Shihu Garden

Last updated by drwi at 2013-11-3

Shihu Garden, aka the Ding Family Garden, is located in the city of Weifang, Shandong Province. The city of Weifang is situated at what might be called the base of the Shandong peninsula, or the border, if one were to exist, between Shandong Peninsula and the mainland itself. The name Shihu owes its origin to Chinese literature, a not uncommon occurrence in a country with a proud, scholarly Confucian tradition. "Hu" means "tablet", or "slate" (made of any material from jade to ivory to bamboo strips), of the kind customarily carried by a minister when addressing the emperor. "Shi", in this case, means "ten" (there are several Chinese characters, each pronounced with a different tone and bearing its own, distinct meaning, that are all rendered "shi" in pinyin).

There is a Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty literary reference to the notion of a small building being called "shihu" ("10-tablet-sized", or "pint-sized" in English, meaning tiny, or diminutive), therefore the garden's builder, Ding Shanbao, being appreciative of cultural traditions, chose to refer to his small garden residence as a "pint-sized" scholar garden, but making use of a literary reference to do this, as was the custom among the educated/ cultivated members of Chinese society (whereas some Chinese scholar gardens can be enormous, Shihu Garden - including all of the buildings, the pool, the rockeries and the winding walkway - could fit onto half a football pitch, i.e., the entire garden residence measures only 45m x 45m, circa, albeit, still a sizable residence by present-day standards!).*

In spite of its relatively small size as scholar gardens go, this relatively young (it was built little more than a century ago), compact garden residence is constructed in the tradition of the scholar gardens of old, as typified by the famous scholar gardens of the city of Suzhou, Anhui Province, about 300 kilometers (as the crow flies) northwest of Shanghai (if you would like to compare Shihu Garden with the famous scholar gardens of Suzhou, visit Suzhou Attractions, which will open an additional page).

The site on which Shihu Garden stands was originally the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty residence of a mandarin (a high-ranking government official - in this case, a doctor, Hu Bangzuo, who served in the Justice Department during the reign (CE 1521-1566) of Emperor Jiajing). Later, during the reign (CE 1643-1661) of Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, another official, a magistrate of Zhangde (present-day Anyang, about 70 kilometers southwest of Weifang), Chen Zhaoluan, lived in the house, and after him the residence was occupied by Guo Xiongfei, the Viceroy of Zhili**, who lived here during the reign (CE 1820-1850) of Emperor Daoguang.

Just as in Europe, where a wealthy bourgois class began to make its influence felt (there they began to purchase titles such as duke, earl, marquis, count, viscount, etc., transforming themselves into nobility via the power of money), a wealthy Chinese merchant class began to emerge, especially during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty. One such wealthy merchant was Ding Shanbao, the richest man in Weifang, who, in the 11th year (1885) of the reign (CE 1875-1908) of Emperor Guangxu, purchased the run-down mandarin residence and converted it into the scholar garden residence known today as Shihu Garden.

Shihu Garden consists of 67 buildings - many of them in miniature format, an old Chinese tradition that continues to this day (there are many theme parks in modern-day China with miniature Eiffel Towers, Big Bens, etc.) - divided among reception rooms, studies, libraries, guest quarters, pavilions and kiosks, all accentuated by a pool (a fish pond)  and a rockery (an artificial mountain), and with everything connected by a zig-zagging walkway that traverses the garden complex at different levels, offering only fleeting glimpses of various parts of the garden from any given vantage point, the idea being to create the impression of great size and complexity by means of partial concealment/ partial revelation, in the best tradition of the classical gardens of Suzhou.

The garden's main building is the two-storeyed Yanxiang, which distinguishes itself with its many stelae with inscriptions by famous painters and calligraphers, among these, works by Zheng Xie (1693-1765) - more commonly known as Zheng Banqiao - a remarkable individual who rose from poverty to become a magistrate in the government of Shandong Province but was soon dismissed partly because he refused to curry favor with his seniors and partly because he used state funds to build a shelter for the homeless. Zheng Banqiao was later "rehabilitated", in 1748, by Emperor Qianlong (Emperor Qianlong ruled China during the period 1735-1796), who made Zheng Banqiao the court's official painter and calligrapher.

Zheng Banqiao was later classified as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, the name given to a group of Qing Dynasty Chinese painters who rejected orthodoxy in favor of alternative, more direct (more natural) and more individualistic modes of expression.

Today, Shihu Garden enjoys state protection as a national cultural heritage site. Shihu Garden is considered 'the best South China garden in North China'.


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* The origin of the name "shihu" to describe the Ding Family Garden is sometimes credited to the disdain of ordinary folk for such a small scholar garden, but I believe this interpretation to be false, as it rings anachronistic: a 45m x 45m property would have been a mansion by the standards of ordinary folk in China even as recent as a century ago; and besides, it would have been out of character for ordinary folk to pass judgement, as it were, on anyone important and wealthy enough to own a property of this size in the class society of China of even a century ago (and this would have been even less likely farther back in Chinese history). Moreover, Ding Shanbao explains his rationale for the naming of his garden residence in an essay he penned entitled "Notes on Shihu Garden", where he makes specific reference to the Tang Dynasty literary origin of the word "shihu".


** There were eight such viceroys, each controlling a specific geographic region of the Qing Dynasty empire. The viceroys were in fact ranked, with the Viceroy of Zhili being the most high-ranking and thus the most powerful mandarin after the Prime Minister, making the Viceroy of Zhili the third most powerful man in the Qing Dynasty hierarchy, after the emperor and his PM. Geographically, Zhili was the region surrounding Beijing. It was a political-administrative entity created during the Ming Dynasty which continued up until it was eventually abolished in 1928 by the PRC's predecessor, the government of the Republic of China.

Solo Adventure Tips:

Location:

Shihu Garden is located at No. 49, Hujiapaifang Street in the Weicheng District of Weifang.

How to Get There?

All of the following municipal buse lines will take you to Shihu Garden: bus Nos.1, 23, 32 and 56.

Ticket Price:

10 Yuan per person.

Opening Hours:

From 8:30AM to 5:30PM during the peak season: June 1st to September 30th.
From 8:30AM to 5:00PM during the off/season: October 1st to May 31st.

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