Thursday, November 18, 2010

A classical Chinese scholar's garden in Vancouver

View from the outer garden towards the Jade water pavilion and the Magnolia courtyard, the dark water reflecting the shapes of the buildings and the weeping willow.
During a brief visit to Vancouver in British Columbia last weekend, I finally got to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden that I had been curious about for some time. Named to honor of the first president of the Republic of China who also has been called the father of modern China, it was built for 24 years ago as a full-scale replica of a classical scholar's garden, using materials, tools and techniques that were almost identical to those used centuries ago.
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View from the Magnolia courtyard towards the outer garden.
Despite the grey, hanging Vancouver skies above and the busy commerce behind the surrounding high white walls so typical for classical Chinese gardens, my stroll around the garden seemed to transfer me to another time and place, where a whiff of orchid scent or a gentle stroke of a calligraphy brush could be contemplated for hours.
The Jade water pavilion and covered walkways seen from the inner Maple hall courtyard; sitting places were important for the delicate Chinese upperclass ladies who could barely walk with their tiny, bound feet.*
Inside the Jade water pavilion, two latticed wooden screens, constructed without any nails or screws, frame views to both outer and inner gardens. The screens, a circular one called Heaven gate (above) and a square Earth gate, illustrate the Daoist yin and yang found throughout the garden: light is balanced by dark, rugged and hard by soft and flowing, and small by large.
Gliding through the moon gates and latticed pavilion openings, the garden never revealed itself all at one glance, but was presented as a series of carefully orchestrated vistas, like miniature landscapes and scenes of a scroll painting. Even the white walls, wood, stone and plants kept to the same subtle color scheme of muted greys, browns and greens.
Despite its small size, all key elements of a classical Chinese garden could be found within this garden. Buildings - terraces, covered walkways, pavilions and lookout platforms - were all meticulously built without any nails and screws. Sculptural, pitted and convoluted Tai Hu limestone rocks were bought from Lake Tai near Suzhou. All plants had been carefully selected for their specific symbolic values; often, only one specimen of each plant was used as a way to heighten the sense of its particularity and distinctiveness, and for its place in the circle of seasons, adding to the experience of time passing within the closed, high walls. A pond with cloudy water created a tranquil atmosphere, reflecting the buildings, rocks and plants, and small notes with calligraphic signs offered inspiring words of poetry to those able to decipher their meanings.

The courtyards were covered by intricate stonework, created of pebbles and rocks that were cut by hand.
In a serene, connected courtyard with a study, I could easily imagine the scholar reading, writing, composing poetry and music, and painting on his elegant wooden desk; in China, the art of gardening was always inseparable from other forms of art. Behind the desk, three framed windows depicted scenes with the "three friends of winter" - bamboo symbolizing resiliency amid diversity, pine symbolizing strength and eternity, and winter-flowering plum standing for rebirth and renewal - all important symbols in the life of a classical Chinese scholar.

View from the Scholar's courtyard into the study; the scholar's table and chair are seen in the middle, with one of the "three friends of winter" windows behind.
Wandering around the garden, I thought of the many Japanese gardens that I've seen, both in Japan and in many other countries (most botanical and public gardens seem to think it is necessary to provide a Japanese garden, wherever in world they are situated). But Chinese gardens are much more rare; even in the Western coast of North America, where Chinese immigrants have formed an important part of the population since mid-1850s, only a handful of them exist, all in cities with historic Chinatowns like San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver and soon even Seattle.
Contemplating this disparity, I thought that maybe it is their reliance on often highly ornate architecture that made Chinese gardens so difficult to lift out of their context, while the sophisticated simplicity and conceived naturalness of the Japanese ones (successfully falling together with the 20th century ideals of Modernism) made them to object of our eager imitation even if the results are often mediocre at their best...?

The scholar's courtyard with Tai Hu river rocks from Lake Tai in China. These rocks were extremely popular in classical Chinese gardens, and their forms invite to different interpretations as the light changes during the days and seasons. The "leak window" behind leads the eye to something beyond, at the same time expanding the space.
Anyhow, I enjoyed greatly my initiation into the art of Chinese gardening, having so far experienced it only through art and in books. Certainly, I would be very happy to travel to China for that special experience that only seeing gardens in their original landscapes and contexts can give, but until that lucky day, I'll have some enjoyable days in front of me visiting the Chinese gardens of the West Coast. Which reminds me of words of Yuan Ye, a classic Chinese gardening manual published in 1634 that explained the benefits of private garden as following:

If one can thus find stillness in the midst of city turmoil, why should one then forego such an easily accessible spot and seek a more distant one? As soon as one has some leisure time then one can go and wander there, hand in hand with a friend.
I took all photos above; please don't copy without asking my permission - contact me through leaving a comment.


Laura said...

I saw a documentary once on Chinese gardens. They are stunning. The rock statues (?) were quite impressive!

Garden Lily said...

We attended a friend's wedding in that garden, and it was a wonderful setting, even though it was lightly raining that day.

Ruben said...

Kineserna är extremt duktiga att kombinera inne och ute. Förstår, att även du har blivit betagen av de fina stenläggningarna. Tycker om allt i en kinesisk trädgård - utom deras stenbumlingar, som de dessutom under ceremonier väljer ut mycket noggrant. Dessa har jag litet svårt för, men jag kanske hittar tjusningen med dessa (konstiga former) så småningom. Om kineserna tycker att de är vackra, så är de säkert det!! ;-) De verkar ha tänkt ut det mesta!!!
Ha det gott!

Carol said...

What a jewel to find in a large city! Beautiful post!! Enchanting world . . . so carefully thought out for the mind and spirit to roam . . . it seems endless, though you say it is small. Thank you! Kram Carol

Stephanie from said...

so glad that you posted these photos - I have been to the gardens (as I live in Vancouver) and love your perspective.

Island Threads said...

thanks for posting these photos of the garden, I visited when I was in Vancouver in March 1994 and the garden was lightly covered with snow, despite the winter conditions it was beautiful with a wonderful peace and serenity, I loved the surrounding chinese district too, Frances

phoenix 43 said...

I moved to Vancouver just as this opened and it has always been a special place for me. For a few years I was part of a book club which met in the Scholar's Study to discuss books with multi-cultural themes and to drink lots of tea, especially in winter when we also had to wear thermal underwear and leave our hats and jackets on (authentic = no central heating). Summer evenings offer weekly concerts of various world music traditions. Maybe best of all is that a large part of the garden's water and plantings are on view to all passersby to enjoy as a public park adjacent to the enclosed building section.