China's Ancient Gardens
City of silks, canals and gardens opens exquisite window on China
By Toby Saltzman

A teahouse in Suzhou

In heaven there is Paradise.
On Earth, Hangzhou and Suzhou

This ancient Chinese proverb perfectly captures the sweet essence of China's two most beautiful cities. One has only to visit these cities for a few days to fall forever in love with the captivating splendor of the Oriental landscape and the exquisite sensation of relaxing in a Chinese garden.

For greatest impact and to truly feel the dramatic juxtaposition of these two cities in relation to the other areas of China, a traveler with time should plan carefully, visiting Suzhou first, en route from Wuxi, then Hangzhou en route to Shanghai.

Suzhou was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its treasure trove of ancient gardens built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. A historic cultural center for 2,500 years, Suzhou sits in the south of the Yangtze River Delta, bordering Taihu Lake to the west and Shanghai to the east. The city straddles an intricate network of canals. The main one - the ancient Grand Canal - is the main line of transportation (other than the train) connecting it to Wuxi. The industrial town of Wuxi also sits astride a canal system. Here you can see families who live out their entire lives on narrow flat-bottomed boats afloat on the muddy waters. You see the effects of hard factory labor etched in gritty detail on the faces of the townspeople and imagine the difficult times as you pass the stone homes that border the canals.

Although Suzhou is also an industrial town, famous for its production of silk as well as precision instruments and tools, it is distinguished by beautiful features that soften the reality of labor and provide diversions for the workers. The best way to enter Suzhou, for a traveler with time to do so, is to hire a boat in Wuxi and follow the turns of the Grand Canal as it carries you through the visual contrast from harsh, industrial Wuxi to the intrinsic beauty of Suzhou.

Suzhou is home to many centuries-old gardens that were once the private retreats of rich Chinese families. After the revolution, they were taken over by the government and opened to public pleasure. Although each garden is unique in its landscape architecture, all of the gardens in Suzhou, Hangzhou, and throughout all of China follow the basic design principals.

The stone walls of the ancient
Chinese Gardens were known
for "view blocking."

The underlying idea was to present visitors with a natural beauty that unfolds like the fine drawings of ancient Chinese scrolls, starting with the inhibiting surrounding stone walls that were built to protect the seclusion of the owner. The encircling walls are a part of the gardening plan known as "view blocking." They are intended to cut your initial vision so that every sight after the wall will be a pleasant surprise.

The only hint of glamour hiding behind the wall would be provided by what the Chinese call "picture framing." Inserted in the stone wall, at various intervals, are small windows, usually outlined in wrought iron and carved with birds or flowers to create tiny peek-a-boo openings for a passerby to catch a peek or "picture" of the garden. In front of these windows there are always some carefully positioned rocks and trees that allow the viewer a glimpse of the garden, but never the homes or the people who live there.

Once you pass through the gate there is invariably a dim, tightly winding corridor that bears no decoration except for usually one opening known as a "lattice picture frame" that teases you with a quick peek of the treasure hidden behind the wall. The corridor then opens suddenly to the initial presentation of a breathtaking scene.

The first impression is over-whelming. You see the winding rivulets of jade-colored water alive with flashing golden carp and crossed by elegant arched bridges, the manicured trees and artfully positioned craggy rocks, the flowering bushes that beckon with aromatic enticements and the elaborate Chinese pavilions with curving spiked roofs (known as "tings"). The ancient gardens were designed to appear much larger than they actually were with very careful consideration given to include views of mountains or centuries-old pagodas that were virtually located many miles away from the gardens as a part of the design. This principal is known as "view borrowing" - although the pagoda is far away, its beauty is borrowed to enhance the garden.

Traditional Chinese architecture
incorporates "picture framing."

None of the gardens has a symmetrical design. They have a natural harmony that represents the Taoist philosophy of man's total relationship with the universe and the inseparability and union of all physical elements - the earth, rocks, water and plants. As you stroll through the gardens on meticulously laid cobblestones from one enchanting setting to another, it is easy to become lost in peaceful euphoric feelings.

