Shanghai, March 2002

Outside the Yu Garden

To reach the Yu Garden, visitors had to go through an unusual zig-zag bridge, which was situated at the centre of a commercial and shopping plaza, made up of 30 to 40 units of buildings, whose overall structure and appearance not only did not clash with the artistic Yu Garden within, but also complementary to the ancient Garden. In fact, these buildings blended so well with the surrounding that they could easily be mistaken as part and parcel of the Garden. (They were not.) The Garden had a 400 years history, the shopping complex were built probably 20 or 30 years ago.
All the shops, 4 or 5 storeys high, painted (mainly) red and gold, were built with traditional curved roofs, graceful up-turned eaves, supported by strong, decorative pillars, facades or outer walls carved with intricate oriental designs, rendering them to look like temples or monasteries on the outside. But they were actually modern shopping complex inside, enticing visitors with a thousand kinds of goods and services, and catering a great variety of local food and delicacies, biscuits, cakes, sweets and what not. Even if one had nothing to buy, it was simply a fascinating place to visit, for no purpose other than just to admire the local scenery, to immerse in its atmosphere, to walk around or just mingle with the crowd. This was the only place we visited twice in two days.

At the Yu Garden

The 400 year old classical Yu Garden was built by the son of a Phang family. The father, the elder Phang, was a distinguished scholar and a high ranking official in Court. The brilliant son was no less illustrious, for he soon advanced to be at par in rank with his father. It was believed that ill fortune would befall the family if the father and the son both remained in their positions, and so the father chose to retire and let the son to continue his service with the court. In gratitude, the son assigned the best architects to have the garden built, for the enjoyment and in honour of his parents.

The Yu Garden was actually made up of a number (close to 40) of small gardens built over a period of some 40 to 50 years. The older Phang did not see the completion of the entire garden. In fact, in the course of development, the son ran out of money, and the garden had to be parceled out, and sold to different people of wealth, and lots of disputes ensued. The government eventually repossessed all the gardens, made them into one, and declared it as a national cultural heritage, as we saw today.

Each garden, or court, had a special theme or name, or built for specific purposes, such as garden of meditation, of tranquility, of righteousness, gardens for meeting and entertaining lesser and important guests, for quiet reading and writing, for children, etc. The Garden was a reflection of the life style of the successful, the rich and the powerful of the Ming and Ching dynasties.

I am not sure if I should say the gardens were ingeniously linked or skillfully partitioned, [are two countries linked or separated by an ocean?] for at times, one could have entered the next garden without realising it. So I would say in a moment, one would be admiring an ornamental pavilion, the next moment one would be captured by the serenity of a chamber. Following the path of a narrow corridor, one expected to enter another reading room, but was surprised by an open space, with manicured lawn, and a good number of drum-like stools for visitors to take a break. A leisurely stroll along a tiny stream would suddenly lead one to a pond, full of fish. Before one could take one's eyes off a strange tree with leaves that looked like melon seeds, one would be distracted or attracted by a 1000 years old stone in the shape of a lion head, dug up from River Che' Ziang. One anticipated to enter another hall through a circular door way, but would come into a sculptured garden enclosed with walls of more than 10 feet high on all sides. An undulating dragon sat or rest majestically along/around and on top of these four walls, and here was another story to tell.

As usual in human society, a successful person almost always attracts both admiration and envy, maybe jealousy too; his success inspires many, but is despised or resented as well. A luxurious garden or gardens met with the same fate. The dragon that sat on top of that wall was reported to the emperor, saying that the dragon was the symbol of the emperor. There could be only emperor, so there could be only one dragon. Anyone who displayed another dragon was doing so with the view of usurping the authority of the emperor, and he should be put to death.

The Phang family was living in fear of punishment, until a wise man advised them to make certain alteration to the dragon. When the royal emissary came to inspect the dragon, it was found that on each foot of the dragon, there were only 4 claws, instead of 5.

So the report went back to the emperor that that dragon in the Phangs' garden was no dragon at all.. "A real dragon has 5 claws on each foot, that animal on the wall of the Phangs' Garden has only 4. It is therefore only a snake." The Phangs were saved.


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Revised 20 February 2005