Located in the northern part of Yangzhou's Old Town, Ge Yuan, or Ge Garden is a former private residential garden, rebuilt in the classical Yangzhou style (i.e., "southern style") that stems from the latter half of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. In spite of the current garden's youthful vintage, comparatively speaking, Yangzhou's Ge Garden is considered one of the four most famous classical gardens of China.
The garden was originally built by the early Qing Dynasty monk and painter, Shi Tao (CE 1642-1707) - born Zhu Ruoji - of the city of Guilin in present-day Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The private residential garden was later sold to a wealthy salt merchant of the city of Yangzhou (the city of Yangzhou was for centuries the center of the salt trade for almost all of coastal China, and even the famous Italian traveler, Marco Polo, played a role in this trade... to learn more about Yangzhou's salt trade, click here and scroll down to the second half of the "Brief History" section, or simply search "salt").
It was first after the run-down residential garden was purchased by the chief administrator (salt tax assessor) of the Liang Huai salt district, the largest of China's eleven salt districts, that the garden came to be known as Ge Garden. In the 23rd year of the reign (CE 1796-1820) of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, i.e., in 1818, Huang Zhiyun (1770-1838), the then salt tax assessor for the Liang Huai salt district had the garden completely rebuilt, after which it came to be known as Ge Garden. The explanation is as follows...
The new owner was fond of bamboo trees, which he saw as an expression of uprightness, braveness, and loyalty (one must remember that in spite of its delicate appearance, the bamboo lives on steep mountain slopes that are subject to inexorable and often extreme winds, yet the bamboo stands tall and proud), so he planted them everywhere in the garden, and since the shape of the bamboo leaf, of which there was no lack in the garden after a few years, is roughly in the form of the Chinese character that is pronounced "ge", the garden came to be called Ge. But Ge Garden is also famous for its rockeries, as can be seen in the next section.
A Brief Description of Ge Garden
The two main themes of Ge Garden are its abundance of bamboo trees and its cleverly - and pleasingly - laid out rockeries. Since the beginning of time, bamboo trees have been recognized for their ambient qualities as well as their innate physical beauty. In China, bamboo trees were considered even more beautiful, since they combine a delicate appearance with a hardy constitution. In fact, there is no plant that more epitomizes Chinese landscape art than the bamboo plant, while ancient Chinese writers and poets praised the bamboo tree as a symbol of purity, loftiness and integrity. Each bamboo tree possesses its own unique "posture", though the bamboo tree is known for the straightness of its trunk. Moreover, Ge Garden boasts several species of bamboo trees, adding to the variety of Ge Garden's flora.
Ge Garden's rockery is in fact four rockeries in one, in the sense that it consists of four separate rockeries, each representing one of the four seasons, a feature that makes Ge Garden unique among Chinese gardens. The four, seasonal rockeries are constructed of materials that suit the respective season, and sometimes the motif of the surrounding "landscape" is also chosen to match the respective season as well, such that a stroll through the four, seasonal rockeries of Ge Garden is like a condensed trip through spring, summer, autumn and winter.
The Spring Rockery, situated just south of Osmanthus Hall, consists of stalagmite stones taken from a cave, and are interspersed with bamboo trees, where the sharply tapered stalagmite stones suggest the fresh bamboo shoots of springtime, spiring up from the ground.
The Summer Rockery consists of a jade-green pond filled with lotus plants and surrounded by specially shaped (i.e., eroded) rocks retrieved from the bottom of Lake Tai (taihushi) to the west of Suzhou, a type of stone typically used in the rockeries of the famous "Scholar Gardens" of southern China - of Suzhou in particular. Both the jade-green color as well as the stillness, bordering on laziness, of the lotus pond as well as the connection to the "Scholar Gardens" of southern China, where the weather is always warmer, suggest summer.
The Autumn Rockery consists of large, brown-and-yellowish Huangshan ("Yellow Mountain") stones that are packed together in a stepped fashion, stretching some 50 meters, and is intended to be climbed. Its yellowish-brown color is highly suggestive of autumn, and, as well, the very notion of strolling through a brown-and-yellow, leaf-strewn wood and climbing huge rocks - indeed, the Autumn Rockery can also be interpreted as a metaphor for Mount Huang/ Yellow Mountain itself - belongs to autumn.
The Winter Rockery consists of whitish, quartz-like xueshi ("snow stones"), whose hard, multi-faceted surfaces that glisten in the sunlight suggest the cold snow of winter.
Ge Garden, occupying an area of 2.3 hectares, is constructed with a pleasingly ambient, yet restrained layout that immediately invites appreciation and facilitates contemplation. The garden is laid out in the traditional private-residential garden style, with the residence in front and a secluded garden behind. The garden's walkways rise and fall, and are winding, offering only fleeting glimpses of portions of the garden from any given vantage point, a feature common to all classical Chinese gardens, and intended to give the illusion of a much larger garden. The presence of bamboo trees everywhere provides a sense of light-hearted - rather than oppressive - seclusion, and they naturally exude wealth.
There are three paths that lead from the garden in back to the residence in front, while the entire garden complex consists of three main constituent parts: buildings, bamboo trees and rockeries, all three combined in ways that conform to the Chinese notion of geomancy (think: feng shui) that contributes to the ambience of the garden and imparts a sense of well-being in the visitor. The Chinese have a special relationship to stones, having practiced animism - or the belief that all things, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit - in their ancient past. Therefore the stones of a Chinese garden rockery were considered as friends with whom one shared common space. Moreover, the bamboo trees of Ge Garden, by the same ancient Chinese, pre-Taoist animism that encouraged reverence towards rocks, were imbued with human-like qualities that made them seem like good neighbors who could be trusted.
All of these sentiments, delicately balanced, were present in the classical Chinese garden, except that in Ge Garden, they all came together in mutually-reinforcing ways. In a sense, a well constructed Chinese garden is a tiny cosmos in and of itself. There is a poetic inscription on one of the garden's main buildings, Baoshan ("cuddles a mountain"), in four Chinese characters, describing Ge Garden, and which goes like so: hu ("pot") tian ("sky") zi ("oneself") chun ("springtime"), or, in plain-speak: "though Ge Garden be small, it fills you with the renewed hope of springtime". In addition, there exists a scholarly comparison of the classical gardens of Suzhou to the classical gardens of Yangzhou which insists that 'if the gardens of Suzhou can be likened to a poem, then the gardens of Yangzhou can be likened to well-crafted, polished prose'.
Lastly, it is said by Yangzhouers that 'the best gardens in all of China are to be found in Yangzhou, and the best rockeries are to be found in Ge Garden'. While Suzhouers might dispute the former, they would surely not disagree with the latter.