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Gardens of Earthly Delight: Historic Ming Gardens

By Pamela Robin Brandt

Known as 'the Venice of the East', Suzhou (pronounced, roughly, 'Sue-Joe'), now a modern industrial city, was once an ancient port whose canal was part of China's grand canal system.

By the 12th Century, the canal had brought both wealth to its residents and water for their elaborate private gardens.

Now protected cultural sites, 18 of these unique walled city garden retreats are open to the public.

Atypical of traditional Chinese city gardens based on the very symmetrical plan of the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th Century B.C.), these walled oases built -- and rebuilt -- numerous times between the start of the Tang dynasty in 618 A.D. and the present, are artfully asymmetrical, with meandering paths and tunnels leading to ancient movie-set-like scenes of mountains, ponds with pavilion 'islands', bonsai 'forests', and round moon gates framing flowered landscapes -- some expected destinations, some surprises.

The idea and ideal of these harmonious walled worlds-within-worlds was to provide a retreat from human unrest to the safety and peace of 'natural' rural sanctuaries.

Conveniently, they also enabled the gardens' original homeowners to tastefully flaunt their money and good taste.

Among the most evocative are the Garden of the Humble Administrator (Zhou Zheng Yuan), where the roofs create abstract mini-mountain ranges; Tiger Hill, whose immense brick 961 A.D. pagoda symbolises the aformentioned tiger's tail; and the idyllic pavilions, man-made ponds, and maze-like paths leading to secret courtyards at the Master of the Fishing Nets Garden (Wang Shi Yuan), cultivated since 1140.

The very popular Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan), where carefully trained bonsais (bigger than Japanese ones) were designed to create the feeling of woodland solitude; and the hard-to-find Couples Garden (Ou Yuan) from the early 17th-Century Qing dynasty, uncrowded even in October, Suzhou's most popular tourism month.



The Historic Ming Gardens of Suzhou
Various locations (most within a square mile of the 'old city') in Suzhou, China, about 90 minutes' drive west of Shanghai


Open all year from approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Getting There:

To avoid hiring expensive official driver/'guides' for this easy 90-minute commute from Shanghai (there are no rental cars for tourists in China), take the train; there are about 40 per day. Reserve tickets at the station no more than three days in advance of the trip.

In Suzhou, transport is available between gardens via cheap, readily available taxis; drivers know where the gardens are.

For Further Info:

Suzhou Gardens Administration Bureau
Gongyuan Rd. 12
Suzhou, Jiangsu
China 215006
86 512 522 4929 - phone
86 512 522 3937 - fax
Website: www.seu.edu.cn/EC/english/jsszjz.htm

For Flights and Airfares to China - click here for the Travel Homepage.

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