Moon gate at the Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou, China – If you
remember my earlier photo essay about the Blue Waves Pavilion – moon gates
like this one are typical for a classical Chinese garden. Walking along a path,
you are suddenly presented with a neat hole in a wall, and of course you’re
going to duck in to see what lies beyond.

I just saw on Paul French’s China Rhyming blog that this weekend Shelly Bryant is offering another tour of classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou, China. Since I was fortunate enough to have a private tour with her just about a year ago, I thought I’d share my last set of photos from that excursion. A little early spring garden serenity seems in order, particularly as it is still really cold in Chicago right now. Plus, as the first anniversary of my trip is coming up, I am feeling a little nostalgic, so putting this photo essay together is a nice little commemoration.

That’s me in the half moon – captured by my friend Miho as I am, as usual, taking pictures. Notice the intricacy of this garden: Every bit is decorated, in an elaborate yet non-garish way. There’s the mosaic of the floor and the shard pattern of the doors.
Close up of a floral floor mosaic in another room of the garden.
Three women in a mirror – my friend Miho, Shelly and I
Remember the typical tourist photo where you stand in front of a landmark and have someone else snap a picture to document, “I was here!”  Well, how did people do that before cameras? This garden was first built in the 1400s, and Shelly explained that the Chinese wanted to give people the feeling of being in the landscape, of seeing themselves as part of it. The solution? Mirrors! So here, we could look into this ancient, slightly beveled and spotty mirror, and see that yes, we were there!
As an added bonus, mirrors make small spaces feel larger, and this garden feels indeed much larger than the one acre it actually occupies. I was genuinely tired after walking through its labyrinth of paths, miniature parklands and garden rooms.
On this floor plan that I scanned in from Maggie Keswick’s book The Chinese Garden, you can see that this garden is more built than planted. The three rooms in the lower right corner are really halls of the house, but even they feature trees and shrubs. The big “empty” space in the middle is the pond.
I don’t have a decent photo of the pond, I guess I just wasn’t that impressed with it, but this does give you a feel for the overall look of the garden (photo via Asian Historical Architecture).
I was more into the nooks and corners and all the intricate details.
´╗┐Each window has its own lattice pattern.
One window leads to the next, double framing carefully arranged plantings.
Some of the window ornamentation in this garden is fancier than that of the Blue Waters Pavilion as it was first built during a time when tastes were towards heavy decorations, similar, in a way, to European baroque. See the rockeries among the trees beyond this window, meant to bring the mountains into the city.
A room detail – sadly, I don’t remember the name of the room. Some of them have beautiful names that hint at how the Chinese saw the purpose of a garden (this garden was rebuilt in the 18th century by an administrator who said he’d rather be a fisherman, hence the name):
“Pavilion of the Accumulated Void”
“Barrier of Clouds Hall”
“Hall from which One Looks at the Pines and Contemplates the Paintings”
The eye is busy (isn’t it?) looking out of this window, going round in circles, almost trapped by the jagged pattern of the frame, the vertical of the bamboo, and the frame of another window beyond. I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed after being in this labyrinth of a garden; I was craving open space (that’s the American in me).
Alas, this is the reality of modern day China: Here is the old canal that wraps around the Old City of Suzhou, beyond it spreads an endless carpet of highrise apartment buildings. And by endless I mean endless. On the almost two hour drive back to Shanghai, the vista of these clusters of apartment buildings does not relent and blends seamlessly into Shanghai’s own carpet of apartment buildings. Suzhou is a mid-size city by Chinese standards, which means about 4 million people live in the city proper, and the metropolitan area has about 10 million people.
I shall leave you with this more contemplative view of a remnant of the old city wall of Suzhou. The canal was at my back taking this picture.