The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest garden in Suzhou. Originally built in the Ming Dynasty around 1509 AD, the garden is divided into eastern, western, and central sections. The central section is the most visited, with 1/3 of its area covered by a giant man-made lake.
With its intricately laid paths and meticulous attention to detail, you could spend multiple days exploring this garden. Every garden rock and structure has a reason and a story for its placement and orientation. Unfortunately, I was short on time and was only able to spend a couple hours in the garden.
I also spent a great deal of time in the onsite Suzhou garden museum that’s housed in a former residential building. To gain a better appreciation of Suzhou garden construction and meaning, I strongly recommend studying the history and construction of these classical Chinese gardens prior to visiting.
Here are some excerpts I’ve copied down from the Suzhou garden museum:
“Suzhou garden construction is adept at making scenes and organizing different elements in a living landscape picture for appreciation. The architecture and paths are respectively best points of view and routes but make scenes in themselves, set in relation with other scenes. The contrasting scenes have various forms, such as the blocking, framing, leak-through and borrowing. Borrowing is to consider what is seen outside the garden as a contrast of the picture seen within the garden, which is further classified into more types, including distant borrowing, adjacent borrowing, substantial borrowing and visual borrowing. The principle of borrowing lies in the motto “anything of value is to be taken in, and the trite is to be discarded.”
“Suzhou classical gardens take the human being as the paramount consideration. Their dimensions are well appropriated. Whether it is large scenes as the artificial mountains and lakes or small objects as the constructs of pavilions and corridors, everything is carefully designed for the best relation with one another. Contrast is a most frequently employed technique, which may be between differences in sizes, height, density, regularity, distance, brightness, materialness, color, etc. Set-off is a contrasted relation with difference in the major and the minor. Water and white walls serve to set off the colorful scenes in the garden to make the landscape more beautiful.”
“The artificial mountain made of rockery is the backbone of the Suzhou garden. It composes the main scene of “the mountain forest in the city.” There are mainly three forms of artificial mountains: the earth hill, the rock-and-earth hill and the stone hill. The rocks are usually local Taihu Lake stones and yellow rocks. In layout the rockery includes arrangement of the garden mountain, waterside hill, hall-back hill, by-the-tower hill, by-the-study hill, by-the-wall hill, etc. In shape it may be varied to include the peak, range, valley, slope, crag, cave, overhead beam, stairway, mountain path, cliff-side way, between-hills current, waterfall, etc. Of all rockeries, “the first strategy is the one on water,” the one like a “fairyland.” “Specially prepared” Taihu Lake granite that naturally forms up the peak is a prominent scene in Suzhou gardens. The beauty of the rockery comes out of such features as “leanness, leaking, piercing, and creases.
“The art of garden rockery of Suzhou lies in the principle of “blurring the line between the artificial and the natural,” and “securing the interest by following the natural law,” so that “a small slope is multifarious and each piece of stone represents an emotion.”
“Garden construction attempts to create scenery by way of piling up earth and rocks. The forms of Suzhou garden rockery are influenced by Chinese landscape painting and thus have the features of freehand landscape. As early as in the ancient times, thirty particular techniques were summed up, which are expressed with thirty Chinese characters.”