Classical Chinese gardens are deliberately designed so that no matter where you stand, you can never see the whole thing at once. Exploration is absolutely essential if you want to get the full picture. But even if you spend an entire day at a single garden, you’ll never discover all of its secrets. Certain pavilions and viewing points have been optimized for particular times of the year, giving visitors a reason to return again and again. It’s this element of mystery and discovery that have helped the ancient gardens of China, and especially those in Suzhou, remain popular attractions after all these years.
Suzhou, an easy train ride away from Shanghai, has always been a prosperous town. Today, it’s the single largest producer of laptops, and it’s highly likely that some other electronic gadget you own contains at least a few parts produced there. But centuries earlier, Suzhou thrived off its booming silk trade and its proximity to the Grand Canal. The wealth of the town attracted plenty of businessmen, along with poets, painters and architects, all of whom would help contribute to the town’s many enchanting gardens.
Simply put, the aim of a classical Chinese garden is to deepen one’s appreciation for nature. But rather than become hermits in the forest, the owners of these classical gardens experimented with building their own depiction of the natural world right in the middle of the city. Rocks were used to represent mountains, while ponds symbolized lakes. And viewing pavilions were placed throughout the space where people could sit and appreciate particular scenes. In addition to just relaxing in nature, the classical Chinese gardens had another purpose – to inspire artistic expression like poetry, literature or painting.
Today, Suzhou still has dozens of classical gardens, many of them designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. With only a day in the city, I decided to just focus on a few of the main ones. I hoped that this would give me just enough time to explore, contemplate the gardens’ hidden meanings, and also get a little lost.
Decoding Chinese Garden Architecture
While certain gardens place a special emphasis on one or two particular elements, all Chinese gardens feature the things in the list below. When visiting the gardens of Suzhou, it’s important to understand that a major element of Chinese garden design is asymmetry. Unlike ancient temples which typically rely on precise mathematical principles, Chinese gardens are meant to mimic the ebb and flow of nature. This results in a somewhat confusing and disorienting layout, but that’s also what makes them so interesting to walk through.
Here are some, but certainly not all, of the things you’ll encounter in the numerous gardens throughout Suzhou:
Water is an essential element that no Chinese garden can go without. As Chinese gardens are a microcosm of the larger natural world, the water in a garden typically symbolizes a lake or even the ocean. On a more abstract level, water can symbolize communication, movement and dreams. Architects also utilized water to create impressive reflections of the structures above ground. And water is also home to other garden trademarks, like carp or lotus flowers.
Large rocks typically symbolize mountains. Oftentimes, a rock is meant to represent the mythological Taoist mountain of Penglai, the abode of the immortals. Many of the rocks in the Suzhou gardens come from Lake Tai, having been shaped by the flow of water over thousands of years. Smaller rocks are often put on display in the fancy halls at a garden’s entrance. This shows the appreciation the garden owners had for these unique formations, celebrating them as a sort of natural sculpture.
You can’t have a garden without plants. Garden architects utilized a wide array of different plants and flowers for either symbolic or aesthetic purposes – or oftentimes both. Bamboo, for example, represents strength and flexibility, while also being able to withstand Suzhou’s four seasons. Another popular tree was pine, which can both survive the harsh winter while also being a common motif in traditional Chinese paintings. Orchids, lotuses and chrysanthemums, meanwhile, add color to a garden, with each carrying a symbolic meaning of its own.
Gates of different shapes mark divisions between different sections of a garden, while also acting as a frame for the scenery up ahead. The most common type of gate, the moon gate, is simply a round circle. But other shapes include hexagons or even something resembling a leaf. Windows are also strategically placed throughout the garden to not only allow the passage of a light into corridors or halls, but to offer just small glimpses of interesting trees or rocks on the other side.
In Chinese gardens, pavilions are deliberately placed in some of the best viewing spots. While sometimes the architect’s placement of a viewing point makes immediate sense, it’s not always apparent why certain locations were chosen. Sometimes a pavilion is placed where one can see the reflection of the moon at night, or in the best spot to listen to the sound of rain on the leaves above. Pavilions were also used as places for garden owners to reflect, paint and write poetry. Larger halls near a garden’s entrance served as viewing points as well, but also doubled as a place where families could host and entertain guests.
