Classical Gardens of Suzhou

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The Humble Administrator's Garden
The Humble Administrator's Garden

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are a group of gardens in Suzhou region, Jiangsu province which have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Spanning a period of almost one thousand years, from the Northern Song to the late Qing dynasties (11th-19th century), these gardens, most of them built by scholars, standardized many of the key features of classical Chinese garden design with constructed landscapes mimicking natural scenery of rocks, hills and rivers with strategically located pavilions and pagodas.

Lingering Garden
Lingering Garden

Though smaller and less elaborate than another well-known types of Chinese garden, the opulent Imperial Gardens and Palaces in Beijing,best exemplified by the Beihai Park, Zhongshan Park, Old Summer Palace and Summer Palace; the elegant aesthetics and subtlety of these scholar's gardens in many ways contrast with the grandeur of the former, and their delicate style and features are often imitated by various gardens in other parts of China, including the Imperial Gardens, such as those in the Chengde Mountain Resort. According to UNESCO, the gardens of Suzhou "represent the development of Chinese landscape garden design over more than two thousand years," and they are the "most refined form" of garden art.

These landscape gardens flourished in the mid-Ming to early-Qing dynasties, resulting in as much as 200 private gardens. Today, there are 69 preserved gardens in Suzhou, and all of them are designated as protected "National Heritage Sites." In 1997 and 2000, eight of the finest gardens in Suzhou along with one in the nearby ancient town of Tongli were selected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site to represent the art of Suzhou-style classical gardens.

Description of Suzhou Classical Garden by UNESCO

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are masterpieces of Chinese landscape garden design in which art, nature, and ideas are integrated perfectly to create ensembles of great beauty and peaceful harmony, and the gardens are integral to the entire historic urban plan.

The Canglang Pavilion was built on the order of the Northern Song poet Su Sunqin in the early 11th century, on the site of an earlier, destroyed garden. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1279-1644) it became the Mystical Concealment Temple. Over succeeding centuries it was repeatedly restored, a tradition maintained by the People's Republic of China. It is reached across a zigzag stone bridge, when the mountains, covered with old trees and bamboo, suddenly become visible. The square pavilion stands on top of one of the mountains, inscribed with an appropriate text.

Lion Grove Garden
Lion Grove Garden

The Lion Forest Garden was created by a group of Zen Buddhist disciples of the famous Abbot Tianni in 1342, during the Yuan dynasty, as the Budhi Orthodox Monastery. The garden, which attracted scholars and artists, was detached from the temple in the 17th century. It features a series of man-made mountains with various buildings, disposed around the lake, together with an artificial waterfall on steep cliffs. The 14th-century mountains are still clearly visible. The woodland cover of the craggy mountains is pierced by winding paths and there are many caves and grotesque rocks. There are 22 buildings in the garden, the most impressive of which is the Hall of Peace and Happiness, a masterpiece of the Mandarin Duck style of hall.

The Garden of Cultivation was laid out during the Ming dynasty, in the 16th century. A quarter of the total area is occupied by the central pond, which has a mountain landscape to the south and a group of buildings, to the north. The two sides are linked to east and west by roofed open galleries. It is very typical, both in its layout and in the design of its thirteen buildings, of the classical Ming dynasty garden.

The origins of the Couple's Garden Retreat date back to the Qing dynasty, in the early 18th century. The structures consist of four aligned buildings. The East Garden is dominated by a dramatically realistic mountain of yellow stone which rises from a pool flanked by several attractive Ming style buildings. The style of the West Garden is more subdued, its limestone hills pierced by interlinking caves and tunnels.

The Retreat and Reflection Garden is the work of the famous painter Yuan Long, who built it in 1885-87. The group of buildings is linked with the garden proper located to the east by a boat-shaped guesthouse. Once again, the central feature of the garden is the pool, surrounded by a series of elegant buildings, the most striking of which is the double-tiered Celestial Bridge. The Gathering Beauty Pavilion overlooks the entire garden from the north-west corner.

Master of the Nets Garden
Master of the Nets Garden

The oldest gardens are probably the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, whose origins go back to the end of the 16th century. Although it covers less than 500 m2 it is intensively detailed, with high peaks rising to 7 m, dells, paths, caves, stone houses, ravines, precipices, ridges and cliff.

The Humble Administrator's Garden has been the site of the residence of Suzhou notables since the 2nd century AD. Its central section is a recreation of the scenery of the Lower Yangtze. Rising from the lake are the tree covered east and West Hills, each crowned by a pavilion. The variety of plant species is great.

The Lingering Garden dates from the end of the 16th century is occupied by buildings. The central part features mountain and lake scenery, encircled by buildings and visited by means of a narrow, winding path which gives unexpected views of great beauty.

The Garden of the Master of the Nest is entered from the south through a rare form of gateway flanked by enormous carved blocks of stone, which designate the court rank of the owner. Once again the central feature is a pool, encircle by a covered walkway. The layout of buildings and gardens is extremely subtle, so that a small area gives the impression of great size and variety.

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