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June 22, 2024

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Three splendid gardens that passed into history but still leave an enduring legacy

THE Zhangyuan (张园), Yuyuan (愚园) and Xuyuan (徐园) gardens in downtown Jing’an District influenced the social and cultural life of Shanghai during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early Republic of China (1912-1949) era, though none survived into modern times.

These private gardens offered places for sightseeing, tea socials, meetings and meditation, evolving into popular green retreat for Shanghai residents. Over time, however, the once grand gardens fell victim to modern development, but their legacy remains.

Zhangyuan was named after owner Zhang Shuhe, a businessman from the neighboring city of Wuxi. He initially worked closely with Li Hongzhang, a prominent Qing Dynasty official. After a series of career setbacks, however, Zhang turned his attention to developing Zhangyuan.

The garden, flanked by today’s Nanjing Road W. and Shimen No. 1 Road, was originally farmland purchased and transformed into a small garden by a British merchant. Zhang purchased and expanded the site, incorporating lawns, flowers, trees and ponds.

At its peak in 1894, Zhangyuan covered more than 4 hectares, making it the largest private garden in Shanghai at the time.

Zhangyuan became famous because of its free access to the public. Zhang opened the garden to provide a place where Chinese could gather at a time when many Western parks excluded Chinese visitors.

The garden featured diverse attractions, including teahouses, restaurants, theaters, exhibition halls and sports facilities.

Zhangyuan was a groundbreaker. It hosted the city’s first electric lighting, its first outdoor photo studio, its first modern drama performance and its first Western-style wedding.

It was also a place where notables of the era often appeared. Revolutionary Sun Yat-sen made speeches there. Martial arts master Huo Yuanjia performed there, and painter Liu Haisu exhibited his works.

After 1918, when more popular recreational sites such as the Great World and New World entertainment centers opened, Zhangyuan declined in public attention though its legacy remains alive.

Today, efforts are under way to preserve and redevelop the area, converting the buildings into boutique hotels, small guesthouses, art galleries, museums and other cultural venues.

Yuyuan was another prominent garden in Jing'an. Established in 1890 by a Ningbo merchant surnamed Zhang, Yuyuan was located near the intersection of present-day Yuyuan and Changde roads.

Initially featuring a small garden with a tea pavilion, Yuyuan expanded to include flower beds, a glasshouse with exotic animals such as tigers, leopards, monkeys, peacocks and sika deer, and scenic spots like the Flower God Pavilion.

Yuyuan was notable for its innovative night garden, which allowed visitors to enjoy the garden's beauty by moonlight.

This unique feature made it a popular destination for evening entertainment. The garden also became a venue for cultural and social gatherings, including meetings of the influential South Society, a literary and political group.

Despite its success, Yuyuan eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in the early 1920s. Residential buildings now sit on the site.

Xuyuan, known for its tranquility and elegance, was the oldest of the three gardens. The garden was originally a private retreat for wealthy silk merchant Xu Hongkui from neighboring Zhejiang Province.

Xu established the garden as a place for relaxation and recuperation, incorporating traditional Chinese garden elements like rockeries, ponds and pavilions.

In 1899, due to urban development, Xuyuan was relocated to a larger site on Kangding Road. The new garden featured 12 scenic spots with poetic names.

Xuyuan became a popular destination for those seeking a peaceful escape from the city noise and bustle. It also played a role in the early introduction of cinema to Shanghai, hosting one of China's first film screenings in 1896.

Xuyuan continued to be a significant public space until it was repurposed as a refugee shelter during the 1937 Battle of Shanghai against the Japanese invaders.

The garden was severely damaged by war and never restored to its former glory. Today, the site of Xuyuan is occupied by modern buildings, but its historical impact on Shanghai's cultural landscape endures.


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