Classical Gardens of Suzhou
The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are the most refined representations of the art of classical Chinese garden design.
They are complex landscapes imitating natural scenery with pavilions, rocks, hills and rivers. The designs were especially adapted to the small space available in private gardens.
Suzhou's landscape garden design flourished in the 16th-18th centuries, resulting in as much as 200 private gardens. The four gardens originally included in the World Heritage List were:
- Humble Administrator's Garden
- Lingering Garden
- Garden of the Master of Nets
- Mountain villa with Embracing Beauty
In 2000, the site was extended to also include the following gardens:
- Canglang Pavilion
- Lion Forest Garden
- Garden of Cultivation
- Couple's Garden Retreat
- Retreat and Reflection Garden
These five gardens date from different periods than the original ones (from the 11th - 19th centuries), but have been well-preserved too and show Chinese landscape gardening in their own right.
Map of Classical Gardens of SuzhouLoad map
Visit October 2007
Out of the nine designated gardens, I visited four on a daytrip from Shanghai. I choose the ones that are located near the city center of Suzhou: the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Lion Forest Garden, the Garden of the Master of Nets and finally the Canglang Pavillion. They are within reasonable walking distance from each other, about half an hour between each.
The Humble Administrator's Garden is more what I'd like to call a park rather than a garden. Although space here is delusive: when I looked at the map of the garden at the entrance, I thought I would have to walk quite some distances. But all the scenery is linked and no space is left without any form of human design.
Nearby is the Lion Forest Garden. This is for sure the weirdest of the four. A whole mountain landscape is rebuilt here with lots of Taihu rockery. A contemporary (14th century) poem reads: "People say I am in a city, but I suspect I am among thousands of mountains". Visitors nowadays can climb up, under and through these rocks, something even the Chinese grannies did with ease and pleasure. I found it quite difficult to find a way out of the 'mountains', I suppose I'm too big or too tall to fit through all the openings.
To reach the Garden of the Master of Nets, you first have to brave an alley full of souvenir stalls and some beggars. The rooms in this house attract more attention than its tiny garden.
The Canglang Pavillion is one of the oldest in this WHS. It now looks somewhat desolate and is partly overgrown. Highlight here is the Bamboo House with its play of bamboo and sun.
To my own surprise, I rather liked my day at these gardens. The ones I visited are clearly different from each other and pleasing to the eye. And I also enjoyed myself by continuing to look out for "Things Chinese" - something I have started in Qufu inspired by the book of the same name. Besides the abundant Taihu rockery I ticked off a marble boat at the Lion Forest Garden, plenty of scenic openings in various shapes at the Canglang Pavillion and wonderful covered corridors in all gardens.
As my last stop in China in January 2020, I visited the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou. The people of Suzhou must have a sarcastic streak: Whoever created the garden was anything but humble. I guess "humble" was code for "hugely corrupt".
The garden is a large Chinese garden with water being the defining landscaping feature. What I enjoyed most were all the small detours and hideouts the garden offers. On an area of 5.2ha it manages to squeeze in so many viewpoints that I regularly thought I was in a new location. But then it turned out I had been there before, just on a different side with a different perspective. In total, I must have circled the garden twice to take everything in.
A pleasant surprise were the many Bonsais on display. We nowadays think of Bonsais as a Japanese art form when they actually originated in China. The same also holds true for landscape gardening in general.
Visiting in winter had the downside that many trees were not carrying leafs and the garden wasn't as green as it would have been a few months later. On the other hand, I did not need a reservation and the crowds were way less. Still, they were too many for my liking. The garden was not intended for the public, but for the rich owner to relax and appreciate the intimacy.
As had been the case for a few days now, it was raining heavily (again). Having lost my wallet the previous day in Huangshan and my cash reserves dwindling fast, I opted to skip on further gardens and return to Shanghai. I would have loved to see more, as the Humble Administrator's Garden belongs with the best gardens the world has to offer.
