The Humble Administrator's Garden, located on Dongbei Street in the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, is a traditional landscape garden in the style of the south Yangtze River region. It features streams, ponds, bridges, and small, man-made islands that are covered in bamboo plants. The main pond comprises roughly 60% of the entire garden, such that it can be seen from any particular point on the grounds. As beautiful as it is, it is no wonder that the garden's creator wished for it to play a prominent role in his creation.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the site of the present-day Humble Administrator's Garden was a typical scholar garden featuring, among other elements, rockeries. Later during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the scholar garden was transformed into a monastic garden for the nearby Dahong Temple. Finally, it was during the reign of Emperor Zhengde (1505-1521) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that a dismissed government official by the name of Wang Xianchen returned to his hometown of Suzhou and purchased the land on which the temple and garden stood.
There are various stories explaining the rationale for the special name, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, 2 of which are as follows. The first goes that the dismissed official, Wang Xianchen, wished to signal his regret over having merited being let go, and wished to humbly express his intent to strive to at least be worthy of tending a garden. The second legend says that he did not feel shame in the least over the actions that had caused him to be dismissed from government. Rather, in giving the garden the name he chose, he was expressing a touch of irony and deep sarcasm at the same time since the villa-and-garden complex display all the hallmarks of a deliberate and ostentatious expression of opulence.
At one time, the temple had to yield some space to a private villa, and the garden was totally remade: a huge pond was dug and the resulting earth was used to create a number of small islands in the pond. The elaborate garden was designed with the help of a renowned artist of the period by the name of Wen Zhengming. Much of the pond remains to this day, though the garden complex would pass through many hands and would be divided and parceled up, then reunified, finally being rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to the present-day house-and-garden complex. All of this is far removed from the original villa and garden constructed by Wang Xianchen.
Some years later, the Wang family of Suzhou sold the garden complex. During the latter part of the Ming Dynasty, the garden was divided up and distributed among various government officials. The garden was first reunified again during the reign (CE 1643-1661) of Emperor Shunzhi, and this restoration work was continued under the reign (CE 1661-1722) of Emperor Kangxi, both of the Qing Dynasty. Still later, during the reign (CE 1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong, also of the Qing Dynasty, the garden, though unified (it was no longer parcelled out to various temporary occupiers) was sub-divided into two main parts: Fu Yuan (Restored Garden) and Shu Yuan (Book of Study Garden).
The present-day The Humble Administrator’s Garden, though a unified garden that largely resembles the garden as it appeared during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, is subdivided into 4 parts: an Eastern, Western, and a Central part, besides the living quarters. The Eastern part is called simply the Eastern part, though in former times it was referred to as Guitianyuanju (Dwelling Upon Return to the Countryside). This part of the grounds was first reunified with the rest of the garden in 1949, when a number of modifications were made. The zone features pine forests and lawns, bamboo groves and flowing water. Some famous attractions here include Orchid Snow Hall, Dotted Cloud Peak, and Lotus Flower Waterside Pavilion.
The Western part is more commonly known as Fushu Yuan (Supplementary Garden), and its most famous attraction is Thirty-Six Mandarin Duck Hall. Also to be found are many corridors, terraces, and small ponds scattered throughout this side of the garden.
The Central part is known as Zhuozheng Yuan (Humble Administrator's Garden). Here, visitors can find pavilions, mansions, and corridors, as well as lush vegetation and willow sheltered ponds.
The large pond and the artificial islands, unlike some other modified and restructured parts of the garden, are remnants from the Wang garden, the one of the original "Humble Administrator". The restored living quarters are built in the same Suzhou architectural style that was typical for the period when Wang Xianchen lived here. They now serve as exhibition halls for the Garden Museum.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden requires about an hour's leisurely walk to take in everything on a first pass, but the garden is truly worth a second, more studied look, as it is rich in history, and perhaps irony as well.