In the heart of the frenzied bustle of modern Shanghai is an altogether different thrill, the 450-year old Garden of Leisurely Repose. Linda Ross visits.
It’s hard to find a peaceful place in a city of 60 million people. And I certainly didn’t find it in Shanghai’s famous Yuyuan, the Garden of Leisurely Repose, on May Day holiday!
It was the first time that the population had been given a compulsory week off for May Day, instead of just a single day, and it felt as if all of China had come to Yuyuan to celebrate. Indeed, many rural Chinese never get into the cities to see their cultural sites and this was a perfect opportunity. So there was a real buzz of excitement in the air as crowds of us gathered to enjoy this amazing garden.
Yuyuan Garden is the most famous ancient structure in Shanghai and its heritage seems to be underlined by its proximity to the 21st century exploding all around it. Yuyuan lies in a busy part of town, but the closer you get the more you leave the modern world behind. We made our way through a labyrinth of lantern-lined, ancient walkways. The air was fragrant with the mouth-watering aroma of steaming dumplings. Gold and silver were being sold in the markets. We crossed the zigzag ‘bridge of nine turnings’, paused to watch the vibrant twists of thousands of fat and happy koi carp, then made a beeline for the ‘Willow Pattern’ teahouse and sat a while enjoying a traditional tea ceremony. So we felt we’d experienced a sense of old China, all before we’d entered the garden.
Pan Yuduan, a government official of the Ming dynasty, built Yuyuan in 1559. Its exquisite layout, beautiful scenery, and the style of the garden architecture are typical of the period, which is considered the zenith of classical Chinese garden design. The garden fell into decline with the waning of the family fortunes in the late 1700s. It was reborn as a garden of wealthy merchants, then deteriorated again in 1880, and was destroyed when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1942. It was restored again in 1956.
The garden’s name means Garden of Contentment or Garden of Leisurely Repose and Pan built it initially as a place for his parents to enjoy their old age. Like most Chinese Gardens it’s not a primarily flower garden but a created landscape of buildings, water features and plantings that together inspire contemplation a create a sense of harmony. Chinese gardens of this period typically incorporate ‘borrowed’ or distant scenery and emphasise a balance between yin and yang or the feminine (water, foliage) and masculine (pavilions, rocks).
Yuyuan is only small at five acres, but if feels like a condensed lesson in Chinese garden design. All the elements are in perfect harmony: cloud rocks, water, trees, flowers, pavilions, dragons, vases, walls, lattice windows and moon gates. While not primarily about flowers April sees it bloom with wisteria, peach and cherry blossom, jasmine and peonies. In October-November the trees wear autumn foliage and in January-February the camellias are in flower.
Visitors marvel at the exquisite rockeries, dragon walls, pavilions and towers interspersed through the garden. A highlight is the Exquisite Jade Rock. This is a highly revered rock, one of the three most famous rocks in the southern Yangste River region. One story of it provenance says that it was on its way from Wuxi province to the emperor in Beijing when the boat carrying it sank in Shanghai. It lay submerged for decades until Pan had it brought to the surface and displayed in his garden. It’s 3.3 metres high and has 72 holes. Part of its appeal is its shape and the tension between the apparent fragility lent by all those holes, and its enduring stoniness. Pan had a small pond built in front of the rock, and a pavilion constructed opposite it so that it could be viewed, and contemplated, in comfort. Also of interest to the visitor is the fact that if a stick of incense is burned just below the rock, the smoke will be drawn out of all of the holes. Similarly, when water is poured into the rock from top, it flows out each hole.
While contentment and leisurely repose are no longer the first things that Yuyuan inspires, it truly is a wonder of a garden.
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