The Humble Administrator's Garden
Encompassing an area of over 13 acres, the Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest in all of Suzhou. It was originally built in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty but has been renovated many times since. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the Humble Administrator’s Garden remains one of the most popular sites in the area. That means that it’s also one of the most crowded.
Entering through the gates, I couldn’t help but feel that this isn’t quite the atmosphere the original garden architects had in mind. How can one appreciate scenic viewing points with poetic names like ‘Pavilion in the Lotus Breeze,’ while simultaneously batting away selfie sticks from your face? But given the garden’s size, it fortunately wasn’t too long before I found somewhere to escape the crowds.
I soon myself in a dimly lit, covered walkway. The halls were lined with windows, each one featuring an intricately carved design. Looking carefully, the designs were all unique. Then, looking past the shapes and over to the other side, I caught glimpses of certain trees or pavilions which beckoned me to explore even further.
Later on, I encountered windows without any lattice designs – clearly intended to act as picture frames. The views offered here are wider, but again, far from being complete. Elsewhere in the garden, larger pavilions provided an even much wider angle, yet they were partially obscured by colored glass. This added both a sense of elegance and mystery.
Walking further along, I wasn’t quite sure where I was being taken. In Chinese gardens, there aren’t many walkways, paths or bridges that remain straight for very long. Most of them curve or zig zag, forcing the visitor to take things slow. The nonlinear pathways, in fact, are meant to symbolize the flow of water in nature. And if there’s any single element that takes center stage at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, it’s water.
There are three main sections to the Humble Administrator’s Garden (East, Central and West), and all of them were built around a single large artificial lake. Islands in the center represent the mythological islands surrounding the mountain of Penglai. Home of the Taoist gods, Penglai supposedly exists somewhere in the middle of the East Sea, and is surrounded by four other islands. In Chinese culture, it plays a role similar to that of Hinduism’s Mt. Meru, the mythological home of the gods which was surrounded by four smaller mountain peaks.
While Suzhou’s gardens act as a contained version of nature, surrounded by walls on all sides, that didn’t mean that the garden designers ignored their wider surroundings. The Humble Administrator’s Garden was deliberately designed to provide an optimal view of the North Temple Pagoda through the trees. The 1,700 pagoda in the distance also marks the east-west axis of the wider lake.
Elsewhere in the garden, you can even find a sizable bonsai garden. Bonsais are essentially miniature versions of the larger trees you’d find in a forest. That, along with their asymmetrical nature and minimalist aesthetic, makes them a perfect fit for a traditional Chinese garden. Surprisingly, though, they’re not actually so commonly at Suzhou gardens, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden is the only place where I came across any.
Even as a beginner to Chinese classical gardens, it didn’t take long to figure out how and why gardens were such a rich source of artistic inspiration over the years. I recalled reading the novel Story of the Stone (a.k.a. Dream of the Red Chamber) about a Qing dynasty aristocratic family. In the story, they go about the task of designing and constructing a garden. In one scene, Baoyu, the main character, is repeatedly asked for suggestions by his strict father on what to name different pavilions, hills and viewing points. This is essentially a test of his knowledge of Chinese poetry. The boy is expected to recall verses from relevant poems, explaining how they’re a good fit for the garden landscape. Later on, he composes new poems of his own.
I later learned that Cao Xueqin, the author of the novel, spent time as a boy in Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden! Supposedly, many aspects of the fictional garden in the novel were directly influenced by it. If you have the time and interest, Story or the Stone provides a fascinating glimpse into this part of China’s past. Just be aware that the entire story, which spans multiple books, is very, very long.
While thoroughly impressed by the garden itself, the constant stream of tour groups was starting to wear on me. It took some time, but I finally found the entrance again and decided to make my way to the nearby Lion Grove.
Lion Grove Garden
After leaving the Humble Administrator’s Garden, I headed over to another famous garden just a short walk away. The Lion Grove Garden, I learned, is even older than Humble Administrator’s. Built in the Yuan Dynasty during Mongolian rule over China, the garden continued to remain a favorite over subsequent dynasties. The Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong, for example, visited numerous times. He even used Lion Grove as his main inspiration for new gardens he was constructing closer to Beijing.
While the main highlight of Lion Grove Garden is its central rockery, the space also provides a perfect example of another architectural element: the halls. In buildings like “Ancestral Hall” and the “Hall of Joyous Feasts,” I saw all sorts of calligraphy, ceramics and paintings on the walls. I imagined wealthy families gathering here for a party before going out in the garden for a stroll, or perhaps a little adventure.
