The classical Chinese garden stands behind tall white-washed walls. More often than not, these were residences of the wealthy and the government officials. Suzhou has several interesting classical walled gardens but this being the quickie Groupon tour, we only got to see one. The Master of Nets garden or Wang Shi Yuan is the smallest but said to be the prettiest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
First laid out in the Sung dynasty about 900 years ago, give or take a century or two, it belonged to a government official. After his death, it was neglected and abandoned until the 1700s when a Qing government official bought it and re-designed it. It is said that the Emperor Qianlong visited this garden once. Certainly the Chinese guide was also eager to tell us that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other Singaporean officials visited this garden for meetings too.
I’m not going to dwell on its history or list of VIP visitors – that’s easy enough to google. But I’d just like to share the details that caught my eye. Some interesting things I learned – for instance, the number of red lanterns above the main door indicates the number of official wives the owner has. In this case, there were only two. Quite a modest number for that time in history.
Almost in a linear fashion, the reception hall leads into a series of smaller rooms and verandas before opening into the main pond area, or more poetically known as the Rosy Cloud Pool.
As an aside, the rooms, pavilions and halls are all named – and usually very extravagantly. In Mandarin, the names do not sound very far-fetched but once translated into English, they sometimes sound so lofty that they verge on being over-the-top. Like “Cloud Stairway Pavilion”or “Pavilion Welcoming the Advent of the Moon and Breezes”!
Now this is one space I would love to live in! Light floods this room from two walls of doors and windows, each with a view of a garden. This was known as the Five Peaks Library. The daybed sits in a cosy nook surrounded by carved panels. Imagine this place as it once was – filled with books. I could see myself just lounging on the daybed, books piled high around me, lots of light and cool breezes, maybe a tall glass of iced tea within arms reach… yep, I could live here – with 21st century comforts of course!
The use of ‘borrowed scenery’ as a garden feature is commonly and cleverly used both in China and Japan. In this garden, the use of rocks in the rockery denote clouds – hence the name “Barrier of Clouds grotto”. From this perspective however, one gets the feeling that the house is some distance away. The beauty of strolling through the house and the gardens is the unveiling of yet another different perspective and view – through courtyards, latticed windows, wall patterns, moon gates and artfully placed rocks!
A great deal of thought seems to have gone into the design and placement of space and view. Every detail is deliberate and purposeful. There are rooms and pavilions for different purposes – tea appreciation, poetry, calligraphy, reading, moon-viewing parties, painting, music and so on. So much emphasis on the pursuit and appreciation of art, culture and beauty in life.
Still, we should remember that this is the privileged lifestyle of the rich, educated upper classes. The reality then, as is now, is that Maslow’s hierarchy holds true no matter which era you live in. The poorer peasants of the day working to make ends meet could hardly have the luxury of time and money to sit at a pavilion and wax poetic about life could they? I might want to live in a house like this but the reality is – I probably couldn’t afford to – whether in that lifetime or this one.