Getting There and In
There are frequent trains from Shanghai and Hangzhou. The gardens in Suzhou center can be done on foot. The rest I did not investigate, but knowing China you should find a bus connection. The most popular gardens nowadays have online reservations. This can be done e.g. in trip.com. I arrived in off season and managed to get in without a reservation (or a queue for that matter).
China is one of those civilizations that has its own distinct spin on everything. Behind the flagship palaces, religions, languages, and designs hide the gardens. Chinese gardens, much like the neighboring Japanese gardens, have grown in popularity around the world for their exotic oriental flair. Really, it isn't the flair that makes them what they are, as these East Asian gardens are more for calming than exciting its visitors. They're known for their jagged rockeries, intricate pavilions, lotus-covered ponds, and overall more abstract and flowing layout. Chinese gardens, also like Japanese gardens, get their calming vibe from the ideals of religion. While this does make them seem less impressive than Islamic or European gardens at first glance, their beauty grows as one wonders along the winding paths while admiring the forest scenery, vista after stunning vista. It isn't an overwhelming beauty, but it pulls you in until you're in bliss. At least, that's what Chinese gardens are for. The reality is a bit harsh: since only Chinese gardens in China are authentic enough to match such expectations of beauty, these gardens are absolutely full of tourists, which somewhat negates that calming effect of the landscape. And not all gardens in China are worthy of this, mind you. I remember visiting the Yuyuan in Shanghai back in 2012, and not only was it far too crowded, but I couldn't feel the authenticity. Sure, maybe it was because I was much younger than I am now, but it never really hit me as an amazing relic of the past, and that's probably because - it isn't. The garden was reconstructed from its ruined state after World War 2, and as a result, it doesn't have that natural feel to it. The buildings all seemed new and concrete, the different elements too polished, and yet the whole garden a bit messy and lacking the perpetual nice views. Sure, there are nice corners, but pardon me for keeping the famous dumplings right outside the garden as more memorable of a place. I was there to be a tourist with my family, nothing more. Of course, that's simply a childish opinion, Yuyuan is still a great sight to see in Shanghai, but then again, why not skip it to skip over to Suzhou just an hour away?
In June 2018, my family and I took a package tour for Zhangjiajie, and the last day was a day in the markets of Shanghai. Having already been to those, I reasoned with my family, and then with the tour agents, to let us deviate from the group to go to Suzhou. It was the perfect destination, just an hour away by bullet train, but due to some complications with luggage and taxis and station entrances (long story), we ended up arriving in Suzhou at almost noon. From the Shantang subway station, it's about 10-15 minutes' walk to Liuyuan, the Lingering Garden, via Shantang Street by the Grand Canal. While it was raining when we arrived, luckily it slowed and stopped when we entered the garden. After buying the ticket and entering, it's basically just hallways until you reach the view of the main pond. Now, this should've been a great revelation, as I knew that Liuyuan is one of the 4 Great Gardens of China, and this was basically the centerpiece of it. And yes, it was a great view, seen from the inside by many differently-designed windows. Maybe it was the crowd once again, or maybe it was the lighting, uncomfortably between rainy and sunny, but it didn't give me quite the impact I wanted from it. It really is beautiful, the tall towering trees form the backdrop with the pond in the center, crossed by the delicate wooden bridge, a little pagoda-like pavilion tucked in the trees on the hill behind. Maybe the sky was too grey? The pond too brown? The plants overgrown? The whole scene smaller than it was in my imagination? I didn't quite know.