Even before encountering the main rockery of the central garden, you can see the heavy emphasis placed on rock art inside of the halls. The rocks on display provide an interesting contrast with the purely man-made furniture and ceramics. But somehow, it all seems to fit well together.
One of the special features of Lion Grove Garden is its rock labyrinth. While the whole thing at first seems like one massive lump of oddly shaped rocks, I soon spotted an opening. I wasn’t exactly sure where I would end up, and before I knew it, everything got dark. Surrounded by towering rock formations on either side, I walked through the twists and turns of the pathway before finally ending up somewhere new.
There’s a local legend about two of the Eight Immortals who attempted to traverse the labyrinth here and got stuck. Eventually, they gave up trying to find their way out, and decided to sit down in the caverns for a game of chess. I can only imagine how many times drunken guests unsuccessfully tried to get through here after the lavish parties in the nearby halls!
Out on the other side, I encountered water and even more rockery. The garden itself, in fact, is named after the highest stone peak meant to symbolize Mt. Penglai. Surrounded by four other rocks, they also once looked like lions, supposedly. They no longer do thanks to hundreds of years of weather erosion, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
Lion Grove Garden also features plenty of bridges, providing ample opportunity for “island hopping.”
Eventually, it was finally time for me to leave. Or so I thought. I made it back to the original rock labyrinth near the entrance, yet now I was walking on a new path on top of the rocks instead. I couldn’t figure out how to get down, but guessed that there was perhaps another entrance on the other side.
But to get there, I had to walk all the way around the large pond again, through the various walkways, until I finally made it back into the labyrinth. Clearly, the architects of Lion Grove had a lot of fun with the design.
The Garden of Pleasance
Having just visited two of the city’s most famous gardens, I decided to head somewhere a little more off the beaten path. Well at least not literally, as the Garden of Pleasance is conveniently located right in the center of the city. But compared to the major gardens, it’s much less visited and well off the average tour group circuit.
The Garden of Pleasance, or Yiyuan in Chinese, is also the “newest” garden in Suzhou. It dates back to the late 1800’s during the Qing dynasty, long after the Humble Administrator’s Garden or Lion Grove were built. This allowed the architects to take inspiration from all the other gardens in Suzhou, making it one of the most ‘complete’ in the city.
Yiyuan Garden is relatively small, and there aren’t any particular standout features that are going to make your jaw drop. But given the small number of visitors, this is the perfect opportunity to experience a classical Chinese garden the way it was meant to be experienced. You’ll get a chance to walk along the paths, through the gates and corridors, and sit in the pavilions in relative peace and quiet – just like the ancient scholars might have.
Walking around the garden, you’ll also observe certain themes and elements borrowed here and there from Suzhou’s more famous gardens. A central island, tall rocks, moon gates and hexagonal windows all make an appearance at Yiyuan.
If you don’t have the opportunity to stay overnight in Suzhou, which would give you the chance to visit the more famous gardens before the masses arrive, the Garden of Pleasance is well worth a visit for its tranquil atmosphere. It’s also one of Suzhou’s cheapest gardens to enter.
After a visit to Suzhou’s “newest” garden, it was time to check out the city’s very oldest. The Canglang Pavilion, also called the Blue Wave Pavilion, dates as far back as the year 1044 AD. While the Garden of Pleasance borrowed elements from all the other Suzhou gardens before it, Canglang Pavilion set the precedent for all that was to come.
Many of the architectural elements you’d expect to find are here, and the influence which Canglang Pavilion had on later gardens like Lion Grove are immediately apparent. But the garden is still a unique experience, as it contains a few special features that set it apart from the others.
Canglang Pavilion is actually separated into two different gardens on either side of the street. There’s also a large pool of water that’s in the public area in between the two main sections. This is distinct from other gardens in Suzhou, where all the good stuff is typically hidden within the outer walls. Furthermore, you can also get a decent view of the interior of either garden from the road. As Canglang was originally built by a government official fired for supposed wrongdoing, this design was perhaps his way of showing the world that he had nothing to hide.
One thing that this garden seems to place a special emphasis on is bamboo. Bamboo groves take up a lot of space here, towering over the visitor on either side of the numerous curvy walkways. Out of all the gardens I visited in Suzhou, this one felt the most like being in a real forest.
