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Gardens: Man-made Beauty

    Influenced by xieyi (freehand brushwork) landscape paintings, Suzhou Gardens are rendered in a quietly elegant palette. The basic tones are black, white and gray, making people feel quiet and comfortable, and highlighting the beauty of form in flowers and trees. Famous Chinese writer Ye Shengtao wrote in his article entitled "Suzhou Gardens": "I believe Suzhou Gardens are the best examples of gardens anywhere in the country. Every garden in China is influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Suzhou Gardens, so anyone who wants to appreciate China's gardens should start there." He explains the key to the style, "The most outstanding feature of a Suzhou Garden is that no matter where a visitor stands, before his eyes is a perfect picture." In the construction of a Suzhou Garden, lattice walls, corridors, arches and windows without panes are applied to create gradation of the space, deepen the sense of dimension and therefore increase apparent variety. Even a small garden is rich, complex, and satisfying to an artistic sensibility.

    Suzhou once had nearly 200 such gardens in varying sizes, or so attest historical records. More than 60 of them have been preserved. Among them, Gentle Waves Pavilion, Lion Grove Garden, Humble Administrator's Garden and Lingering Garden are the four must-go gardens, since they are representative private enclaves of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties after the 10th century.

    Gentle Waves Pavilion is unique among Suzhou's gardens and the earliest recorded in the city. Partly preserving the style of the Song Dynasty, it covers 10,800 square meters with a pond and hill at the core. Through the windows of the covered corridor, the waters and hills inside and outside the garden become one seamless vision. The various elements of the garden, water surface, pond shore, rockeries and pavilions combine into a pleasing whole. Bamboo stands are a feature of the garden, since more than 20 varieties of bamboo flourish there.

    Lion Grove Garden represents the tastes of the Yuan Dynasty. Covering 1,000 square meters of land, it possesses the largest rockery in the country. The garden got its name from the rockeries looking like lions. Noted for its abundant scenes, it is also famous for being deeply original.

    Humble Administrator's Garden is, ironically, the largest garden in Suzhou, and is known in the vernacular as the "classic deluxe garden" or "mother of all gardens." Its 5,000 square meters is divided into four parts: the East, Middle, West and Residence quarters. The residence is in classic Suzhou style and serves as the exhibition hall complex for the Garden Museum. The heart of the garden, and in a sense its crown, is the pond, which has pavilions, platforms, multi-storied buildings and houses on a terrace encircling and rising above it. This garden boasts a wide variety of lotus. In summer months, it becomes a world of lotus blossoms.

    Lingering Garden ranks first among Suzhou Gardens in the number of buildings. Its 30,000 square meters features dozens of architectural works of different scales, including halls, corridors, walls, and gates, as well as naturally cultivated hills, ponds, trees and flowers. In Lingering Garden, tourists indulge four different moods: waters and hills, pastoral, grove and hill, or the manicured refinements of courtyards. Its layout demonstrates the superb workmanship of ancient garden architects.

Nanjing Brocade and Suzhou Embroidery: Complicated Beauty

    In June 2009, the Nanjing Brocade Research Institute donated a brocade kasaya to Shi Yongxin, abbot of the Shaolin Temple. The vermilion kasaya is made of top-grade silk, decorated with rhombus patterns and other auspicious symbols woven in gold thread. The gold thread content of the work is worth RMB 50,000. The design and production took nearly eight years.

    The birth of Nanjing Brocade is formally defined as A.D. 417, when the Eastern Jin Dynasty set up a government department especially to administer its production. Starting in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), this particular genre of brocade was exclusively reserved for use by imperial families. No consideration was given to the cost of ornamentation produced with it, so there's a saying that an inch of brocade is worth an inch of gold. In addition to gold thread, various raw materials are used in Nanjing Brocade, such as silver thread, copper thread, filament, and floret, as well as bird feathers and animal hair.

    To weave brocade two workers must cooperate on a jacquard loom. The most experienced pairs can weave five to six centimeters per day. To produce a brocade of 78 cm in width, 14,000 warps are lined up. All the cloud patterns are made through these warps and the whole process is very complicated, just like programming a computer. Today only about 50 people in China are considered masters of this Nanjing genre.

    In the Nanjing Brocade Museum more than 900 exhibits are on display. Among them is the replica of the Han Dynasty white gauze cassock. It weighs 49.5 grams, and took 13 years to weave from the threads of five silkworm cocoons.

    If we say that the Nanjing Brocade reflects the imperial splendor, then Suzhou Embroidery shows women's cleverness and deftness. In South China, embroidery was an essential skill for the daughters of wealthy families and common ones alike. The difference lies in that the embroidery works by the women of wealthy families show more awareness of painterly values. Jiangsu has been a seat of silk production since ancient times. After the 10th century in the areas of Suzhou almost every family was engaged in sericulture and embroidery. Suzhou Embroidery features fine stitches, superb and dazzling color arrangements. It absorbs the techniques of the South China painting school, so people call it "paintings with needles."

    In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), almost all the embroidery articles used by imperial families were made by Suzhou embroiderers. Compared to other embroidery schools, Suzhou Embroidery stands out for its elegant patterns, ingenious composition, fine workmanship, lively stitches and tasteful colors. Good Suzhou embroidery works are like landscape, figure, and bird-and-flower paintings by master artists, and double-faced embroidery is the essence of Suzhou Embroidery.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us