I had read beforehand that Liuyuan was the 2nd biggest garden in Suzhou, so seeing the scale of things at that moment made me doubt how impressive their sizes really were. I was quite sure I could pretty much finish the highlights and most of the area of the garden in the allotted 1 1/2 hours my family had settled on. To an extent, I was right: we did see most of the garden in that time, but I was wrong to think that this little patch of land would seem that way. Once we strayed to the farther reaches of the garden, away from the buildings and central pond, the garden seemed boundless. Many say that the Net Master's Garden is impressive for its use of space, but considering that Liuyuan is the most architecture-oriented and dominated of the Suzhou gardens, it's just as amazing how vast the so-called empty spaces may seem. My family didn't seem to appreciate those forest-like zones with a lack of buildings, but to me, that's where the significance of the garden lies. The fauna borders on overgrown, and while that may not end up as beautiful as a polished garden, it seems more natural. Of course, when in Liuyuan, one must return to the buildings, and that's not a problem either, as the architecture is indeed, quite a show here. Although it doesn't feel as natural of a layout as, say a city, would feel, there's a harmony to the buildings - a harmony within themselves and with the garden around them. Another highlight is at the back of the garden, where halls contain another small pond with a towering rockery in the middle. Finally, as we trace the back wall, we find what appears to be a collection of bonsai and mini-rockeries, all on tables. We then take a path through the forest again, with its artificial rugged topography in full display, and then exist, satisfied with seeing the great Lingering Garden.
Innovations that work this close to nature can be a bit hard to judge. The thing about Chinese gardens is that they really, in their purest form here in Suzhou, try to imitate nature, and they do a good job at it. It's a bit like a predecessor to Central Park, but more beautiful. But as we saw, beauty can be very subjective, and I can't say I found any jaw-dropping views in the garden, nor would I expect to find one in any of the other gardens of Suzhou. How far can we stretch the artistic claims of a site like this when the scene simply looks like a forest? The Chinese style of gardens is indeed an influence on the world, and because the finest examples of such are clustered in Suzhou, this ensemble of WHS gardens exists today. However, we can't base the greatness of this site on the style's influence over gardens and cultures. We base the greatness of a site on the merits of the site itself from our own observations. I thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring Liuyuan, and I'd love to be able to explore the other gardens one day, so I take that this ensemble of gardens is an important cultural innovation that has materialized in a unique, exceptional, though not necessarily impressive or grand, site, still definitely worth a visit. Its innovation lies on its development of cultural identity and its effect on the perception of space, both of which reflect in the numerous gardens of Suzhou today.
Subtlety is a trademark of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, and just as much of Suzhou as a city. It's a very simplistically beautiful city, with its canals, old streets, gardens, and temples all coming together as a great collection of authentically Chinese history. Though I believe in the significance of the Classical Gardens that ultimately lead to its inscription as WHS, I do somewhat wish that Suzhou as a whole got more recognition. It's by far my favorite city in China that I've visited, and it's just so full of life, culture, and history. The gardens are just one side of the story, just one jewel in the crown of Suzhou, one spot to dive into. In the end, I absolutely enjoyed my journey to the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, and through it, not only did I discover the true significance of these gardens, but also the treasures of the great city of Suzhou.
During the very short business trip to Suzhou, I had only three hours in the morning for free time to explore the city, and after learned that my hotel was just 15 minutes to the old town by taxi, I did my best to visit one of the World Heritage Site listed gardens of Suzhou, the famed Zhouzheng Yuan or in English, the Humble Administrator’s Garden.
At 7.00 AM my taxi dropped me at the garden entrance, the ticket office was still closed but some tourists were already waiting! After got ticket at 7.30 I entered the gardens. The garden’s entrance was quite simple and uninspired similar to usual side or back gates of many Chinese government buildings in many cities. However, behind the gate was totally a different world, the garden was very beautiful with hundreds of trees and plants. After walked through many pools, pavilions, zigzag bridges, stone gardens, artificial mountains, bamboo groves, I started to wonder the size of the garden. The garden was quite large together with the very genius landscape design made strolling in the garden similar to walking in the large botany. The man-made landscape in the garden was unbelievable; there were many Borrowed Scenery to create garden’s many centerpieces. Every turns provided new dimensions of surroundings, a very strict concept of Stroll Garden, but with numerous playful techniques by using gates and corridors, making the views from one gate to other gate to be more in-depth by dictating eyesight with new angles of views, a very sophisticating way that cannot be seen usually in other gardens.
