Ruan Yisan: Magnificent Yangzhou Gardens with Charm of Tang Poetry

The overall design is magnificent with the charm of Tang Poetry. It is an important representation of the salt business culture, and the extremely vital wealth of Yangzhou. 2017-09-14

“Yangzhou is the center of salt transportation and salt business in Huainan and Huaibei. The gardens built by salt businessmen can best represent their wealth and wisdom. The magnificent design of those gardens makes them charming like poetry from the Tang Dynasty.” On May 18, Professor Ruan Yisan, a famous expert of ancient city protection from Tongji University, was invited to attend the 2015 Yangzhou Salt Culture Forum. During an interview, the professor said that business in Yangzhou was booming in the reign of Qianlong and Kangxi in Qing Dynasty. Rich businessmen all gathered to this place. In particular, businessmen doing salt deals were extremely rich, and they built private gardens in great number.

The wealth and wisdom of salt businessmen made Yangzhou a land of gardens

“Every place has its own natural and geographical environment, as well as historical and cultural traditions. Therefore, they have to form their own characteristics and style, so that the gardens can present different patterns and sceneries, adding different styles and a lot of fun.” Ruan Yisan said that since the Qing Dynasty, Yangzhou has had hundreds of large and small gardens, and this has much to do with Yangzhou being the place where salt businessmen gathered in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Yangzhou is the center of salt transportation and salt business in Huainan and Huaibei. Salt businessmen were mostly rich in Yangzhou. In addition to living and working, there are all kinds of business activities, and in the old times business and a variety of communication feast are connected. Those rich businessmen would buy land and build houses, dig out ponds and pile up hills to create places for feast, entertainment, meeting, and discussion. Since gardens can best represent the wealth and wisdom of the businessmen, they all began to compete and try to find out who can build the most luxurious garden. By Ming and Qing dynasties, they had built countless big rooms, pavilions and halls in Yangzhou. And the salt businessmen were competing and showing off with those gardens. As a result, Yangzhou became a land of gardens.

Ruan Yisan said that the owners of Yangzhou gardens were mostly rich businessmen. Some of them even earn an official position because of their significant contribution to the imperial court. They often dealt with the court, which is also an act of showing off their wealth. When building gardens, they tended to go for luxury, using high-end materials. Many halls used the fine wood called nanmu, the floors were covered with quarry tiles, and there were precious trees planted in the garden; antiques were collected and displayed, and the walls and windows were decorated with calligraphy works and paintings by famous artists – everything they did to show their wealth. But they did it in a restrained and modest way. Everything was peaceful, and there will never be confusing colors or tacky designs. The overall design is magnificent with the charm of Tang Poetry. It is an important representation of the salt business culture, and the extremely vital wealth of Yangzhou.

It is recommended that Yangzhou restore its buried gardens

“Last month I went to Suzhou to participate in an expert panel to discuss the proposed 30 classical private gardens to be protected in Suzhou. Experts believed the number should not be only 30, but 30 to 50 more. If these gardens were restored, protected and maintained, then Suzhou would really become a city of gardens. I immediately thought of my hometown Yangzhou.” Ruan Yisan said that in the past the number of gardens in Yangzhou were much more than that of Suzhou, the quality was far higher, and there are more records.

Although Yangzhou now has a lot of gardens, such as Heyuan, Geyuan, Small Pangu Garden, Xuyuan, Wang’s Small Garden, Ruan Yisan feel that Yangzhou has not done what Suzhou did. Take the list of World Heritage for example, he believes that Yangzhou should propose to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage that the “classical private gardens south of the Yangtze River” should apply for World Heritage, and include all fine gardens into the World Heritage List because Yangzhou’s gardens are the most representative.”

Studies show that Yangzhou gardens are a treasure derived from the salt business culture. Ruan Yisan said that Yangzhou has a large number of gardens from the past. He remember that in the 60s, Mr. Chen Congzhou did a survey on the ancient gardens and dwellings in Yangzhou. During the time he led Ruan Yisan to visit the gardens. As Mr. Chen walked, he kept counting the numbers of stones in the ruined gardens. Every time he saw a pile of tiles, he would go through it. He wrote about gardens in Suzhou and Yangzhou. And his works became the blueprints for restoring and maintaining these precious heritages.

“Yangzhou should learn from Suzhou, make a list of gardens that can be protected and restored, and raise funds to actually restore and protect those gardens. This is my appeal as a local in Yangzhou.” Ruan Yisan noted that although the era of salt business has gone, but Yangzhou’s classical private gardens influenced by the salt business culture will shine even brighter.


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