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June 26, 2016

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A stroll through historic gardens

SHANGHAI’S classical gardens, built on Suzhou tradition, survived the turbulent period of the wars and were among the first cultural sites that were restored after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Many see the classical gardens of Shanghai as a remnant of a bygone era, but Shelly Bryant argues that they might take on a new and bigger role in the future. “Forging a future direction for gardens in contemporary China depends on our ability to engage with their past,” Bryant said.

In her latest book “The Classical Gardens of Shanghai,” Bryant looks at five of Shanghai’s remaining classical gardens: Zuibaichi in Songjiang District, Qushui in Qingpu District, Guyi Yuan and Qiuxiapu in Jiading District, and Yuyuan Garden in the Old City of Shanghai.

Through their origins, changing fortunes, restorations, and links to a wider Chinese aesthetic, Bryant takes the readers on a virtual tour. In the past, the gardens’ role was to create a space for reading, entertainment and enjoyment, the last of which, says the author, “is the true goal of garden construction.”

Suzhou tradition

Zuibaichi, literarily the Drunken Bai’s Pool, is said to be the oldest remaining garden in Shanghai. First founded by Zhu Zhichun in the ninth century during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it was the Ming Dynasty’s (1368-1644) Dong Qichang who laid out the garden the way it can still be seen today. In Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Gu Dashen enlarged the area, and added a lotus and water lily pond after which the garden is named in honor of a line from a poem written for Bai Juyi called “In Memory of Drunken Bai.”

“This is the exemplary of the huicui style in gardening for which Suzhou was famed, which implies a gathering of important people or cherished artifacts,” writes Bryant in the book. “This tradition flourished in Songjiang during the period of Zuibaichi’s development, just as the city was becoming a renowned center of learning and cultured study.”

Though many scholars’ gardens in Shanghai can be traced back to the Song Dynasty, it was during the Ming-Qing period that gardening culture really exploded with the rise of a merchants who had the financial means to imitate the gardens previously restricted to the aristocracy and literati.

Built in 1559 when the development of scholars’ gardens was at its peak, Yuyuan Garden is not only the pride of Shanghai, but also one of the country’s finest remaining Ming gardens.

Public gathering place

Home to old trees, winding waters, bridges and rocks, it took Pan Yunduan more than ten years to complete the project, according to “Yuyuan Ji,” the garden chronicle Pan wrote as a tourist brochure.

With the fall of the old city by the end of Ming Dynasty, the Pans fled to escape the fighting. The garden was then turned into a temple compound, with the City God being placed inside in hopes that it would save the city from being ransacked.

Almost immediately after it became the temple garden, shops, banks and restaurants were opened within the grounds. Yuyuan Garden became a public gathering place for locals.

“Though the temple expanded the garden’s role as a public gathering space for ceremonies and performances, the opening of the grounds to the public was not new,” Bryant points out.

From Pan’s own records, as well as a series of couplets displayed at Yuyuan, we know that the garden served as a hub for much social activity in the city during its peak.

All five classical gardens in Shanghai did not only survive historic turmoil, but can today be found in art and literature as much as in rock and water. Although they have been rebuilt and remodeled numerous times, Shanghai’s classical gardens are still places where China’s ancient culture offers some time for relaxation.


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