Some of the most beautiful sights to see in China are the classical Suzhou gardens. Suzhou, located in Jiangsu province in eastern China, is known as the home of these gardens, which are often called great masterpieces in gardening world history. China’s long history is portrayed through the gardens’ natural landscapes in a fascinating way.
In fact, nine of these classical gardens were selected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and are visited by thousands annually. Below, we’ll talk about the history of the Suzhou gardens, as well as the significance of each garden in the region. Read on to become an expert on the classical gardens of Suzhou!
China’s Historical Masterpieces: The Suzhou Gardens
The history of Suzhou’s Classical Gardens can be traced all the way back to the 6th century. At this point in time, Suzhou was founded as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Wu. The king of Wu had royal hunting gardens built throughout the capital, which inspired several private gardens to be built across the landscape. These private gardens were grown and maintained for decades, most of them built by scholars of their times.
The Suzhou gardens are known for their historic inspiration. Each garden is like a miniature landscape mimicking the natural landscape of their era. Factors contributing to these timeless landscapes include ponds, hills, paths, and specific rock types and plant species.
The Suzhou gardens illustrate the changing landscapes between the 8th and 20th centuries, as each one can be associated with a specific period of time. These time periods include the Song Dynasty (960-1270 AD), the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD).
The Garden of Cultivation is a Ming Dynasty classical Suzhou garden. ( Sen / Adobe Stock)
Stone Art at the Suzhou Gardens
Each of the classical Suzhou gardens is known for its own specific landscape and garden art. Overall, there are 69 preserved gardens across Suzhou, though some are larger and more popular than others. Specifically, there are ten primary gardens, due to their long and fascinating histories. Each of these gardens not only mimics landscapes of the past with their plants and hills, but they also use garden art to make the landscapes look even more attractive.
Common garden art that can be seen includes stone piling, water streaming, ancient architecture, plant placement and shaping, colored paving, and perforated windows. Each garden has a unique combination of these types of garden art, making them entirely distinctive and representative of specific moments in time throughout Chinese history .
The first type of garden art, stone piling, is one of the most interesting art forms to observe in the Suzhou gardens. Using the terrain, tall rocks are layered up in elevated areas of the garden to produce an impressive landscape, especially when they’re piled against walls, hills, or cliffs.
Each rock and stone is chosen carefully based on the type of rock, its shape, color, height, and width. Only those that fit the timeline illustrated in the garden are included. Plus, careful thought is put into the artistic atmosphere of the garden, as some rocks may emanate grandeur while other smaller rocks may generate curiosity.
Aerial view of one of the Suzhou gardens. ( Xinhua)
Water and Architecture Within the Famed Suzhou Gardens
Streaming water is a vital aspect of the gardens, as there are many ponds and waterfalls scattered throughout each one. Water is taken from an external source and carefully guided to the gardens, where it can then be used to create a number of natural water sources including waterfalls, streams, ponds, springs, and ravines. The placement of these bodies of water is essential when it comes to decorating the landscape and keeping it self-sustaining.
Ancient architecture is also used throughout the gardens to truly preserve the feeling of them being from a different time. Some of the buildings, such as music halls and pavilions, are hundreds of years old and have been preserved, while others are newer and are regularly renovated to ensure their safe use. These buildings, with their impressive cultural architecture, are still used to receive guests to the region or to allow visitors to observe the gardens without impacting the landscape.
As you walk through the gardens, you may also notice that the paths are filled with artwork as well. Often, the walkways are made of materials like gravel, ceramic, and cobblestone, and the colors of each are used to create artwork and designs in the paths. Though their primary purpose is to provide space for visitors to walk through the gardens without affecting the landscape, the paths also represent Chinese culture with images such as cranes, bats, flowers, and the calabash.
Finally, the perforated windows are one of the most famous aspects of the Classical Garden artwork evidenced in the Suzhou gardens. These ornamental windows are commonly seen in the walls of the garden architecture and provide ventilation within many of the ancient buildings. They also provide great views of the gardens as you walk through the buildings. Though a window may sound simple, the intricate designs in these windows further add to the beauty of these historic landscapes.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest of the Suzhou gardens. ( Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)
The Top 8 Classical Gardens of Suzhou
Though there are over sixty classical gardens in Suzhou, only ten are considered the most popular of the group due to their size, landscape, and history. If you ever find yourself in Suzhou, these are certainly the ones to see first. They’re also the best preserved thanks to their inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
1. The most famous of the gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden . This garden is the largest of the group and is considered the most prestigious as well. It was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century and spans over 12 acres, including several ponds, lakes, and pools in addition to ancient pavilions and halls. Over time, the garden has had 12 owners, each of whom has left their own mark on the garden through various architecture and landscaping projects. Between Daishuang Pavilion, Liuting Pavilion, Yuanxiang Hall, and more, you’ll need quite a bit of time to see every aspect of this incredible garden.