If you enjoyed Lion Grove Garden, you’ll also like the Canglang Pavilion. Though Lion Grove took it to a whole other level, Canglang also makes use of many of the large and uniquely formed rocks from Lake Tai.
Another unique and rather atypical feature of Canglang is that the central pavilion on top of the hill provides a pretty clear view of most of the garden. At first this seems to go against the unwritten “don’t reveal everything at once” rule of later Chinese gardens. But upon closer inspection, you’ll realize that there are still plenty more secrets hiding behind the pavilions, covered walkways or bamboo groves.
With my time in Suzhou nearing an end, it was time to head back to where I started to check out one more landmark. Though I’d spent most of the day on foot, I took Suzhou’s brand new subway back up north for a stop at the Suzhou Museum.
Suzhou is not a bad looking town, although it’s certainly no Hangzhou. It’s known for its canals, but that aspect is overshadowed by all the other water towns in the area, such as Tongli or Nanxun. In great contrast to the curvy, asymmetrical shapes found in Suzhou’s many gardens, the city itself is largely comprised of grids and straight lines. That makes it rather easy to get around, and it’s much more fun to get lost in the gardens themselves than out in the city.
Oddly enough, Suzhou is also somewhat infamous for its adult-oriented massage parlors. The city tries to promote some of its old alleyways by providing historical information in English, but when I walked down one of these historical alleys, I encountered nothing but dimly lit “barber shops.” Touts were even beckoning me inside. After that, I stuck to the main roads.
Finally back near the Humble Administrator’s Garden, I stopped by the adjacent Suzhou Museum. Opened just recently in 2006, the museum was built by none other than famous architect and Suzhou’s own, I.M. Pei. Pei is perhaps most well-known for making the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, in addition to the Bank of China in Hong Kong and Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Not as well-known is the fact that Pei’s family once owned Lion Grove Garden for awhile! Playing in the gardens of Suzhou greatly inspired him as a youth. While the Suzhou Museum houses plenty of historical information about the town, its main feature is Pei’s modern interpretation of the classical Chinese garden that he grew up with.
While I like I.M. Pei’s building in an urban context, I wasn’t all that impressed with his “garden,” to be honest. Especially after spending all day at the real thing. It’s all just too flat, and much too open. If anything, though, it made me appreciate the traditional gardens I’d just seen anymore. The museum, at least, is free, and is still a great way to either start or end your day in Suzhou.
Suzhou is developing so quickly that English information on the city can hardly keep up. Before my visit, many sources made no mention of a subway system at all, while the more recent ones talked about a subway line that consisted of just two lines, forming a criss-cross.
I was surprised to find out, though, that there were already more subway lines up and running. Had I known this in advance, and not just found out by chance after walking by the station, I could’ve made better use of my time and seen even more than 4 gardens.
SUBWAY: You can also use the metro to get from Suzhou Railway Station to the main part of the city. Now that this is an option, there’s no need at all to take a taxi. I got scammed by one (refusing to give me change and then suddenly driving off), only to learn later in the day that I could’ve taken the train.
ON FOOT: After taking a cab to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, I was able to reach the other gardens all on foot, before taking the subway from the Canglang Pavilion back to the main station. You can still see quite a lot just by walking, but take the subway when possible to give yourself more time in the gardens.
BUS: There is also a local bus system which stops at many of the main gardens. I found the information about timing and routes to be a little confusing, though, and decided to mostly walk instead. You might want to ask at a tourist information center for more details about it.
Of course, if you like gardens, staying a night or two in Suzhou is recommended. There is so much more to explore than I was able to do on a day trip from Hangzhou.
I did not personally stay in Suzhou, but spending more than a day in the city is ideal for Chinese garden lovers. Furthermore, this gives you a chance to visit the popular gardens before the tour groups arrive.
I find Booking.com to be the most straightforward and reliable site when it comes to booking China accommodation.
Suzhou is easily accessible by either high speed rail or by bus. You can reach it directly from most major cities in China. If you’re just coming for a day trip, you’ll likely be visiting from either Hangzhou, Shanghai or Nanjing.
Trains from Nanjing take about an hour, while it’s roughly thirty minutes from Shanghai. Meanwhile, express trains from Hangzhou can take up to 90 minutes. The farther away you are, the earlier the last train back is likely going to be. Be sure to check the train timetable in advance before you plan out your day.