SUZHOU, China — I think that there is no more beautiful sight in the world than a Chinese or Japanese garden, one of the highest peaks of wisdom and sensitivity that man has reached.
--Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek novelist
In all of China there is perhaps no other city that delights visitors as much as the garden city of Suzhou (pronounced Sue-Joe).
Sitting astride the 1,300-year-old Grand Canal, still the world's largest man-made waterway, Suzhou is a graceful old city (population 600,000) of whitewashed houses with black tile roofs, willow-fringed canals and cobblestone streets lined with sycamore trees.
Almost from its founding in the 6th Century BC, Suzhou has been a flourishing center of trade, with silk as its most important product. When Marco Polo stopped here in 1276 he found "a large and magnificent city with 6,000 stone bridges."
At least 300 of those picturesque humpbacked bridges remain and, together with the canals and the leafy canopy of sycamores overhead, make Suzhou an enchanting city to explore on foot, less crowded than and a refreshing respite from the pedestrian-clogged streets of Shanghai only 53 miles east.
Wealth of Gardens
But it was the scholar and the poet rather that the trader who brought Suzhou its greatest fame.
Starting in the 11th Century, intellectuals, wealthy merchants and government officials drawn by the city's subtropical climate began retiring to Suzhou, where they constructed small but very beautiful gardens, often with the help of artists. By the 16th Century the city boasted 150 of these private beauty spots.
Although 107 have survived, the ravages of time, war and revolution have taken their toll. Only six are open to the public, but that handful has made Suzhou a mecca for tourists.
The Chinese garden is in many ways the antithesis of its Western counterpart.
Flowers, the crowning glory of Western gardens, are kept to a minimum. Grassy lawns--which we think of as pastoral, but only serve to remind the Chinese of the forbidding northern steppes over which their invaders have come--are nonexistent. Instead, the primary ingredients are water, rocks, plants and buildings.
Unlike the spacious ornamental European gardens whose owners were bent on impressing their guests, the Chinese garden was a private little oasis intended for the enjoyment of its owner, his family and close friends. There the retired professional could devote himself to painting, poetry, music, calligraphy, philosophy or meditation.
Package tours to China that include Suzhou invariably visit two, or at most three, gardens. It would be overwhelming to visit all six in a short time. Though all are different, all contain the same traditions and elements.
But for one garden only, the best choice perhaps would be the Master of Nets Garden, or Wang Shi Yuan. (It is said that the owner grew weary of politics, saying he would rather be a fisherman.)
Tucked away off a little alley in the southeastern part of the city, the Master of Nets is the smallest of the six gardens, covering just more than an acre.
Laid out in the 12th Century and rebuilt in the 18th Century, it contains a surprising number of halls, verandas, pavilions and courtyards, as well as covered walkways, trees, shrubs, flowers, rocks and an area devoted to bonsai--all surrounding a large goldfish pond.
Yet its walls divide and redivide the space so exquisitely that there is no sense of crowding.
The high white walls leading in from the entrance are intended to cleanse the visitor's senses of the color, noise and confusion of the street. After turning the first corner he enters a delicate labyrinth with nature gradually revealing itself: a rose here, a magnolia there, then a grove of bamboo, leaves casting an ever-changing pattern of shadows on the wall behind.
It's as if the designer wished to lure the visitor farther and farther in by making each turn reveal a slightly more interesting view.
Balance of Nature
The whole is intended to be a microcosm of the natural world in which there is a balance of yin and yang (the feminine softness of water, for example, and the masculine hardness of stone).
Except for brightly painted pavilions and the occasional seasonal blossom, colors are reduced to gray, green and white. And the play of light and shade--sunlight filtering through a tree or dancing on the water--takes on greater importance than in Western gardens.
Moon gates and windows are placed to frame the best panoramas. From the hexagonal Arrival of Moon and Breeze Pavilion, for instance, the visitor enjoys not only the evening breeze but two moons, one in the sky, the other reflected in the water.
Elsewhere, a moon gate frames a wall painted a delicated shade of gray that, at the right time of day, appears to be morning mist.