Vancouver’s Classical Chinese Garden

A mass of piled limestone rocks shipped from China is topped by a viewing pavilion. Photographs by the author

A mass of piled limestone rocks shipped from China is topped by a viewing pavilion. Photographs by the author

The first authentic Suzhou garden ever built outside China, Vancouver’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is at East Pender and Carrall Streets on the edge of the city’s Chinatown near the grounds of Expo ‘86.

A decade ago the two and one-half acre parcel of land in Vancouver, B.C., on which the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park now stands was destined to become part of a freeway that would have split the city’s Chinatown in two, destroying its integrity and threatening its character. Concerned members of the community organized to stop construction of the freeway and convinced the federal and city governments to commit the land as a Chinese cultural center. Behind the cultural center is the walled classical garden and park, completed in 1986, just in time for Vancouver’s hundredth birthday.

The classical garden is patterned after the gardens of wealthy merchants, scholars, and landowners of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in the ancient city of Suzhou near Shanghai. It is the first full-scale Ming-style garden built outside China, and the first such garden built anywhere since the end of the Ming dynasty. In 1980 an indoor replica of the Scholar’s Garden in the Garden of the Fishnet Master, the smallest of the classical Suzhou gardens, was constructed by Chinese artisans for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. On their way back to China several of the senior artisans stopped in Vancouver at the request of China scholar Marwin Samuels, a professor at the University of British Columbia, to discuss the possibilities for an authentic classical Chinese garden at the new cultural center.

Joe Wai, one of Vancouver’s leading architects, played a strong role in the development of the Chinese Cultural Centre, as well as the garden itself. He asked me to join his design team as landscape architect, and when plans for a classical Chinese garden were judged to be feasible, Joe and I were appointed as consultants in its design.

It was only after the visit of the Chinese artisans that we realized the immensity of the task before us. We had thought we understood, through our research, the elements of classical Chinese gardens and their relationships, the philosophy behind them, and the historic precedents we would follow, After the visit, we realized that the intricacies of Chinese garden building would require the knowledge and skills of Chinese artisans. We also decided that a first-hand look at Chinese gardens would be helpful, and in 1981 Joe, Marwin, Stephen Cripps of the Vancouver Parks Board, and I left on a trip to China.

Among the gardens we visited, the Imperial Gardens of the Qing dynasty, with their ornate architecture and grotesque stone work, intrigued me more than any other gardens I have seen anywhere in the world. In the Forbidden City, in the emperor Ch’ing Lung’s private compound, I came upon an imposing gate that was open just a crack. Although the area was off limits to visitors, I slipped through the gate and followed a short path through a thicket of brush to an exquisitely ornamented, red-lacquered structure with a yellow tile roof. Feeling as though I were the first person to visit this garden since Ch’ing Lung, the most powerful and flamboyant emperor of the Qing dynasty, had left it, I was drawn to the central pavilion. As I sat where the emperor himself once sat as he was entertained by his concubines, I experienced the excitement and intrigue of being in a forbidden and mysterious place. I left the pavilion and walked through the contorted tunnel in the “false mountain,” arriving at last at the door to the emperor’s private sleeping chambers. The memory of this garden, and the feelings it invoked, are what I hope we have captured in the garden in Vancouver.

From Beijing we traveled to southern China, spending most of our time in Suzhou. Here the architecture and gardens are less elaborate, built not by emperors but by wealthy merchants and scholars. The older Ming dynasty style is more subtle than that of the exuberant Qing; colors are more subdued and forms less complex. But the two styles have much in common, both deriving from a tradition of garden making that stretches back almost two thousand years.

Classical Chinese gardens are microcosms of the world, in which the works of man and of nature are harmonized, but they are not recreations of the world in miniature. Symbolism is used to evoke aspects of nature, represented but not imitated in the confines of a walled garden. The effect is confusing and sometimes disturbing to Westerners, with its winding waterways, irregular rock formations, and apparent lack of overall design. Yet, despite the apparent chaos, nothing in Chinese gardens is accidental; every stone and tree is placed with the utmost attention to the philosophical message it bears and the effect of its placement on those who will view it.

The Chinese garden is intended to be experienced as one moves through it, for only a few elements of the garden are seen from a single point. Anticipation of the view around the next bend draws the visitor from one walled enclosure to the next, through gates left ajar, across bridges, along paths of pebbles in intriguing patterns, through zigzagging covered walkways with tile roofs, past openings in walls that “leak” views of the garden beyond.

Plants are chosen for their symbolic meanings or their physical qualities (such as casting interesting shadows or making sounds in the wind), rather than for their horticultural interest. Gardens in China, in fact, are not “planted.” As Maggie Keswick points out in The Oxford Companion to Gardens, a common Chinese term for garden making translates as “piling rocks and digging ponds.” Rocks and water are the backbone of the classical Chinese garden, and architecture — pavilions, bridges, covered walkways, gazebos, and walls — plays an important role. Plants are subsidiary, though integral to most designs.

Flowers are not emphasized in the Chinese garden; plants are appreciated for their year-round interest and the subtle changes each season brings. Three plants that appear in all classical Chinese gardens are the “three friends of winter” — pine, bamboo, and winter-flowering plum. The pine symbolizes strength, the bamboo suggests resilience, and the plum represents renewal and hope. Old trees are particularly valued, and dead branches may be retained because they lend character or suggest the passage of time.

Fantastically shaped Taihu rocks are sculptures in a courtyard of polished pebbles laid in an intricate pattern

Fantastically shaped Taihu rocks are sculptures in a courtyard of polished pebbles laid in an intricate pattern

The Sun Yat-Sen Garden

The Dr Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver was designed and built much as were the gardens of twelfth-century China. The courtyards, pavilions, and even the overall design were inspired by ancient Chinese gardens. Materials were imported from China and assembled by a team of fifty-two artisans from Suzhou using the same kinds of tools as were used by the craftsmen who created the Ming dynasty gardens. Wood for posts, beams, and rafters also was imported from China; even the naum wood used for posts in ancient Chinese gardens, from a tree that is now almost extinct, was located and sent to Vancouver by the Chinese government.

The garden is a series of courtyards surrounded by pavilions and covered walkways whose black-tiled roofs give the impression, from outside the perimeter wall, of a small town. As one walks through the garden, artfully contained vistas appear through windows in walls or other structures. A fine pagoda-roofed bridge is reflected in the still water it spans, connecting two segments of the garden. Specially selected Taihu rocks, strangely shaped pieces of eroded limestone from the bottom of Lake Tai, outside Suzhou, are placed as sculpture might be at focal points in the garden. In the center of an open area rocks have been piled up in a carefully arranged “false mountain” and topped by a t’ing, traditionally the highest structure in a Chinese garden, placed to take advantage of the most striking views. The best view of the t’ing is from below.

The classical garden is an integral part of Dr Sun Yat-Sen Park, and park and garden were designed to take advantage of views borrowed from one another. The design of the park is more expansive, and the yin of the landscape prevails. A more natural space, the park provides an escape from the intensity of the smaller classical garden. Surrounded by eight-foot walls capped with Chinese roof tiles, it was modeled after Suzhou’s Lingering Garden, with a single small t’ing, a lake filled with water lilies, and paths winding through a grove of bamboo. Whereas the classical garden took on the appearance of age almost as soon as it was constructed, the park relies more on plants for its effect, and thus will come into its own only as they mature. There is plenty of time. Some of Suzhou’s still thriving gardens are as old as five hundred years.

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