Friday, July 3, 2015

Gardens of Suzhou

in the Lingering Garden

inside one of the residential pavilions
These days I live in Suzhou, China. Some call this ancient canal city the "Venice of the East." However, the road signs around town read: "Suzhou The Human Paradise Oriental Water City," and this feels more accurate. Human? Yep--there are a lot of humans here. Oriental water city? Check. Paradise? That's a little trickier, but I feel pretty dang blessed that I get to spend two months here visiting Suzhou's classical gardens, refining my writing and sharing my art at weekly open mics.

cloud sculpture in Humble Administrator's Garden
I spend my days visiting the gardens around Suzhou Downtown where the World Heritage listed gardens and dozens of important historical buildings are protected from the pattern of demolish-and-rebuild in other parts of the city. Poised as it is south of the Yangtze river and along important trade routes, Suzhou has been an industrious center of silk production and high society for centuries. The construction and maintenance of the gardens spans several dynasties, the earliest being the North Song Dynasty of the 11th century to the Qing Dynasty of the 19th century. Most began as private residencies of government officials, their families, and their literati friends.

The recreated environments within Suzhou’s gardens usually center around ponds full of lotus plants and brightly colored fish.  Open air pavilions containing calligraphic works, paintings, and antique wooden furniture overlook the gardens through elaborately latticed windows. Zigzag or arching stone bridges link the pavilions with the courtyards where deliberately placed trees, shrubs, and grasses give an illusory impression of wildness. Above the ponds but below the trees wind the lake-stone rockeries. The twisting steps ascending and descending throughout these man-made mountains simulate a wandering journey through the ravines, caves, and summits of China’s sacred ranges.

a miniature landscape
I’ve been deeply impressed at the evocative quality of the gardens, but that’s partly because I’m a sucker for it, and it’s designed to impress me. The aesthetics here capture a deeply poetic synthesis of natural shapes and materials with human symbols of beauty. The circular doorway pairs with the square frame of the pavilion; within their lines flicker the leaves of ginkgo trees and a serenely still pool of emerald water. I emerge from the stone-chilled chamber inside the rockery to find a gazebo with a sweeping dragon-like buttressed roof. A plaque nearby tells me the inscription inside the gazebo means drifting lotus fragrance.

rockery in Lion's Grove Garden
So, I’m going to these places to try to siphon up some of their art into my writing. Of course, writing doesn’t have to originate in a point of beauty like these places, but so far it’s helped me develop more ideas about what nature is and what purpose writing has… It’s a little late in the game to be defining the two fundamental elements of my Watson project, but, being functionally illiterate and mute (my Mandarin skills are woefully poor) makes a lady introspective.

Although I still struggle to do normal things like order food correctly, I have been performing poetry every week! The local and expat crowd at The Bookworm have kindly let me join in their weekly open mic and writer’s group, and it’s been lots of fun. I even got to join in at a community theater production at Locke’s Pub where I performed three poems off-book. Sharing my work publicly has become increasingly important to me this year, and I’m psyched about it. (You can read my poetry here.)

open mic at The Bookworm
I’ve taken a few Chinese painting and calligraphy classes too, and my instructor kindly gave me the name Yu Xi to sign my work. It means the sound of the rain, and it is delightfully apt, considering how prominent rain has been in my journey these last eleven months. I’m proud of how my art and adventures and character are growing as a result, and am grateful to you for sharing in that with me.

May we be heard as we hear the rain.

pavilion in Humble Administrator's Garden
I also went to the zoo.
in the Garden of Harmony (also called Garden of Pleasance)

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