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Although being Suzhou’s largest garden at 4.1 hectares, the Humble Administrator’s Garden is substantially smaller today than the 13.4 hectares it covered when it was first laid out in 1509. After many years of change and growth, the Humble Administrator’s Garden remains one of the finest examples of typical Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) gardening styles.
Nearly 60 percent of the Humble Administrator’s Garden is devoted to water. The natural landscape of the grounds, once home to the Da Hong monastery, was originally covered with ponds. When Wang Xianchen first laid out the grounds, he did so with the original topography in mind, resulting in a garden that even today seems to float on water.
Many of the most important features in the Humble Administrator’s Garden pay tribute to the lotus blossom. Along with its prominence at the entrance to the garden, the lotus shows up over and over again in the names of various structures found on the grounds, including the Lotus Pavilion, the Pavilion in the Lotus Breeze, and the Lotus-on-Four-Sides Pavilion. Other structures, such as the Hall of Drifting Fragrance and the Stay-and-listen Pavilion, work to turn the eye – or nose – to the lotus flowers growing all about the garden. The prominence of this flower on the grounds reflects the original builder’s focus on purity (also highlighted in the “Pure Mind Thinks Deep” Hall), as the lotus is commonly a symbol for purity in Chinese thought, since it always remains untainted by the muddy waters in which it grows.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden was named by its first owner, Wang Xianchen. The name is taken from “On Idle Living,” a prose piece written by Pan Yue (247-300 AD) when he withdrew from public service and began a simple life of gardening. Pan writes: “Building houses, planting trees, watering gardens, and growing vegetables – these are the affairs (zheng) of humble (zhuo) people.” After Wang’s death, his son gambled the garden away.
From its earliest days, the Humble Administrator’s Garden has played a prominent role in Suzhou’s history. Lying in a strategic position within the old city, it is a natural magnet for visitors to Suzhou for a variety of reasons. In 1860, it captured the attention of Taiping leader Hong Xiuquan when he conquered Suzhou, and served as his residence from 1860 to 1864. The cloud-and-dragon carvings on the partitions in the Stay-and-Listen Pavilion in the Humble Administrator’s Garden are relics from the Taiping occupation of the compound.