Wangshiyuan, or Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, is a garden like no other. Originally built as a humble fisher's garden, it apparently possessed a quality even then which commanded respect, and which inspired its future private owners to not only protect it, but to continue to hone it so as to transform what began as a diamond-in-the-rough into the polished gem that it eventually became, and which is preserved in that remarkable state today, thanks to the foresight of the government of the PRC. Though the Garden of the Master of Nets may have begun as the garden of a humble fisher, it evolved into an unusually harmonious scholar garden whose artistic charm is unique among Chinese scholar gardens.
Garden of the Master of Nets, which is only one of eleven such private residential gardens in the city of Suzhou - four of which, as a group, including Wangshiyuan, have been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List - was originally constructed in CE 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, a government official of the Southern Song (1127-1279) Dynasty who built the garden with the simple, solitary life of a fisherman in mind, hence the garden's original name, Yuyin (Fisherman's Retreat). After the death of its original owner, the garden gradually fell into disrepair until it passed into the hands of another government official; during the reign (CE 1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, the garden became the property of a retired government official, a certain Song Zhongyuan, who completely revamped the garden, and who, wishing to rename the garden, yet retain a link with the garden's original name, renamed it the Garden of the Master of Nets, the name by which the garden has since been known.
The garden is believed to have passed into the hands of a certain Qu Yuancun, a scholar and intellectual who was well versed in literature and who planted numerous trees in the garden, added yet more buildings, rockeries and walkways, and who gave the buildings and walkways the typical scholar-garden titles that they are known by today. Thereafter the garden passed into the hands of numerous owners who continued to maintain and improve it, ever so slightly.
The names of these successive owners are not known, for the most part, until the beginning of the 20th century, during the period of the Republic of China. At that time, the environs fell under the domain of the warlord, Zhuang Zuolin, who gave the garden to his teacher, a certain Zhuang Junjian. When Zhuang Junjian later decided to settle in the north of China, the garden was rented to a group of artists, including the famous landscape painter, Zhang Daqian (who was also believed to be a master forger, and who was in general one of the most commercially successful Chinese painters of the period), a brother to Zhang Daqian, and the calligrapher, Ye Gongchuo.
Garden of the Master of Nets became public property in 1958, under the government of the PRC, when it was restored to its former glory and was eventually opened to the public. The official name of Wangshi Garden is believed to have originated from the fact that the garden, after one of its restorations/ revampings, came to face the then Wangsi Lane (later renamed Kuojietou Lane), but where the new owner added the extra letter to the name, presumably for artistic-stylistic reasons (it looks and sounds more arty, compared to the street's more simple spelling).
Garden of the Master of Nets centers around its pond. The halls, pavilions, walkways and rockeries are all placed around the pond, though there is nothing symmetrical about the placement of these elements around the pond, nor is the pond itself symmetrical. In fact, the entire layout seems to be deliberately made asymmetrical in order to give the illusion of greater space. Because it is difficult to take in the relative size of the garden compound from any particular vantage point (there always seems to be something that partially obscures one's view), the viewer gets the impression that the compound is larger than it in reality is. This reluctance to reveal itself at a single viewing, or from any particular vantage point, is of course part of the charm of the garden compound - it adds to the mystery.
This deliberate concealment is reinforced by the fact that there are walkways on both sides of the buildings that surround the lake, which would make it impossible to take in the entirety of the compound even if the pond were round, or perfectly square, and even if all the pondside walkways constantly revealed the scope of the pond and the structures that surround it, with nothing in the way to obscure one's view, because the outer walkways reveal a completely different character to the compound that is more serene, more secluded, and cooler due to the presence of the many shade trees. This maze-like quality of the Garden of the Master of Nets adds to its charm; the visitor can only marvel at the mind that designed such an intriguingly "large" garden in such a small space.
There are stone bridges at either of the "stretched" corners of the pond. The overall shape of the pond is roughly square, with two elongated corners, one in the form of a small bay and the other in the form of a stream - and viewed from the opposite corner, the latter really does look like a stream that curves off to the right. The bridge over the "stream" is arched. Here again one sees asymmetry; a lesser artist would perhaps have used the same bridge form in both locations. The halls, pavilion, walkways and rockeries have names that announce to the visitor that this is indeed a scholar garden, names such as the "Leading to Quietude Bridge" (the arched bridge over the "stream"), the "Cloud Stairway Room", the "Washing-My-Ribbon Pavilion" and "Moon Comes with Breeze Pavilion", or the "Watching Pines and Appreciating Paintings Studio".
The most famous building in the garden compound is Dianchunyi. Its external architectural style as well as its internal decor, including the furniture and the palace lanterns, all stem are from the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty period. Dianchunyi was used as the model for the Ming Hall Garden exhibit that was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1979, and which definitively put the Chinese garden on the world map, as it were.
Garden of the Master of Nets is said to be the smallest of Suzhou's private residential gardens (by comparison, it is only one sixth the size of the Humble Administrator's Garden), yet it is considered the most exquisite in design of them all, thanks in no small part to its qualities of elusiveness that delight the senses as well as the mind. Some consider it the most balanced of Suzhou's private residential gardens for the way it makes use of water, rocks, plants and buildings, yet this "balance" is achieved in a most unbalanced, or asymmetrical, manner, a notion which, to the Western mind, may seem contradictory, but which, to a person steeped in the culture of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, seems perfectly natural and non-contradictory.