Humble Administrator's Garden

Bamboo Hall in the Humble Administrator

Bamboo Hall in the Humble Administrator's Garden by Jonathan. Sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License.

This is by far the biggest, best known and most visited of the classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou. The Humble Administrator's Garden covers about 51,950 square metres. To compare, I think the car park outside the The Humble Administrator's Garden is bigger than most of the other gardens in Suzhou. However this size and popularity has its down sides. The Humble Administrator's Garden is not a place where you can relax on your own away from the crowds. Even in spring and autumn, the number of people in the garden can be overwhelming and I'd hate to see it during the peak summer months of July and August. Another issue I have with this garden is that some alterations have been made to give it a wider public appeal that in doing so have spoiled the garden slightly. For example the use of thousands of potted chrysathanums all round the garden does add some colour but means the garden changes from being a classical Chinese garden into being just another park with some Chinese features. The garden is in danger of loosing its classical for contemporary. For a true classical Chinese garden, head elsewhere in Suzhou. For a nice large garden, albeit busy garden, in which you can walk for hours, go here.

This garden has recieved much praise from officialdom. It is rated 5A on China's national tourism scale, the highest possible ranking. In 1997, the Humble Administrator's Garden, along with other classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site of the garden was originally the property of Lu Guimeng, a scholar during the Tang dynasty. Later, in the Yuan dynasty, the iste became a monastery garden belonging to Dahong Temple. In 1513, Ming dynasty, the garden and temple was appropriated by Wang Xiancheng who was an Imperial Envoy and poet. He had retired to Suzhou, his home town, after a long period of persecution by the East Imperial Secret Service. He did much of the early work on the garden. The design as intended to express his fine taste in collaboration with his friend, Wen Zhengming who was a renowned artist. Wang Xianchang's garden was as large as today's garden. It contained numerous trees and pavilions. He his garden after a verse by Pan Yue's Idler's Prose, "I enjoy a carefree life by planting trees and building my own house...I irrigate my garden and grow vegetables for me to eat...such a life suits a retired official like me well." It symolised Wang's political retirement and desire to adopt a hermit's life in the style of Tao Yuanming. The garden took 16 years to complete. Wan Zhenming painted several landscapes and wrote and essay to commemorate the gardens completion.

The garden was lost by Wang's son due to gambling debts. It changed hands many times. In 1631, the easter garden was divided from the rest and purchased by the Vice minister of the Justice Board, Wang Xinyi. He made many modifications over the next four years. He named his new garden Dwelling Upon Return to the Countryside (歸田園居). The central section of the garden was bought by Jiang Qi who was Governor of Jiangsu in 1738. He made extensive renovations and named it Garden Rebuilt. The western section was bought, alos in 1738, by Ye shikuan, the Chief Histographer, and as renamed Garden of books. This Garden of Books as purchased by merchant, Lhang Lüqian, in 1877 and renamed The Subsidiary Garden. In 1949, all three parts of the garden were rejoined and restored in 1952. The famous author, Cao Xueqin, writer of Dreams of a Red Mansion, one of the four classic books of China, lived in the Humble Administrator's Garden in the garden during his teenage years. It is thought that much of the mansion and gardens in his novel were inspired by the Humble Administrator's Garden; especially the grotto at the entrance.

Numrous pavillions, bridges, islands and interconnected pools make up the present day Humble Administrator's Garden. There are three main sections set around a large lake. These are the central part (Zhuozheng Yuan), the eastern part (once called Guitianyuanju, Dwelling Upon Return to the Countryside), and a western part (the Supplementary Garden). To the south lies the house. There are 48 different buildings containing 101 tablets, 40 stelae, 21 acient trees and over 700 Suzhou-style penjing/penzai. The eastern garden is composed of just a few buildings around a central lawn and pond. Around the lawn is set a grove of crape myrtle trees. In the central garden there are a variety of views set around the Surging Wave Pond. Three islands stand in the pond, recreating the scenery of the fairy islands of the east sea.

Map showing location of Humble Administrator's Garden

Above: Location of Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China