I spent a happy 2.30 hours in this garden, and I still saw only 60% of the whole area! I had to say that this garden was one of the most sophisticating gardens in Asia. It’s really show the complexity of Chinese landscape design, its long history of development, and hard work of many generations of gardeners. Sometime in my opinion, the garden was quite overwhelmed by too many details with no blank for simple breaking, but that really show me the outstanding of this garden that made this place to be deserved to be on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the must see place in China.
I managed to visit only 3 of the gardens. It was an ultimate aesthetic experience- the pools and pavilions, lotus and lilies, koi and cicadas, bamboo and pine, Taihu rocks and paved tiles......I could only imagine how pleasant it might have been minus the milling crowds!
I wish I knew Chinese to fully appreciate the poetry.
During my trip to Shanghai I stayed deux days and a half in Suzhou.the city itself is very charming, with its numerous canals and pagodas and museums (especially the new Suzhou museum). however its fabulous gardens are what made the city famous and I managed to visit six of them : the humble administrator's garden, the lion forest garden, the lovers' retreat garden, the master of the nets garden, the canglang pavillion and the lingering garden.
the Humble Administrator's Garden is certainly the most impressive of the lot (and the largest). the sight of the lotus ponds surrounded by traditionnal buildings is very attractive. however the garden was quite crowded (with lots of tourists groups and megaphones) and that kinda ruined the experience for me. in the garden there's also a garden museum which is very informative and links the different gardens together.
Near the Humble Administrator's garden is the Lion Forest garden. now i was really disappointed by this one. it was far more crowded than the previous one and its smallest size made things worse. people were everywhere, climbing the rockeries (which btw were remarkable and the garden's main feature) or queuing in the ancient buildings. for me this was not the way to experience the garden, far from it. (it was a summer sunday afternoon, mind you, so remember never to visit this garden on this kind of day!)
A little further is the lovers' retreat garden. you can easily reach it by foot from the lion forest garden (the walk through the old lanes and canals while watching the inhabitants in their everyday life - i noticed two or three ancient wells i passed by- is a pleasure). now there were very few tourists in this one! while it may not be as impressive as the others, this small garden felt very peaceful and had wonderful windows.
i began the next day by visiting the master-of-the-nets garden. this is said to be the smallest of the lot, but i didn't feel so. it had marvelous buildings and courtyards. most importantly, it wasn't heavily visited (it was a monday morning, so that may not always be true).
not far from it is the canglang pavillion (again, barely visited). it was the wildest looking of the lot. from time to time you could feel as though you were really in a natural forest on a hill. the sound and sight of the wind shaking the ancient trees and the green leaves falling gently to the ground will always be an unforgettable experience for me. the garden's windows are also worthy of attention, while its location , overlooking a canal and old houses, is pretty romantic.
the last garden i visited was the Lingering garden on the next day. at first when i entered the garden, i feared it would be as overcrowded as the lion forest garden. however despite the eventual crowds the garden was large enough to allow me some moments of serenity and contemplation. this one was almost as impressive as the humble administrator's garden, and i especially enjoyed its plants and its rockeries. a beautiful end to my stay in Suzhou.
All in all, i found all the gardens i visited to be great and they compliment each other well. each garden has its own particular features and its own personality. the many details (windows, painting-like views, piece of architecture...) are wonderful.
The classical gardens of Suzhou are, in my opinion, the most sophisticated, developed, atriculated, and complex, uses of privet urban space in the world. beautiful and fascinating.
Ditto the comment by the previous reviewer. Unless you are really into the culture and history of the scholar class in Suzhou, you are not going to appreciate it from other more robust sites in China. The pagoda, which was not part of the garden, was integrated into the design to give the lake a nice vanishing point. A nice touch, but again, it was just a private garden.
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Includes former TWHS The Ancient Town of Tongli - its Retreat & Reflection Garden (1998)
To include the Canglang Pavilion, the Lion Forest Garden, the Garden of Cultivation, the Couple's Garden Retreat, and the Retreat and Reflection Garden.
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