Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Strolling the Backyards of Shanghai

I must admit that I’m not a gardener! When it comes to firing up a lawn mower or whipper snipper, I’m up there with the best of them, but as for the actual selection of plants, garden layout and the design of interesting water features, I’m at a bit of a loss. I guess this harks back to my days growing up in Australia when a backyard garden simply consisted of an open grassed area (ideal for backyard cricket), a spot down the back fence for an incinerator (remember them) and a strategically placed barbeque close to the house. Thankfully, both Australia and I have come to realize that there can be more to the domestic garden than just that and in recent years our TV sets have been flooded with shows demonstrating how we can miraculously turn our patch of earth into a veritable domestic paradise; an idealic sanctuary for contemplation or simply a getaway from the hustle and bustle of daily life! Since living in Japan, Jules and I have much admired the way small outdoor spaces have been transformed into tranquil havens and we were not at all surprised to find that the Chinese were also seeking to achieve that same goal centuries before Australia was even on the map. While Jules and I were in Shanghai, we were fortunate enough to visit two beautifully preserved domestic gardens that revealed just how sophisticated these early designs actually were. Here we discovered that despite living in one the most over populated cities in the world, there has long been innate desire to retreat back to nature within your own backyard.

In the old town of Shanghai, the Yuyuan Garden (also called the Yu Garden) provides an amazing departure from the busy lanes of the nearby market place, which still retain the character of a bygone era. This 440 year old classical Chinese garden was not your average local garden, but was built by a senior government officer and was later restored some 200 years later by a family of rich merchants. It spans around five acres and is dotted with beautifully constructed pavilions, bridges, ponds and rockeries. The centrepiece of the garden is the ‘Exquisite Jade Rock’, which as the story goes, was originally bound for the Imperial Palace in Beijing, but was salvaged when the transporting boat sank near Shanghai. The strange thing is that the prized stone isn’t actually made of jade at all, but rather Huangshi Stone which is a particular soft coastal rock that is valued for the number of holes that have been weathered through the rock overtime. Looking much like an 11 foot chunk of Swiss cheese and with 72 holes, this is apparently a particularly valuable piece of stone although to be honest, I couldn’t quite see the attraction. What I could appreciate however were the rocks, pavilions and ponds of the inner garden, with schools of red, orange and yellow Koi fish visibly swimming in the water, fat from years of constant feeding from visiting tourists. The scene provided a unique glimpse of the privileged life that the wealthier members of Chinese society would have enjoyed during the Ming Dynasty. It remains a beautiful haven from the outside world that fortunately these days can be shared by all.

Another garden we visited was at Suzhou, which is regarded by ‘garden connoisseurs’ as one of the finest examples in China. The ‘Master of the Nets’ garden is much smaller than the one in Shanghai (660 square ft), but it is no less significant and it was recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status along with several other gardens in the area. This garden was inspired by the philosophical writings about the simple and solitary life of a fisherman. Apparently, it was built by yet another high-ranking government official in the 11th century and after being passed to several generations, the garden gradually fell into decline only to be restored in the 1700’s. It was another government official (I sense that a pattern is emerging here) who gave the garden its name after declaring that he would rather have been a fisherman than a bureaucrat, although I’m not sure that a fisherman could have quite afforded this residence. In any case, what he created was a most impressive residential garden that successfully fused together delicate traditional Chinese architecture with all of the calming elements that nature has to offer. The main feature is a large central pond with a pavilion delicately placed in the water, which is only accessible by a small bridge. From here, views representing the various seasons could be easily seen. We could imagine the tranquility this spot would have offered its original residents and the great pleasure it would have provided to them and their many guests.

As Jules and I strolled around the gardens of these splendid Chinese residences, our guide would point out the many symbolic icons that were discreetly built into their numerous design features. While generally being decoratively interesting, it seemed that just about every form, image and structure also had the important task of somehow delivering good luck, prosperity and long life to its owner. Only history can tell whether they actually fulfilled their task, but it would be true to say that these gardens would have certainly been very appealing backyards from which to contemplate such eternal hopes.

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