Number 39    November - December 2004


By Andy Clark


Long before I ever thought I would visit China, the Astor Chinese Court Garden in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City captivated me. Opened in 1981, this indoor garden and scholar's study was inspired by the Master of the Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan) in Suzhou, in southeastern China. I had always enjoyed spending time in the tranquility of the Astor Court, so naturally, when I had the opportunity this past summer to go to China with my family and two friends, the Master of the Nets Garden was on my "must-see" list.

We went by van from Shanghai to Suzhou for a one-day visit and arrived there in mid-morning. The Master of the Nets Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the many public gardens in Suzhou that originally were the gardens of private residences. In the 12th century a garden called the Fisherman's Retreat (Yuyin) had been established at this location, however, the garden we see today was the creation of the 18th century official Song Zongyuan, who named it the Master of the Nets Garden, presumably as an allusion to its former appellation.

To reach the garden from the nearest street, you walk down a long alley lined with tourist shops. Access to the garden is through the main gate of the house. Although the Master of the Nets Garden is relatively small, a multitude of basic elements of Chinese landscape design are present: water; picturesque stones and rockeries; pavilions; bridges; meandering pathways; contrasting plants, colors, construction materials, and textures; studied effects of light and shadow; and a preference for asymmetry. This garden is actually a series of gardens, many of which are courtyards between the interconnected residential structures (all given poetic or auspicious names), which, for the most part, occupy the east side of the property. The gardens comprise four-fifths of the total land area of a little more than one acre.

From the entrance you proceed through two large, dark rooms before you step outside into the main garden, an ensemble of pavilions, buildings, small bridges, trees, and plantings surrounding a rock-bordered pond?called "The Place for Gathering Breezes"?with water lilies in the middle. At this point the path diverges, and I chose to turn left. If you make the same choice, you will cross a diminutive arched stone bridge, very appropriately named "Leading to Quietude" since the visitor is just entering into the tranquility of the garden. Then the path curves around the "Cloud Ridge," a small mountain of blocky stones that is best appreciated from the opposite bank of the pond. (Peter Valder makes mention of a white Rosa banksiae that climbs a wall in the vicinity of the "Cloud Ridge," but regrettably I did not observe it.) Next you come to a waterside verandah which affords a panoramic view of the pond garden. The building's name, "Where You Can Wash Your Tassel," is derived from a line in a song that mentions washing the tassel or ribbon of a fisherman's hat.

From here on, the pathway becomes an open corridor and, if you turn right, you come to a multi-sided pavilion that juts into the pond. Evocatively called the "Arrival of the Moon and the Coming of the Wind Pavilion" it is a popular vantage point; people linger as they survey the entirety of the central garden, including the ancient pines and cypresses that grow on the north side of the pond. The summertime palette of the pond garden is subdued, with no vivid color save for a pink flowering tree at the south end of the pond. The greens of the water and the lilies are complemented by the yellow-greys of the surrounding rocks. The whitewashed walls, dark red-brown woodwork, and dull grey tile roofs of the buildings bring out the myriad greens of the trees and plantings. It is not hard to imagine the beauty of this spot on a night when a gentle breeze blows and the moon is reflected in the water.

If, on the other hand, you turn left after exiting "Where You Can Wash Your Tassel," you will come upon the more secluded areas of the house and find your way to the "Music Pavilion" (alternatively called the "Zither Pavilion" or "Lute Room"). This small space fronts on an enchanting courtyard garden filled with bright light and dominated by a pomegranate tree planted in a large stone basin. Rockeries and bamboo flank the pomegranate on both sides. That day the sun shone brightly on the pomegranate's uppermost branches, turning their leaves a brilliant yellow-green, and casting a shadow over the rest of the tree as well as the basin. The weather was very hot and humid, so, although the shade of the tree seemed refreshingly cool, in fact this was largely illusory. Later on the temperature rose well above 100F.

On the way back to the pond, you encounter an attractive, shady grove adjacent to the "Hall of Small Mountains and Osmanthus Woods" (Osmanthus fragrans: tree olive or fragrant olive), where, as the building's name implies, sweet-scented osmanthus trees grow among tall, sentinel-like rocks from Lake Tai, southwest of Suzhou.

Returning to the pond, the path leads you to a doorway in the wall behind the "Arrival of the Moon and the Coming of the Wind Pavilion." Stepping through that doorway takes you from the expansive world of the pond garden into the focused environment of a courtyard. Whitewashed walls enclose the east, west, and south sides of this garden, and a line of convoluted boulders forms the border of a continuous garden bed that runs along all three sides. From inside the building that closes off the north side, the garden is visible through the structure's glass doors and front windows. Called the "Cottage to Accompany the Spring," it incorporates the "Peony Study," a room named for the flowers that grew near the cottage in the 18th century. The courtyard is paved with a mosaic of small, flat, white and yellowish stones laid in geometric patterns. Elsewhere, the same technique is used to create mosaic pictures of flowers. This garden, even further removed from everyday life than the idyllic pond garden, is named the "Fishing Retreat West of the Pond." Intended for study and contemplation, this retreat was the inspiration for the Astor Court in the Metropolitan Museum.

The landscaping along the Fishing Retreat's west wall (opposite the pond garden doorway) and the south wall (opposite the "Cottage to Accompany the Spring") offer delicately balanced vistas ideal for meditation. Visually the west side is divided into two sections. On the left, the extravagantly roofed "Cold Spring Pavilion" is built over the "Azure-containing Spring." A spectacular rock stands within the pavilion, a dark grey three-lobed monolith from Lake Tai that possesses an unmistakably anthropomorphic spirit. To the right of the pavilion, a tall stone marks the middle of the west side, and beyond that, trees are planted against the wall, grassy plants grow over the bed's stony border, and a low, zigzag bamboo fence separates the grasses from the trees and their underplantings.

At the midpoint of the south side, an imposing cloud-like rock rises from a stone pedestal. Trees on both sides flank this big stone, and everything is beautifully set off by the whitewashed wall, which is pierced by five windows filled with elegant tracery. The border of convoluted boulders continues along the east wall, terminating in a monolith, and the plantings are similar to ones on the opposite (west) side, except there are no trees.

After visiting the courtyard retreat, you should return to the pond, and from there you can explore the many verandahs, interconnected buildings, and small gardens in the north and east areas of the property. On the day of our visit, the increasing heat and the fact that the lunch hour was fast approaching meant that we had too little time to spend in this part of the garden, which includes the library, called the "Five Peaks Study," and the intriguingly-named adjacent structure, the "House of Concentrated Emptiness." At this point we had been in China for nearly two weeks, and I had been looking forward to visiting this garden so much that I felt a little sad to leave before I had seen everything. But there were other gardens we wanted to see in Suzhou, and, after all, how could one hope to carry on without food and drink?

Author's note: I would like to express my thanks to our friend Prof. Ming Yan of Suzhou University, who was our host and guide in Suzhou, as well as to Jan and Mike Doyle, our friends and traveling companions, who made our trip to China possible.

For additional information about the Master of the Nets Garden and Chinese gardens in general, see Peter Valder's recent books on Gardens in China and The Garden Plants of China, both published by the Timber Press. Among the many websites that mention the Master of the Nets Garden, three are noteworthy: "Chinese Garden Art: The Master-of-Nets Garden"[email protected], "The Master-of-Nets Garden", and "Garden of the Master of Nets" Also very informative is the website of the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architectural Design Co., Ltd., the firm that constructed the Astor Court as well as a number of other Chinese gardens abroad,

Andy Clark, Saturday Workshop Volunteer

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