Shen Garden, located at the juncture of Yanghe Alley and Luxun Road, was the private garden of a wealthy Shaoxing businessman by the name of Shen during the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) period of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. (The rest of Shen's name has long since been forgotten, the only memorable thing he achieved being the creation of the garden that would become famous for its connection to a revered poet from the same period, as will be seen immediately below.)
The original garden was on a very large scale, covering over 70 mu (70 mu is equal to about 4 2/3 hectares, or about 11½ U.S. acres*), being at the time the largest private garden - if not the largest garden of any kind - in the city of Shaoxing. Shen Garden's renomme is owing to a chance encounter between a famous Song Dynasty poet, Luyou, and his former wife, Tangwan, a melancholy real-life encounter whose climax was almost as sad, if not tragic, as the climax of the encounter between the two inseparable lovers, Tristian and Isolde (Tristram und Iseult, in German) in the Richard Wagner opera of the same name.
Luyou, Famous Song Dynasty Poet
Luyou (CE 1125-1210) was born in the village of Shanyin in Yue Prefecture (present-day Shaoxing) in a well-educated family of government officials who, like many other Han Chinese people, would eventually flee to safer parts of China in face of the violent struggle that was taking place in the north of China between the invading Jürchens and the indigenous population, which was predominantly of Han Chinese ethnic origin. Already as a boy, Luyou composed poems in tribute to self-sacrifice and patriotism. This was against the background of the invasion by the Jürchens who had formed the hated Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty that had come to rule over large parts of northern China, and would continue to spread its rule southward.**
Though Luyou, as a young man, passed the civil service examination and entered civil service, his confrontational attitude toward the Jürchen rulers of the Jin Dynasty, in which administration he came to serve, resulted in a stagnated government career, as most of the other Han Chinese officials of the Jin government had long since made their peace with the "invaders". Having been sidelined, career-wise, for the better part of his public service life (he was in fact demoted on several occasions), Luyou finally resigned his government post in disgust and retired to his natal city, Shaoxing, where he devoted himself to poetry, including patriotic poetry.
His most famous patriotic poem, entitled To My Son, was a call to future generations to continue to resist the Jürchen invaders. A characteristic stanza from the poem goes like this:
I know that everything will be gone after my death. Still, it grieves me that I did not live to see the reunification of our country. When you perform the victory sacrifices on the day when our imperial troops march northward and reoccupy the central plains, don't forget, my son, to remember your father.
"Our" was of course a reference to the Han Chinese people, and we can assume that "your father" was not just a reference to the author himself, but as well a reference to all those who devoted their lives to opposing the Jürchens, which group of Han Chinese loyalists would also include Luyou's mother.
But Luyou was also accomplished at the gushi ("old poetry") as well as at the lushi ("regulated poetry") modes of expression, modes of poetic expression that had been perfected during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty many years earlier. Luyou's appreciation of the masters of the Tang Dynasty was no accident, for the Tang was the last stable Han Chinese dynasty that preceeded the Song Dynasty; the troubled interim period is known by historians as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 618-907) period.
Luyou, or Lu Fangweng ("the old man who does as he pleases"), as the poet eventually styled himself, would write over 10,000 poems during his lifetime, most of which have been preserved. Luyou's style of simple, direct expression contrasted with the poetic style of his day, the rather effete verse style of the Jiangxi School, which was fond of the use of allusion (i.e., the use of indirect, often disguised, reference). Luyou's Jiannan Poems and Weinan Collections earned him wide recognition. A volume of Lu Fangweng's later poems, originally translated to the English by American-born Burton Watson (born in 1925), was published as recently as November 2007 by Ahadada Books, a small but distinguished Tokyo-based publisher with a branch in Toronto, Canada that specializes in new and experimental works, but which is not averse to publishing "new and experimental works" of the past - even the ancient past.
The Inseparability of Luyou and Tangwan
Luyou grew up with his cousin, Tangwan, a quiet but intelligent girl who was fond of literature, as was Luyou himself, a factor which no doubt drew the two closer together. The cousins came to nurture a deep romantic love for each other, and were married when Luyou attained the age of 20. In the meantime, Luyou's mother disliked Tangwan and perhaps also blamed the girl for the fact that the marriage was "fruitless". In any case, the mother, who felt that her son should devote himself to the restoration of Han Chinese glory (i.e., the defeat of the Jürgens) rather than to Tangwan, wanted to force through a divorce. The young poet found himself in a difficult dilemma, for though he loved his young wife, he also loved and respected his mother, and he shared her devotion to the now beleaguered Song Dynasty if not to notions of Han Chinese cultural surpremacy. In the end, the young man obeyed his mother, and agreed to the divorce.
