It’s known as The Humble Administrator’s Garden, but there’s nothing humble about the 13 exquisitely- landscaped acres that make up this garden.
Deepanjana Pal visits a World Heritage Site that is a masterpiece of design.
Enter the compound, walk on the cobbled stretches past a pagoda or two, and towards the circular doorway that takes you into the heart of this sprawling garden. You’ll find on the other side a little balconied pagoda, and a view that makes you feel as though you’ve walked into a one of those delicate watercolour paintings for which China is so famous. Make it in time for sunset and you can sit on the single bench in the pagoda and watch the pale sky of the day being warmed into brilliant shades of orange, pink and purple that darken as the sun slides slowly towards a horizon that is out of sight.
It’s fine because there’s so much to see here. The pagoda offers you a few of hillocks encrusted with flowering shrubs and trees — some of them stand straight and tall, some are narrow, many have branches that spread out like a hundred outstretched arms — and a lake. A willow tree leans towards the still water, its wispy green branches reaching down to touch the still surface. The stillness polishes the lake into a mirror and so you see before you not one, but two exquisite classical Chinese gardens: one that is right side up and another that is right side down. It’s magical, like a glimpse of an Oriental Narnia, and to see it, all you need is something that’s decidedly prosaic — buy a ticket to enter The Humble Administrator’s Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Standing outside, facing a solid and unremarkable wall that doesn’t let on to the beauty it encloses, you may wonder what is the big deal about visiting a garden. Of course it’s nice to see some greenery, especially if you’re from a big city, but that doesn’t seem to be reason enough for the queues that snake outside The Humble Administrator’s Garden in the Chinese city of Suzhou.
Few foreign tourists come to Suzhou. Most opt to spend time in Shanghai, which is a few hours’ drive from Suzhou. Suzhou is the older city and was once called the “Venice of the East”. It has transitioned smoothly into the present and its new neighbourhoods have gleaming malls that house every luxury brand you can imagine. Progress in modern-day Suzhou means high-rises that look like an army of clones, and a spaghetti tangle of highways that are lit up as though it’s Christmas all year round. That’s the new city. A short distance away from all this neon is the old city of Suzhou and its exquisite gardens.
Suzhou is one of the oldest towns in this area, and has long been famous for its classical Chinese gardens. These carefully-landscaped spaces sprawl over large tracts of land and have pagodas, villas, lakes, rock gardens, bridges, and even small hills constructed in them. The central idea of a Chinese garden is to create a landscape in miniature that reflects nature and human intervention in harmony. Historically, they were retreats and inspirations for generations of scholars and artists.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest and widely-believed to be the most beautiful of all the classical gardens in China. Dating back to the sixteenth century, it was originally built by a minor bureaucrat (hence the name) who, after retirement, devoted himself to building this garden. The project was massive — the garden covers an area of almost 13 acres and it took 16 years to complete. One of its most striking features is that the central section is said to replicate the scenery of the Lower Yangtze. Though this section of the garden remains, much of the original landscaping has changed over the centuries, since the plot not only changed hands, but was also divided into three. The parts were rejoined in the ‘40s and the garden was restored in the early ‘50s.
It seems wrong that the word usually used to describe a patch of dusty green or a cluster of potted plants is also applied to this place. It’s actually more of a park than a garden, but what really makes The Humble Administrator’s Garden remarkable is its design. There are many examples of gardens that have been sculpted to adhere to notions of beauty. The French, for instance, are famous for the precise structures that they impose on greenery. In The Humble Administrator’s Garden, however, there’s a wonderful illusion of being surrounded by nature rather than design, even though the place is meticulously planned.
While walking around the garden whose different parts are connected by winding pathways, bridges, passages and pagodas, I realised how brilliantly the area had been designed. One part links to the other and as you walk over a zigzag bridge or through a circular doorway, the vistas around you and awaiting you are constantly changing. The Humble Administrator’s Garden never feels boring. There’s a stunning variety of flora and fauna that will thrill the naturalist and the garden has been planned in a way that, despite the intensive landscaping, nature doesn’t seem restrained. There’s the illusion of the wild without the hassle or discomfort – thorns, undergrowth, and so on – of the real wild.
Ask the locals what season is the best time to visit The Humble Administrator’s Garden and many will say summer, when flowers are in bloom. Some will say spring, when the leaves and buds are tender, shows the garden at its delicate best. There are those who pick autumn and its fiery leaves as their favourite. A few, in a tone of confession, say that they love sitting in one of the pagodas in winter, surrounded by cold stillness, nude branches and the lake silvered by milky sunshine. Whenever you choose to visit, keep hours in hand to discover the secrets of this garden. Find for yourself a spot where you can sit, surrounded by the serenity and greenery, and enjoy the beauty of the garden, just as the humble administrator once had.