Travel tales

The artful gardens of Suzhou


are so cunningly constructed to lead you on and turn you round and open up before you new vistas, new worlds (‘The Other Land of Distinction; fairy land in Daoist conception’).

They seem huge, endless; always another corner to explore, another fancifully-shaped entrance to go through to reach walls beyond walls, corridors leading to pavilions, screens hiding the entrance to new courtyards. There’s never a dead end until you realise you are actually back where you started, only from this angle the view is completely different, another reality lies before you…

And there are mirrors offering yet more unreal worlds, or openings that appear to include the world outside the garden (canal side, distant pagoda) into the garden itself. They are utterly, manipulatively enchanting.  

Nothing in these gardens simply is. Everything is a representation of something else – a mountain, a lake, a line of poetry. Alongside the constant illusions of space and vistas are the allusions opening up, layer on layer.

Walking through the bamboo grove is meant to imitate a stroll in the wild forest, but at the same time a religious tenet should spring instantly to mind. It’s all a sort of play-acting. The wealthy owners were indulging their pretensions to modest seclusion and learning (witness the names: the Humble Administrator’s Garden), putting themselves into culturally-hallowed roles and scenarios. This pavilion is for watching moonlight on chrysanthemums. This one for subdued bamboo-shaded study. This one is for a fleeting sunrise meeting like in that famous poem.

 Then there are the gardens of bonsai, the ultimate in illusion and allusion, trees trained to be tiny representations of themselves. They’re wonderful and intrinsically delightful, the way anything miniature – kittens, dollshouses – is intrinsically delightful. But for me the allusion is to the tiny bound feet of Chinese ladies a hundred years ago. 


4th November 2010