Luyou and Tangwan each remarried separate partners, but neither achieved happiness in marriage, while they both secretly longed for each other. One spring day when Luyou was 31, some eight years after the divorce, the two accidentally met in Shen Garden - Luyou alone, while Tangwan was in the company of her second husband. With permission from her husband, Tangwan approached Luyou and offered him a glass of wine. Try as she might, the distraught Tangwan was unable to control her emotions, her eyes filling with tears as she offered the glass of wine to her former lover and husband. Luyou snatched the proffered glass and quaffed the wine in a single swallow, as if it were a poison that could put an end to his misery, for he had never ceased to long for his former soul-mate and wife, and seeing Tangwan before him with tear-filled eyes, Luyou was deeply moved.
Filled with anger, shame and remorse, the poet retreated. He quickly found what he felt was the ideal spot for his purposes on one of the bare walls of Shen Garden, and there composed an impromptu, heart-wrenching declaration of devotion to the only woman he had ever loved, Tangwan. Chai Tou Feng ("The Hairpin of the Golden Phoenix"), written on a publicly viewed wall at Shen Garden, thus immortalized Luyou's love for Tangwan.
Luyou thereafter returned to the north, where he pursued the life of a government official while waging his own personal battle against the Jürgens - from within, as it were - by denouncing China's new rulers at any and every opportunity, a tactic that seems to have produced little, if any, fruit, except the bitter "fruit" of personal failure, career-wise. In the meantime, Tangwan had learned about the poem at Shen Garden, and was deeply moved by it. She died hardly a year later (of longing?), having never again laid eyes on the love of her life, Luyou. For his part, Luyou lived to be an old man (he died at the age of 85), which melancholy love story ends in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the love story of Jack and Rose in Titanic, except that in the love story of Luyou and Tangwan, the roles were reversed: it was Luyou who survived and went on to attain a ripe old age.
Present-Day Shen Garden
Already in 1963, Shen Garden was recognized as an invaluable historical and cultural site, and thus came under the protection of Zhejiang Province. Covering 57 mu, present-day Shen Garden consists of three parts: the Shenshi Section, the Luyou Section and the Eastern Section. The Shenshi Section comprises the following sites: Guhe ("Lonely Crane") Pavilion, Banbi ("Half Wall") Pavilion, Shuanggui Hall, Bayong House, Song Well, Shooting Garden, Wenmei Balustrade, Qin (i.e., a stringed musical instrument) Platform and Guangsi Room. The Luyou Section, which is understandably characterized by romantic themes, is comprised of the following sites: Remnant Clouds and Sad Melody, Poetry and Love, Spring Stream of Amazing Beauty, Remnant Wall and Eternal Regret, Plaintive Cry of the Lonely Crane, Green Lotus Leaves in the Setting Sun, Weeping Willows along the Palace Wall, Crossing Snowy Expanses in Pursuit of Love, The Scent of Poetry Books, and Exchanging Intmate Feelings on Que Bridge.
The Eastern Section, being a more modern, landcaped garden full of greenery, is absent any particular literary or historical context, but is an ideal place to just relax and contemplate, or discuss, the more "colorful" parts of Shen Garden.
In sum, Shen Garden is picturesque and quaint, and beautiful and disorderly all at the same time. As a garden that exudes cosiness tinged with melancholy, it has many features that hark back to its Song Dynasty origins. Shen Garden is especially favored by lovers. In the summer it is alive with the scent of fragrant flowers, and in the winter, with the scent especially of the blossoms of the Chimonanthus (Calyx canthus) shrub (called "Wintersweet" in Great Britain, and whose Greek translation is "Winter Flower"). Winter tourism in Shaoxing in general - and at Shen Garden in particular - is becoming increasingly popular, as the garden, in its winter cloak, is transformed into a fairyland of rare beauty.
* Note: 10 mu, as measured today, is equal to 2/3 hectare or roughtly 1.65 U.S. acres. Unfortunately, the measurement has not been uniform throughout history; during the colonial era, the measurement was reckoned at about 15% above its original value, which original value also corresponds to the present-day value of a mu. There is of course a Greek (cyrillic) letter known to students of calculus that is rendered as "mu" (pronounced "mew") in English and which looks slighly like the lower-case English letter "u" and which is sometimes writen simply as "m" (both lower and upper-case), but it has nothing to do with the Chinese area measurement.
** The Jürchens would later be "resurrected" (the Jin Dynasty was thoroughly routed by Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes in CE 1234). As the Manchus, they would have the last word, as it were, in the dynastic chapter of China's long and illustrious history: the Jürchens cum Manchus ruled China during it's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty.
In fairness, it must be said that the successive rulers of the Jin Dynasty, perhaps in response to the cool reception they received at the hands - or perhaps feet - of their majority Han Chinese subjects (many of the Han Chinese under Jin Dynasty rule fled southward to parts of China not yet under Jürchen rule), became increasingly sinicized, a cultural process that also marked the Mongol Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, though in the popular cultural discourse, these facts are often conveniently overlooked if not suppressed.