Turned inwards Posted on March 9, 2012

Reading an article on the gardens of Suzhou by John Dixon Hunt in the excellent Historic Gardens Review Historic Gardens Review reminded me of my one visit to this capital of classic Chinese gardening in 1989.

Then it was called Soochow. I took a train (with some difficulty) from Shanghai and hired a bike to join the thousands who pedalled sedately, like a steady humming river, along the avenues of this historic town. There is a flavour of Amsterdam about its canals (which were kept impeccable, at least in the centre, I remember, by men and women in punts with nets to scoop up the slightest litter).

In its concentration of gardens it could be compared with Kyoto – except that Kyoto is a city of temples and palaces in a naturally beautiful valley, while Soochow (do you say Kolkata?) is a commercial centre on a river plain. Its gardens therefore have no prospects, no interest in the world beyond, but concentrate your thoughts on the ingenuities and intricacies within their high circling walls.

The gardener’s art was how to make a short stroll satisfying, even exciting, within these limits. Rule one, it seems, was to keep pricking the visitor’s curiosity, raising his expectations and then frustrating them. Each garden is a complex of elaborate low buildings (their roofs and eaves are very much part of the picture, curved and convoluted and decorated with dragons and creatures of all sorts). A great deal of the space between is filled with great grey rocks, as craggy or water-worn as possible. They are utterly unlike the calm solemn boulders of Kyoto; these gesticulate as though they want to move around and change places.

Often you find yourself squeezing through a claustrophobic chasm between high stones with nothing but stone to see, then emerge beside a little pool full of technicolor carp. A lacquered pavilion in the midst contains the master’s desk, scrolls and pens; an icon of tranquil scholarship (or, for that matter, petty-fogging bureaucracy). He cannot, you imagine, sit there long without succumbing to one of the insistent invitations to walk: over these stepping stones, into this rockery to admire the peonies or through that moongate where the skirts of a willow – and perhaps other skirts – are beckoning.

You pass a bamboo screen and glimpse another pool, or flurry of rocks, mysteriously inaccessible. Your steps are frustrated, your exploration interrupted, your expectation raised at each turn. As John Dixon Hunt points out, it is the art of delay, of delicious foreplay. Even a moongate is a means for making you step on alone (or bow your companion through before you). But I don’t think these are companionable gardens. A drinks party would be a solecism, almost an outrage. As, indeed are the crocodiles of visitors, both here and in Kyoto. Such gardens are turned inward to the point of obsession – or is it me obsessing?

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