SUZHOU’S ancient classical gardens, which date from the 11th to 19th centuries, are trying new things to lure more visitors. Nine of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites, designated by the international cultural organization because they “reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture in their meticulous design.” They are known for reflecting how master gardeners were able to mimic the grandiosity of nature within the confined spaces of personal residences.
They are beloved, visited by millions of tourists every year. Two of Suzhou’s gardens with the longest history — Lion Grove Garden and Tiger Hill — have opened new exhibits or activities aimed at educating the public and perhaps broadening their visitor base.
The Lion Grove Garden
One of the smallest of the city’s classic gardens, the Lion Grove Garden is among the most unusual. For one, it considered the only preserved Zen garden in China. As such, unlike Suzhou’s other gardens, it emphasizes stones over elements such as plants and water. It was constructed by Monk Tianru and a group of Zen Buddhist disciples as a memorial to their master, Monk Zhongfeng. It quickly became a center of literature and Buddhist activities, and numerous poems and paintings were inspired by it in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
At its core is a monumental stone “mountain” in which visitors can traipse over and through its myriad paths and caves. It’s a delight for kids and their parents — as well as the child in all of us — to explore the odd formations assembled into a giant labyrinth inside and on the mountain. But if you’re tall, watch your head!
The Lion Grove Garden opened a pair of new displays in its exquisite wooden pavilions on National Day, October 1. They marked the first new exhibits in years at the garden, which was established in 1342.
One is a permanent exhibition of the rocks for which this garden is so famous. They are, as in other gardens, collected from all over China, although most of Lion Grove’s stone structures come from nearby Taihu Lake. Several small enclaves in the upstairs portion of a pavilion house varying examples that reveal just how different the stones, many of which are found on mountains, can be from one another.
A tour last Friday showed myriad large rocks put on pedestals and displayed in an ornate room. Some are a cohesive whole with undulating patterns of light and dark. Others are wildly shaped — often translated from Chinese as “grotesque” — but actually quite beautifully formed. They have classic curves or graceful arches and holes. Many look like they could have been chiseled by a master sculptor but in fact all the rocks in classical Chinese gardens are, by tradition, unaltered by humans.
The idea is that these gardens portray nature and are in harmony with all natural surroundings. Think of them as nature miniaturized by master gardeners of centuries gone by.
The Lion Grove Garden’s second new opening is its Rock Garden Culture and History Museum, which serves more or less as a history museum of the garden. Photos of various family owners line the walls. The last family to own Lion Grove, from 1928 to 1949, was the Pei family, of which the famed architect IM Pei is the most prominent.
Pei, 97, is said to have been profoundly influenced by the Lion Grove Garden during his numerous jaunts there as a boy while growing up in Shanghai. Pei would spend summers with his extended family in Suzhou and decades later spoke about how he loved the way the garden blended human-built structures with natural elements. Several decades after moving to the US, Pei was invited back to China and designed the modernist Suzhou Museum, which is just down the street from the Lion Grove Garden.
The museum also houses works by Ming Dynasty artists and poets, so visitors can see classic paintings of how the garden looked 500 years ago and read in beautiful calligraphy what the period’s poets were saying about it. Also on display is a detailed draft drawing, like a blueprint, of the garden. This was made because Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong, who visited several times, was so impressed with the Lion Grove Garden that he wanted to duplicate it. Replicas of Lion Grove now occupy part of the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde, Hebei Province — two of China’s grandest gardens.
A treasure trove of sites going back to the very beginnings of Suzhou, Tiger Hill is crowned by its amazing Yunyan Temple Pagoda, otherwise known as the Leaning Pagoda. While it does not tilt at as steep an angle as Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, Tiger Hill’s version is more than 200 years older, constructed during the Northern Song Dynasty in 959-961. It stands 48 meters high and for the past 400 years has leaned slightly to the northwest. Fire long ago burned away some original wood, and the remaining stone structure looks every bit its weather-beaten age. An attempt to “correct” its tilt was made during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) some 500 years ago but only the top level of the structure’s seven levels was straightened to the perpendicular, something that can be seen if you step far enough away.
Tiger Hill dates to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) some 2,500 years ago, when King He Lu of the ancient State of Wu built a temporary palace there. He died in 496 BC during a war with the State of Yue and was buried within the hill, not far from the temple and pagoda. Legend says a white tiger appeared three days after his burial and sat upon the grave, as if sent as a guardian. Another legend says the tomb appeared in the shape of a crouching tiger. Either way, it’s been known as Tiger Hill ever since.
It retains several key sites of scenic and historic interest and features cliffs and ravines and even a small tea plantation on the quiet back side of the hill. A short visit can bring you to the Broken Beam Hall, Sword Testing Rock, Thousand People’s Rock and the Sword Pond.
The latter three all involve King He Lu, who zealously collected rare swords. He is reputed to have tested them in the Sword Testing Rock, which indeed has a big crack in the middle. The Sword Pond is believed to be where his collection of 3,000 swords were buried with him. Possible moves to excavate this area to check on the legends have been thwarted because the site is underneath the foundation of the Leaning Pagoda, and there are fears that any such work could undermine the ancient structure.
Like the Lion Grove Garden, Tiger Hill officials are making efforts to open up to new visitors. In Tiger Hill’s case, it’s being done through horticultural class offerings in the art of bonsai. The practice originated in China, and Tiger Hill boasts an enormous collection of more than 600 tree and landscape bonsai.
The classes are well-known among travel agencies that cater to overseas visitors. Shanghai Daily was given a sample of what’s offered and watched master bonsai gardener Ma Liang work his magic on a pine tree about 1 meter tall. Slowly and meticulously, Ma snipped off needles, cut some branches and bent others to shape the tree to his liking. He then bound the limbs with wire, a process called corrugating.
Jin Yan, a tour guide at Tiger Hill, said this is done once a year and takes about three hours per tree. “The small tree is to imitate the natural beauty,” Jin said.
Tiger Hill began offering the classes, in which participants get a chance to participate in a tree’s maintenance, last year. For 200 yuan for four or fewer people and an additional 50 yuan for each additional person, visitors get a one-hour class plus about 30 minutes to go up the hill to see the Leaning Pagoda.
After the class, Jin pointed out different styles of bonsai during a tour of the garden. Included were a group of “landscape” bonsai, which consist mostly or wholly of stone and are made to look like tiny mountain landscapes. Most have bonsai trees growing within their intricate structures in amazing representations of natural landscapes.
• The Lion Grove Garden
Address: 23 Yuanlin Rd. It sits on a small site within the northern part of Suzhou’s ancient city, not far from the Suzhou Museum and the Humble Administrator’s Garden.
Admission tickets cost 50 yuan in high season (May through October) and 30 yuan from November to April.
It receives about 1.8 million visitors a year.
• Tiger Hill
Address: North end of Huqiu Rd. It is northwest of Suzhou’s ancient city, occupying a site atop a small hill.
Admission tickets cost 80 yuan in high season and 60 yuan in slack season (November to April).
It receives over 2 million visitors a year.
People interested in the bonsai classes can contact travel agencies or, if they speak Chinese, can directly call Tiger Hill’s marketing manager, Jiang, at 1386-2003-883.