Walking through a top-drawer Chinese garden is like walking into a painting. No, a series of paintings.
And that's the idea.
I walked into those "paintings" in Suzhou while accompanying travel agents on a fam hosted by the city's tourism bureau.
Suzhou, a 2,500-year-old city near Shanghai, boasts nine Unesco-protected gardens. We visited the 500-year-old Humble Administrator's Garden, the largest of the lot at 12.4 acres. It also abuts the modern Suzhou Museum (2006), designed by I.M. Pei, whose forebears hailed from Suzhou. Pei's design was inspired by the gardens.
The oldest of Suzhou's gardens dates from the 11th century, but most originated during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when Suzhou was China's commercial and cultural capital. Fifty of about 200 gardens survive.
China's historical gardens were private, and owners' homes were part of their landscape. Such gardens incorporate water, rocks, trees and lotus blooms in ways meant to create miniature versions of nature's lakes, mountains and forests. The gardens couple these natural elements with the man-made — pavilions, teahouses, bridges, pathways and walls — to create serene environments shielded from worldly bustle.
A Chinese garden may appear unstructured, but the features are consciously arranged to create a series of scenes, viewed in succession, that resemble artwork. In the background, the surrounding walls are painted white to suggest the rice paper used by painters.
At the Humble Administrator's Garden, one pavilion was built to accommodate opera audiences who watched performers across a pond. The gardens, built for contemplation and leisure, offer opportunities for tourists to have this or other unique experiences, too. By arrangement through local operators, those experiences could include dinners, musical performances, tai chi sessions and the like.
The tourism bureau hosted 45 U.S. travel agents and operators as part of a larger project to increase the number of Americans making overnight visits.
Suzhou could be seen in a fly-by daytrip from Shanghai; however, because of its history and geography, Suzhou offers a rich cross section of markers for the Chinese culture, justifying a longer stay.
For select special-interest groups, the gardens alone could fill a day or more. Sessions devoted to bonsai and flower arranging would round out that itinerary.
Suzhou’s gardens, most dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties, incorporate natural and man-made elements to create deliberate scenes akin to works of art. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin