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The Master of the Nets Garden

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Smaller yet no less stunning, Master of the Nets Garden covers just over an acre, and it is considered by locals to be the most exquisite of Suzhou’s famed classical gardens.

Named to evoke the simple life of a Chinese fisherman, this Song dynasty jewel invites calm reflection at every corner with its delicate balance of art, nature and architecture. Everything from the arrangement of the rockery to the placement of the pavilions and the intricate window design of the main residence work together to not only create an astonishing number of small-scale landscapes, but also give the illusion of a much larger space.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site becomes positively magical at night when talented locals treat audiences to traditional song and dance performances set among the garden’s gorgeously lit pavilions and terraces. It’s one of the can’t-miss things to do in Suzhou.

Step inside this Suzhou gem and find out why when the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted to capture the essence of classical Chinese garden design, it looked to the Master of the Nets Garden’s Peony Hall for inspiration.

A Garden Rooted in the Song Dynasty

Nearly 900 years of history are packed into this miniature masterpiece. The original garden was first laid out in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, a high official in the Southern Song dynasty. Shi was a man of letters and filled his residence with so many scrolls that it was initially known as the Hall of 10 Thousand Volumes. Balancing out his library, Shi created a simple garden around the adjacent pond that he called the Fisherman’s Retreat.

After Shi’s death, the garden fell into disarray and was ultimately abandoned until some six centuries later when a Qing dynasty official named Song Zongyuan bought it around 1765. Song completely redesigned the property and added multiple buildings, while still managing to retain the original spirit of the site.

It’s said that in a moment of bureaucratic frustration, Song wished he were a fisherman instead of a government official, leading him to rename the garden "Wangshi Yuan,” or the Master of the Nets. Hopefully, the garden gave him the sense of relaxation that it gives visitors today.

The garden’s present layout is owed to a scholar named Qu Yuancun, who bought the garden in 1795. Adding new buildings and remodeling old ones, Qu also planted trees and arranged rockeries. Two hundred and fifty years later, the garden eventually passed to He Chang. The garden’s final private owner renovated the garden in 1940 and willed it to the government before his death in 1958.

A Classical Design

Originally just a tranquil pond set next to a well-stocked library, the Master of the Nets Garden’s twelfth-century design encouraged study and reflection. Although the garden was greatly expanded upon in the 1700s, it remains one of the best examples of a Song dynasty scholar’s garden.

In addition to providing a contemplative setting, the design deftly balances nature and architecture. Indeed, the garden’s structures that aren’t meant to dominate the landscape, but to be in harmony with it. Covered walkways, bridges, rockeries and pavilions divide the garden into individual scenes or landscapes, each to be savored for a moment before the garden’s next petite treasure is revealed.

This delightful garden is divided into two parts: a two-story residence in the east and gardens and pavilions in the west.

Rooms with a View

Entering through the living quarters, the Master of the Nets doesn’t look like your typical garden. The floor plan alternates between covered chambers and open courtyards, culminating with the Beauty-Within-Reach Tower. Along the way, windows offer enticing views of the gardens beyond. Inside, the building is elegantly decorated with carved furniture and dark wood that perfectly contrasts with the rooms’ white walls. Tying them together are delicate box lanterns and powerful calligraphies.

Pond and Pavilions

Outside, the main garden is artfully arranged around a large pond. Exemplifying a style called “close to the water,” small pavilions are situated directly over the water, while larger buildings are separated from the pond by distance or trees, giving the illusion that the pond is much larger than it actually is.

Walkways encourage visitors to stroll from one beautifully decorated pavilion to the next. The spaces in between create intimate landscapes within the larger garden, beautifully decorated with centuries-old trees, brilliant flowers and picturesque rockery—and with each step, visitors are invited to view the garden from a new perspective.

One area of particular interest, which also comes with a story, can be found on the garden’s western edge: the Peony Study…

Suzhou Inspiration at the Met

In the early 1900s, American philanthropist Brooke Russell Astor spent part of her childhood in China. The Master of the Nets Garden must have made an impression on her because decades later when she served as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Astor suggested the museum create a replica of the garden’s Peony Study in its Asian Wing. The Met agreed, and in 1981, The Astor Court, called Ming Xuan in Chinese, was installed.

The courtyard was crafted to the highest standards with traditional tools and techniques: a granite terrace was hand-chiseled from a Suzhou quarry, ceramic tiles were fired by an eighteenth-century imperial kiln and Taihu rocks were used for the rockeries. A team of 26 Chinese craftsmen — and importantly, one chef — spent six months at the Met piecing together the components; such was the museum’s respect for this classic courtyard. When you spend a moment in the Peony Study, you’ll understand why.

A Night to Remember

From mid-March to November, the Master of the Nets Garden lights up the nights with lively dance, music and opera performances set around the garden’s elegant architecture. Follow your guide from pavilion to pavilion and enjoy eight local performing arts specialties, including Kunqu Opera and Pingtan (Suzhou-style ballad singing), as well as folk dance, traditional Chinese instrumental music and even comedy. The guide’s English introductions provide context for you to fully appreciate the performances and the enchanting backdrop will make you feel like a guest at a Song Dynasty dinner party. After the performance, feel free to explore the garden in a new light.

Location: Gusu District — No 1, Kuo JIa Tou Lane, Suzhou
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Apr. 16–Oct. 30) / 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Oct. 31–Apr. 15) / 7:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. (Mid-Mar.–Mid-Nov.)
Admission: ¥30 (Jan.–Mar., June, Nov.–Dec.) / ¥40 (Apr.–May, July–Oct.) / ¥100 night tour (Mid-Mar.–Mid-Nov.)