The two most beautiful gardens to visit in Suzhou illustrate the architectural styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The Liu Garden (also known as the Liuyuan or Tarrying Garden) is famous for its compositions of hills and water, natural and rural scenery. The Humble Administrator's Garden (one of China's four major gardens, a masterpiece of classic garden design) was built centuries ago by a corrupt government official to recant his crimes. He intended to show his humility by fulfilling the Chinese proverb: "To cultivate a garden for a living is the politics of a humble man." However, the administrator must have kept his humility to himself because he kept the garden for his exclusive domain.

Suzhou boasts an additional feature that has become a distinctive point of pride.Suzhou is known throughout the East for having the most beautiful women of the Orient. Indeed, the women of this region are stunning, with creamy complexions and shiny jet hair. They are elegantly proportioned, fine boned, slender, tall and delightful to see. The Number One Department Store in Suzhou runs fashion shows most days to display models in silky fashions, but you can stand on the main street and enjoy just as good a show.

Traveling from Suzhou to Hangzhou is best by train. The trip takes five hours, but the scenery of the rice paddies, adobe homes, workers and the landscape is worth the time spent. You can order dinner on the train.

Hangzhou is a world of its own within China. If you arrive in the evening, passing by the lake, you can see that this is a popular hub for nightlife. The area has a "Yorkville" atmosphere, antique iron street lamps, street vendors selling food and crowds of young people strolling and sitting on benches.

The main attraction here is West Lake (also known in China as XiHu). You must take a cruise across the lake on a Golden Dragon Boat to the island and the Park of the Three Pools Reflecting the Moon. This glorious park is scattered with many graceful pavilions that are joined by narrow walkways zigzagging over the rivers with precision so that each time you turn, you see another outstanding view of the grounds. There are some covered walkways. Like the Chinese garden corridors that have "picture frame" windows carved with artful flora and fauna designs, they treat visitors to surprise sights. There are several graceful temples and pagodas to explore. On a bright, sunny day it is heavenly to stroll the emerald grounds amid the trees and the sparkling little ponds brimming with oversized blooms of pink and white lotus plants, to see the purply haze of mountains rising in the distance.

The initial peek of a
traditional Chinese garden
Hangzhou is also famous for a tourist sight called Ling Yin Temple, also known as the House of the Laughing Buddha. The Buddha is portrayed in a fantastic sculpture carved into rock. The grand temple, which is filled with ornate carvings, is still used by Buddhists. This area has a bizarre attraction for Westerners who arrive expecting to see a solemn religious haven granted special permission to practice within a Communist country and are instead astounded to see a Disneyesque atmosphere of souvenir schlock. Even the Buddhists at the temple hustle to sell you a candle to burn for a few yuan. If you don't have the yuan, they will just as well trade you a candle for a postcard of your hometown or a pin of a Canadian or American flag.

Hangzhou is also known for the production of fine tea leaves. It is possible to hire a guide to drive you to a plantation where you can see the plants, observe the tea-making process and even buy a souvenir tin of Hangzhou tea. For extra persuasion, your guide may also take you to a commune where you can see the delightful day-care center that houses the tea-harvesters' children.

Both Suzhou and Hangzhou have comfortable hotels that cater to sophisticated western travelers. The Suzhou Hotel has a lavish setting on a pretty natural pond. The Yellow Dragon Hotel in Hangzhou is quite modern with a large fresh-water swimming pool. Although neither hotel offers fresh drinking water from the taps, both provide thermoses of hot and cold water and both offer room service as well as convenient restaurants on the premises. The laundry service is reliable and quick.

It is possible to see the special places of Suzhou and Hangzhou in four days. Travelling to and from these cities is lengthy, but the serene beauty provides a wonderful interlude on a whirlwind tour (especially if you plant to visit past-paced Shanghai next) and the harmonious visions and peaceful memories of the gardens will linger long after the trip.

China National Tourist Offices:
New York: Tel: 1-212-760-9700
Los Angeles: Tel: 1-818-545-7507
Toronto: Tel: 1-416-599-6636



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