Garden Appreciation: Savoring Shihu Garden

With a rock standing and a stream lying; a cave passed through and a crooked bridge stood; and dotted with a few mosses and colored with a few Chinese wistarias, this northern garden was full of southern aura, which rendered it rather agreeable. 2017-09-14

A few days ago, I came to Weifang, Shandong Province, and visited Shihu Garden on my own. Built in Guangxu period of the Qing Dynasty, Shihu Garden is the only existing ancient garden in this town.

I have been drawn to this small garden which is a northern garden full of southern style for a long time. My initial impression was that it was related to Mr. Zheng Banqiao. In fact, it is not true, even dead wrong. It is a private garden left by local wealthy gentry of the Qing Dynasty.

Shihu Garden is indeed small, but it can be described as an example of boutique architecture. Although there are numerous houses, I did not feel crowded here. Those scattered rooms which are not spacious do not bring the cramped feeling. Instead, it is full of coziness and geniality.

The weather was still cool. There were only two or three people in the garden. Perhaps they found the garden boring without red flowers and green grass. In a little while they went away one after another, leaving me alone in the garden. Well, I could savor this courtyard that I have missed for long at leisure.

Those bamboos scattered in the garden were my favorite. Although it was still chilly in early spring, branches and leaves of those bamboos showed their strength, reminding me of Mr. Zheng Banqiao’s ink-painting bamboos which were also full of strength. Mr. Zheng had served as an officer in this town for many years. His strong character was exactly like the bamboo with straight trunk and shadow. As I walked a few steps and turned around, shadows of bamboos appeared in my vision; along with several strange rocks, this elegance brought with it happiness. Chinese wistarias had not turned green, but it did not bring the gloomy feeling. It was rather consistent with the antiquated style of Shihu Garden. It would be blossoming with lots of green and red.

With a rock standing and a stream lying; a cave passed through and a crooked bridge stood; and dotted with a few mosses and colored with a few Chinese wistarias, this northern garden was full of southern aura, which rendered it rather agreeable. Shihu Garden, which was originally used to describe something small, was a self-modest statement of the author. However, I interpreted another wonderful meaning from it. Hu (a note-tablet), an object held in a chancellor’s hand when he met with the emperor, should not be made coarsely. Shihu Garden which was in front of my eyes was solemn along with an exquisite beauty. I could hold it in my hand respectfully, but I could not fiddle with it. Every house and cottage each had their culture and connotation. I would not say that Shihu Garden had more cultural foundation due to the short stays of famous scholars like Kang Youwei. Just through appreciating the plaques of pavilions and buildings, you could understand that several generations of garden owners were not regular people, even not arty people. They were literarily talented. As a wealthy family in the region north of the Yangtze River, the garden owner did not build a clumsy courtyard with deep houses and high walls like some wealthy families in the north, which proved that they had many thoughts. 

Despite the antiquated style of black bricks and grey tiles, the garden was not stagnant at all, without any stale aura. Every window and door was breathing, as if someone would come out with some voices over the wall. Although he was dressed in antiquated clothes, it was not a bit alienating. Although Shihu Garden was the private residence of a wealthy family, it did not express any luxurious feeling, nor any domineering arrogance. The halls were filled with coziness, along with southern mild tone dotted inside and out, which made it more cordial. The garden could be described as remote, but it was still lively and refreshing, as well as the old flavor of home when you went in and out of the garden. Unlike many old gardens, you could find it gives you a sense of otherness without even approaching it. The disconnection was not caused by time. It gave a sense of strangeness when it was initially built. You could not relate to it even if you lived here for a lifetime. With both earthly savor of daily necessities and graceful tone of fancies of literati, Shihu Garden was a rare old garden where people could both comfortably talk about food and clothes for earthly savor and poetries and verses for graceful tone.

The scenery became refreshing with a few flowers dotted in simplicity; the color became lively with a few grasses set in antiquity. Clever designs were all over the small Shihu Garden. It was still in an early solar term, but in this cool Shihu Garden, I could feel a sort of warmth coming from the south. Meanwhile, a litter snow not melted here and there showed the queer character of the north. It occurred to me that there used to be plenty of old gardens in Weifang, but they vanished one after another as time went by. Perhaps there were various reasons for this, but I thought it was more because those gardens were too ordinary, and they were finally damaged and discarded without characteristics. I thought its special architecture and thoughts of framework was the reason why Shihu Garden could independently stand in the noisy city and enjoy our affection up to now.

Wandering around in the winding corridors, standing in the pavilions, and walking in the rooms, I spent more than two hours here unknowingly. I did not read the instructions of plaques here and there nor the historical materials about Shihu Garden. I just wanted to have a look at this real garden. At this time of early spring, without the decoration of flowers and grasses nor the covering of trees, the plain Shihu Garden showed its more authentic beauty. It turned out I came here at the right time.


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