Saturday, 22 December 2012

City of Gardens

Is it really Christmas already?? Crikey. Apparently it is. Well, a very merry Christmas to one and all, and the usual New Year felicitations - may it be fabulous.

We're not having Christmas this year - we're still in Nanjing, but with only a few very hectic weeks to go, and too much to squeeze into them. We're heading back to the UK on January 9th, and in the absence of an immediate job, will probably be moving to Llandrindod where we can carry on the good work (and applications). There's an enormous amount to say about our time in China, and we have been on one or two more adventures recently, including fieldwork in Zhejiang. Right now, though, I'm just going to mention Suzhou.

We've been dying to get to this place since we arrived, and as it's only an hour away by high-speed train, it really wasn't that difficult. Suzhou is famed as the 'Venice of China' and yes, there were indeed cornettos (or the Chinese equivalent). Given that this was in December, we weren't like to try them, though... Anyway. Venetians would be distressed by the poor, overlooked canals. There weren't that many, and they weren't that intrusive (although some were constrained by narrow, winding ravines of houses and managed to at least be atmospheric - if a bit grim). Most of the city is much like Nanjing, but with a Shanghai influence - more shiny new convenience stores, for example, and a high street that could just as well have been Leicester, or Leeds, or countless other UK cities (assuming that you ignore the Chinese characters on most of the signs). But all that, of course, is not why we went.

Suzhou is really famous for its gardens. Dozens of them. Traditional gardens. Classical gardens. "Wild" gardens (in which the neatly manicured beds weren't trimmed every week) - and so on. In one day, you can only see a bit, so we went to the Master of Nets' Garden (a small, classical one that is meant to be among the finest anywhere), and the Canglang Pavilion, a rather lovely sprawling affair with numerous buildings, and a botanical section with various bamboos.

The most striking thing about Chinese gardens, to a westerner, is that they are always a balance between buildings, and a very constrained nature. They have numerous interestingly-shaped limestone boulders, which are presented from certain angles to achieve certain results. The buildings are cunningly designed to produce exactly the right view, inducing exactly the right impression, and so on. They're not so much places to simply be in and relax, and more designed as places to experience. Many of the pavilions and panoramas are particularly designed to impress visitors. But rather than a general feeling that you're in a nice place, in a Chinese garden you feel that every time you turn a corner there is something profound being revealed to you. What poem should I be remembering, with this rock that looks like a crane? Which philosopher's dream am I witnessing in the view through this window? Who is the figure in the carving in the alcove, and what have they to do with the locust tree behind? Why am I so ignorant?

Of course, one thing that was always at the back of our minds was that we were seeing the gardens as tourist attractions, not as living places of reflection and entertainment. How different would they have been, centuries ago, when they were new? For a start, the inhabitants would have been rather different. We were definitely there in the off-season, but even so both were popular. The rooms were furnished, but not used - they feel like shells rather than real places. Much has also been replaced, or has fallen into neglect. We saw friezes with the figures hacked off during the Cultural Revolution (ancient stories depicted in stone being a reminder of 'old ways of thinking'), and crudely-replaced, painted modern woodwork that jarred horribly. But there were also spectacular carvings intact, and some of the carpentry was spectacular.

If nothing else, it makes one dream... the Old China, which is now so hard to find, can still be there somewhere. With a bit of imagination...

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The picture here is the view from the Guest House of Harmony, in the Master of Nets' Garden. As always, click to go my Flickr page, with lots more pictures of our little adventure.

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