2. Another popular garden is the Lingering Garden . Originally this garden was named the Hanbi Mountain Villa and the Garden of Family Liu when it was first built during the Ming Dynasty but was later renamed. This garden is simple compared to the rest, but is still a sight to see. Its central lake, colorful flowers, and simple yet plenteous architecture make this spot a picturesque dream.
3. The Master of the Nets Garden is the smallest of the gardens, but that certainly doesn’t take away from its beauty. It was built during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 AD) and was primarily used as a secluded area for fishing. After years of neglect, it was fully renovated during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century with many pavilions and halls added to it. Each of the buildings in this small garden surrounds the water and illustrates many of the architectural styles of the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
Stone Lion at Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou. ( 螺钉 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
4. The Lion Grove Garden is also nicknamed the “Kingdom of Rockeries” due to the many unique stones found here. It was built during the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century by Buddhist monk Tianruweize to honor his master. Giving it its name, the Lion Grove Garden is filled with hundreds of rocks, most of which are in the shape of lions. These rocks illustrate lions sleeping, running, roaring, dancing, and more. Even the caverns and other artwork in the garden represent the theme of lions, making it a favorite for families.
5. Another famous garden is Canglang Pavilion . This garden is often translated as either the Great Wave Pavilion or the Blue Wave Pavilion and is known as the oldest of the Suzhou Classical Gardens. Canglang Pavilion was built during the Song Dynasty in the 11th century and was even once the home of celebrated Chinese general Han Shizhong. The ancient garden contains multiple double verandahs, pavilions, interior stone pilings, impressive waterscaping, and a two-story mountain-viewing tower. Those who enjoy sightseeing love climbing to the top of this tower to overlook the garden and surroundings including a nearby green bamboo forest.
6. The Couple’s Retreat Garden is a fascinating one, as it is technically two gardens combined into one. The East Garden and the West Garden are considered separate, but are combined into two acres in the Couple’s Retreat Garden, representing a couple who have come together in secrecy. The entire garden is surrounded by a river on three sides and is themed by multiple yellow stone pilings throughout. Flowering plants are scattered throughout the landscape to add to its romance, and it can be seen best from the Shuangzhau Pavilion located in the center of the garden.
7. If you want to see a garden that fully reflects the style of the Ming Dynasty, the Garden of Cultivation is the place to go. The garden was built by scholars in the Ming Dynasty who focused on simple, elegant designs compared to previous dynasties. Overall, the garden contains a Lotus pond, stone art, and multiple pavilions. Since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site , it has seen more visitors, but it is still one of the least-visited gardens of the group because of its seclusion.
8. Finally, the Retreat and Reflection Garden is one of the newest gardens of the group, as it was created in the late 19th century by Ren Lansheng, a dismissed imperial official. Devised as a place of self-reflection, the garden contains several historic wooden buildings as well as incredible waterscapes. Some of the buildings even appear to be floating on the water. Blooming flowers are scattered throughout the garden as well as some natural wildlife, making it a perfect place for meditation and relaxation.
Entrance to the Cangland Pavilion in the Suzhou gardens in China. ( PhotoerNgo / Adobe Stock)
A Sightseer’s Favorite Spot
Nowadays, the Suzhou gardens are visited by thousands of people every year. The gardens are so large and extensive that just touring the few gardens described above takes a couple of days, if not longer.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Classical Gardens of Suzhou as World Heritage Site s back in 1997. Since then, they have worked to preserve many of these gardens alongside Suzhou city officials.
The goals for the gardens include minimizing the impact of urbanization, monitoring environmental changes that could impact the gardens, reducing population and harmful tourism, and raising awareness of their cultural significance in the region. An ideal place to explore or meditate, be sure to check out these incredible Classical Gardens if you’re ever in Suzhou.
Top image: Circular gate in the Suzhou gardens. Source: rudiuk / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh