Humble Administrator's Garden
When you close your eyes and imagine a perfect Chinese garden, you’d be hard-pressed to dream up one more sublime than the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou. With its elegant arrangement of tranquil koi ponds, jagged rockery, overhanging trees and scenic pavilions, the Humble Administrator’s Garden boasts a series of exquisite views that gradually spread out like the unrolling of a traditional scroll painting.
The largest of Suzhou’s classical gardens, this Ming Dynasty masterpiece dates to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when a magistrate retired from the government and decided to devote his life to gardening. While it may have had humble beginnings, the garden continued to blossom under the care of its subsequent owners to become the grand garden it is today. Long recognized as one of China’s four most famous gardens, along with Beijing’s Summer Palace, Chengde’s Mountain Resort and Suzhou’s Lingering Garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The Garden Throughout the Ages
The ground that the Humble Administrator’s Garden graces has been landscaped since the Shaoxing period (1131-1162) of the Southern Song Dynasty, but its current form began to take shape when a retired government magistrate named Wang Xianchen started his garden there in 1509.
Wang, the humble administrator in the garden’s name, spent 16 years perfecting his garden, whose name comes from a line of poetry written by Pan Yue. The famous Jin dynasty scholar wrote about a retired official who enjoyed gardening — a fitting name for a gentleman gardener like Wang.
Wang’s son racked up extensive gambling debts and was forced to sell the garden. During the next 400 years the gardens changed hands many times and was rebuilt almost as many times. In 1631, the eastern garden was sold, and in 1738, the central and western sections of the garden were split and sold separately. Finally, in 1949, the Chinese government rejoined all three sections of the garden and opened it to the public.
A Ming Dynasty Design
Drawings of the Humble Administrator’s Garden from 1533 reveal that the original garden’s 31 scenic spots used the four essential elements of classical Chinese garden design — water, rocks, plants and buildings — to accentuate the tranquil beauty of the local landscape. Though subsequent renovations added elements of Qing Dynasty design and even a few modern touches, this national treasure remains the epitome of a Ming Dynasty garden. Today, the garden is divided into three distinct sections: the expansive Eastern Garden, the distinguished Central Garden and the Western Garden with its exquisite buildings.
Pass through the Spring Orchid Hall, and the Eastern Garden opens out before you. Marked by its spaciousness, this area of the garden features a large pond surrounded by lush greenery, delicate flowers and jagged rockeries, as well as verdant hills and inviting pavilions.
Originally part of a Ming Dynasty estate called the Gui Tianyuan Ju, or Return-to-the-Countryside Villa, the Eastern Garden was suffering somewhat from neglect by 1631, when a government minister named Wang Xinyi purchased it. Wang was an accomplished landscape painter and favored artificial mountains and water features in his extensive renovations. Even with all the changes to the garden’s landscape over the subsequent centuries, the Eastern Garden still evokes Wang’s paintings.
The latest renovation began in 1955, when the Eastern Garden was updated with a revamped pond, rock sculptures and several new pavilions. The result is a blend of the traditional and contemporary, giving visitors a feeling of fresh serenity.
The heart of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Central Garden is also the garden’s most scenic. It features a large lotus pond surrounded by pavilions, terraces and rockeries. Most of the Central Garden’s landscaping imitates the terrain of China south of the Yangtze River, while the three islands in the center of its pond symbolize the land where the immortals of Chinese mythology live.
The Central Garden is the Humble Administrator’s Garden best-preserved garden, and its original Ming Dynasty design still inspires poetry. The expressively named Hall of Distant Fragrance, the Central Garden’s main building, takes its name from the nearby lotus pool. During the summer, you can still smell the scent of lotuses wafting into the hall. The garden’s original owner used to greet visitors and host banquets here because this pavilion provides the best views in the whole garden.
The Central Garden also showcases the so-called “borrowed view from afar,” which frames distant landmarks to look like they’re part of the garden itself. Here the garden “borrows” the Beisi Pagoda, about a half-mile (1 km) away, creating the illusion that the garden extends to the horizon.
The Western Garden, the smallest of the Humble Administrator’s Garden’s three main areas, is the perfect distillation of Chinese classical garden design. Marked by a waterway that flows from the Tower of Reflection in the garden’s north to the Pagoda Reflection Pavilion in the south, the Western Garden’s many pavilions are beautifully arranged along its shores.
During the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the mid-1700s, the Central and Western Gardens were divided and a wall was put up. Then when a merchant named Zhang Luqian renovated the Western Garden in 1877, he added a roof and windows to the wall and refashioned it as the Wavy Corridor, which rises and falls in harmony with the landscape. Adding to existing structures like the Stay-and-Listen Pavilion and the Floating Green Pavilion, Zhang constructed the Western Garden’s major structure, a building that houses both the Hall of 18 Camellias and the Hall of 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks.
Just like it sounds, the Hall of 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks houses 36 of the world’s most beautiful ducks, which can be seen swimming in front of the hall in the summer. The Hall of 18 Camellias features 18 kinds of camellias that blossom in the winter. Also of note is the Bonsai Garden, located in the west of the garden, which boasts more than 700 Chinese-style bonsais, with some as much as 400 years old.
- Plan on spending 2-3 hours at the Humble Administrator’s Garden to leisurely stroll the garden.
- Arrive early in the morning or in late afternoon to beat the crowds and experience the garden at its most peaceful.
- Bypass the private ticket sellers and tour guides and purchase tickets from the official ticket booth at the entrance.
- Hire an official guide (located just to the right of the entrance) and hear stories and learn insights that will bring the garden’s past into the present.
- Or, rent a GPS-activated audio guide and let the secrets and symbolism of the garden reveal themselves as you walk through the landscape.
- Bring a camera, as instagram-worthy moments abound here.
- Enjoy a cup of tea at the tea pavilion and experience China’s tea culture in the ultimate setting, right next to the Bonsai Garden.
- Visit the museum to learn even more history.
Location: Gusu District — 178 Dongbei Street, Suzhou
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Mar. 1–Nov. 15) / 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Nov. 16–Feb. 29)
Admission: ¥70 (Jan.–Mar., June, Nov.–Dec.) / ¥90 (Apr.–May, July–Oct.)