired imperial official by the name of Wang Xianchen during the Ming Dynasty, sometime around the first decade of the 16th century. About twenty years later, in 1533, the garden was immortalized in a prose record accompanied by poems and thirty-one paintings by the famous scholar, painter, and calligrapher Wen Zhengming, a Suzhou native and friend of Wang Xianchen. Over the subsequent centuries the garden changed owner many times and was repeatedly redesigned and even partitioned before being reunited and renovated in 1949. Rather than preserving the original design, then, the garden as it appears today is a agglomeration of elements from various time periods. That in no way detracts from its beauty, however, and we found the garden both lovely and impressive, even with the crowds of visitors and the steamy summer heat.

Floral displays at the entrance

A white miniature lotus (Nelumbo nucifera cv.) and maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp.) in the floral display

Stylish signage

The eastern part of the garden through which one enters is laid out in an informal and sprawling series of lawns, ponds, and pavilions, apparently a result of the 1949 reunification and restoration of the property. While pretty, this part looks least like the stereotypical "Chinese Garden" of intricate rock work and closely clustered decorative features.

One of the ponds in the eastern section, covered with lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and overhang with weeping willows (Salix sp.)

View along a path - I love the bamboo fence!

Zig-zag bridge

One of the first blossoms of the truly massive lotus plants in the ponds

A pavilion above the lotuses

As one progresses westward within the garden, it becomes more densely built up and more extravagant, with a profusion of pavilions, covered walkways, pools, canals, bridges, rockeries, and artificial hillocks. The planting, too, becomes fancier, with entire hills devoted to collections of tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) and herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora), bamboos and Japanese fiber bananas (Musa basjoo) and many other temperate and subtropical shrubs, climbers, and perennials. 

A gate in the middle section of the garden

 A hill slope covered with beds of tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) and edged with wisteria (Wisteria sinensis); if these flower at the same time in Suzhou the effect in spring must be marvelous

A covered walk at the edge of a pond

A bamboo pergola

A gardener in a tiny boat tidying up the lotuses

A little tower crowning one of the artificial hills

The interior of one of the large pavilions

Chinese trumpet vine (Campsis grandiflora) trained over a rock

Yet another elegant pavilion

At the western end of the garden there is also a large area devoted to Chinese bonsai or penjing 盆景 in all different sizes, neatly displayed in a sort of courtyard.

Innumerable penjing...

Intricate paving patterns

Gate in the penjing section

While exiting the garden one can also pass through the Suzhou Garden Museum, which is attached to the outer buildings of the garden complex and kept in the same style of open halls and planted courtyards, albeit with a few sleek modern architectural touches. The exhibits within strive to elucidate the history of Suzhou gardens, including such facets of garden construction and management as building methods, water management, rockery piling, and plant growing. Some of the English translations are not the best and there is a rather fanciful - read: blatantly inaccurate - model of the gardens of Versailles in the gallery on garden history around the world, but considering how little museum space is devoted to gardens in general this place makes a valiant effort, and does so in a very visually pleasing manner.


  1. Beautiful photo's. It seems to be a very popular venue judging from some of your photo's.

  2. What a wonderful summer trip for you! Your photos are stunning. Enjoy the rest of you summer.

  3. Sounds like you had an amazing summer trip indeed! That is a beautiful place, stunning even!


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