The Canglang Pavilion at the top of the man-made little mountain in the garden carrying its name. Couplets carved in the stone pillars read: "The refreshing breeze and the bright moon are priceless; the nearby water and the distant mountains strike a sentimental note", giving a hint how the garden was meant to offer an escape and a refuge from the city life outside its walls. A group of chatting old ladies played cards in the shade of the pavilion like they would have been in their own garden, completely ignoring the visitors around them.
The Canglang Pavilion is the oldest of all existing classical gardens in Suzhou - an impressive achievement in a city where no cultural sights worth seeing have less than half a millennium of recorded history behind them. Its pinyin name is Cāng Làng Tíng, and it appears as the Great Wave, Surging Waves or Blue Wave Pavilion in English textbooks and maps - it took me a while to figure out which garden I was trying to visit.
View from the bridge leading to the entrance of the Canglang Pavilion. The Chinese word "garden" has many other common meanings, one of them being "pavilion", which tells of the important role that pavilions play in these gardens.
A clever double-sided corridor contains two parallel paths; one side offering views of the garden, the other lingering by the water channel and connecting the two viewing pavilions outside the garden (the little boat in the picture above is just around the corner of the lower right picture).
This venerable garden was built in 1044 by Northern Song poet and government official Su Sunqing, who needed a new project to console himself with after being banished from the court of Emperor Renzhong. Disgraced by misdeeds he denied to have committed, Su named his gardens after a poem in book Songs of the South by Qu Yuan (ca. 340 BCE-278 BCE). Qu writes: "If the Canglang River is dirty I wash my muddy feet; If the Canglang River is clean I wash my ribbon", which implied that an honest official rather retires from politics than acts in a corrupt manner; a message that scholars of that age would have been fully equipped to understand.
A covered walkway circles the garden, and imaginative carved windows - some of them showing musical instruments, some formed like fruit, some depicting seasons - in the walls both separate and connect the different parts of the garden. The leaf window below was one of my favorites in its lively simplicity.
Su Sunqing built his garden upon an existing imperial flower garden from the early 900s, incorporating its features into his own design. Despite having been destroyed, rebuilt and restored many times since, some central features remain. A man-made mountain (more like a hill, but of course, a mountain sounds so much more poetic) with meandering pathways and rockeries fills the centre of it , topped by a stone pavilion offering views of the different vistas in the garden. Quite unusually, the main water feature is outside the garden, formed by a public water channel that widens almost into a pond in front of the garden. A clever double-sided corridor contains two parallel paths; one side offering views of the garden, the other lingering by the water channel and connecting the two viewing pavilions outside the garden.
Above: Well-chosen details add discreetly to the visual appeal of the garden; gourds and a vase as door openings; both are auspicious symbols for the Chinese. Below: A plum blossom paving; the flowering plum (Prunus mume) was a highly appreciated under the period of the Song Dynasty and appeared both in poetry, art and as an architectural detail. As it flowers early in spring before all other flowers come out, it has become a symbol for abandonment, retirement and recluse - all so well suited meanings for this garden's initial owner.
Walking through the gardens, the Canglang Pavilion provides cleverly designed views and vistas behind every corner. One moment, you feel like you are climbing the pathways of bamboo covered mountains; next, you enter an elegant pavilion or study with elaborate latticed windows, where the sophistication of the past learned owners and their peers feels almost tangible. I loved the way this garden open up to the pond-like channel and so connects with its outside environs - most Chinese scholars' gardens hide behind their high wall with no such connection. Having been open to the public since 1955, much of the intimacy of a scholar's garden has been lost, and it now feels very much the public park it is. Still, given the sad alternative fate of most gardens of its age, it is extremely rare and so lucky that the Ganglang Pavilion is still with us, adding new pages to its millennium-old tale each year that passes.
Elaborate latticed windows provide shade and offer views to the garden around - over 100 different designs of them can be found in this garden.
Qing Xian Guan, "The pure fragrance house" from inside and outside - huge, century old Osmanthus tree grow outside its windows, spreading their scent in early winter. The idea comes from a Tang Dynasty poem, that reads approximately as "keep the Osmanthus Fragrance under lock and key, not letting its pure fragrance drift away". (The old couple seemed to have many strong opinions about the plants, unfortunately I wasn't able to understand them).
A covered walkway winding around the Bu Qi Ting - Pavilion of Walking along Winding Bank; deep down the bamboo covered sides of the hilly banks is the only small water feature inside the garden walls.
The Mountain-in-View Tower (Kan Shan Lou) with handsome, flying-up eaves overlooks a miniature bamboo grove; there is a rock cave room inside the base of the tower. It was built first in 1873 to provide better views over the southwest corner of the garden.
Guan Yu Chu - The Pavilion for Watching Fishes to the left, as seen from the other side of the outside water channel; it is rare that Chinese scholars' gardens are this open to outside onlookers, but here you can observe the Canglang Pavilion's visitors from afar, without them noticing.