Lion Grove Garden (Shi Zi Lin) is one of the 4 famous gardens of the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. It was originally built in 1342 in the 2nd year of the reign of Emperor Zhizhen (1341-1368) during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).
According to records, Shi Zi Lin was built by a prominent monk by the name of Tian Ru together with a group of fellow Zen students in honor of their master, Chan Zhong Feng, primarily as a temple with surrounding garden grounds. It was originally named Bodhi Orthodox School Temple, but was later called the Lion Grove Garden, partly due to the odd shape of many of the garden's Tai Hu stone formations, which suggested lions in various poses, and partly due to the fact that Chan Zhong Feng had once lived in Lion Cave on Tianmu Mountain.
The most important thing that visitors should remember about Lion Grove Garden is that it was constructed as a scholars’ garden, and thus there are many references to Chinese literature, calligraphy, and in general to the open-mindedness that characterized the Chinese scholar after Confucianism had transformed Chinese society into one where philosophical contemplation went hand in hand with frivolous cavorting, much like it does today on a modern university campus.
Covering an area of roughly 1,000 square meters, Lion Grove Garden is certainly famous for its unique Tai Hu stone formations, or rockeries in addition to the ancient lion creations. These odd rocks, some boulder-sized, have all been collected from the bottom of Lake Tai, then stacked atop one another to create a maze of nooks, crannies, caverns, and peaks which, from a distance, give the illusion of miniature mountains. Specially shaped Tai Hu rocks are given prominent placing, such as those that resemble lions. It is the rockeries that define this garden, and therefore it is no wonder that it is also called the Rockery Kingdom.
The famous, grotesquely shaped stones of Lion Grove Garden were hoisted up from the bottom of nearby Lake Tai as well. They are of sandstone, which erodes unpredictably. As rainwater soaks into soil, it combines with carbon dioxide to form mildly acidic carbonic acid. This carbonic acid finds its way into the cracks and crevices of limestone, where present, eating away at the limestone in completely random, Swiss-cheese-like patterns, but eventually enlarging the holes and even forming caverns in boulder-sized, sub-surface rocks. Unfortunately, many of the lion stones of Lion Grove Garden no longer resemble lions, because the sandstone continues to erode.
Another equally colorful common name for Lion Grove Garden is "The Eighteen Scenic Spots of Heaven" because of the garden's many rockeries and circuitous pathways which form a true maze that visitors can stroll through. There are many rockeries in Lion Grove Garden such as H Anhui Rockery, Tuyue Rockery, Xuanyu Rockery, and Angxia Rockery. The most famous of them all, of course, is the Lion Rockery.
Zhenqu Ting (True Delight Pavilion) is certainly the garden's most magnificent due to its royal design with an inscription authored by Emperor Qianlong himself of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who visited the garden several times.
Lixue Tang (Standing-in-Snow Hall) gets its name from a story about a zealous Zen Buddhist devotee who stood out in the snow all night in reverence to his master.
Wen Mei Ting (Greeting the Plum Blossoms Pavilion) was a venue where painters and poets gathered. In addition to the plum trees that surround the pavilion, images of plum blossoms are carved into the pavilion's furniture, while other plum blossom representations are painted onto various parts of the pavilion's utensils.
Yifeng Zhibo Xuan (Bowing to Peaks and Pointing to the Cypress Veranda) is a veranda, or salon, used by one of the garden's former owners to entertain friends, relatives, and more formal guests. "Yifeng" refers to a line from a poem by Zhu Xi (1130-1200): "Bowing to Lushan, a peak of unique charm." The word "Zhibo" (Pointing to the Cypress) refers to a line from a poem by Gao Qi (1336-1374) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): “Instead of greeting his guest, [the host] smiles and points at a cypress before the hall.”
The names of most of the garden's other buildings, whose shapes come in infinite varieties, conforming only to the space they have been chosen to occupy, also represent literary allusions. Some examples are Asking Plum Pavilion, Five Ancient Pines Garden, Sleeping Clouds Chamber, Small Square Hall, and Water Lily Hall.
Lion Grove Garden also houses many rare and precious plaques, steles, and paintings, including the paintings “Panoramic View: by Ni Yunlin and “Twelve Scenic Spots in Lion Grove Garden” by Xu Ben, both renowned artists from the Ming Dynasty period. More than 60 rare rubbings of inscriptions of the works of famous calligraphers from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) such as Sushi, Huang Tingjian, Mifu, and Cai Xiangare, can be found on the walls of the passageways of Lion Grove Garden.
Indeed, Lion Grove Garden is a unique experience for visitors of all kinds, as its funny-looking stone formations will delight children of all ages, while for the more serious-minded, the garden's philosophical background will provide a glimpse into the Chinese psyche.
A grand flower exhibition is held in Lion Grove Garden in spring and autumn every year. In spring, the major flowers on display include narcissus, plum, wintersweet and winter jasmine, pine bonsai, bamboo bonsai, plum bonsai, and some very beautiful flower arrangements.
Senior flower and plant technicians also make bonsais, so visitors can fully understand the spirit of Su bonsai when viewing and admiring. At the autumn exhibition, more than 20 varieties and 2,000 pots of chrysanthemum are shown.