Sunday, 23 May 2010

Suzhou - Day 2

Classic Symptoms of Classic Gardening Out. Shrink Warp Tableware. The Leaning Tower of China

overcast 22 °C

Bus stop, Suzhou, China
Bus stop, Suzhou, China
We hired a tour guide (Mary) and driver (Mr.Wu!) thru the hotel. Cost 2000 Yuans for 2 days for both of us. We want a relaxing tour that tailored to our itineraries.

You can't really consider to have seen classical Chinese gardens until you've seen those in Suzhou.

We often talk about the cultural juxtaposition between the East and West. The classical gardens of China and the West is a good example.

The biggest difference between Chinese gardens and Western gardens are structurally obvious. What's more interesting to note are the fundamental differences in the designs that those 2 styles of gardens capture or reflect their polar opposite philosophical attitudes towards Nature.

The Chinese gardens are all about emulating Nature as closely as possible. They use different shapes of rocks to symbolise mountains and peaks, ponds to signify lakes, water flowing over rocks to represent waterfalls, bonsai for trees (I suspect this was how the idea of bonsai was born. Bonsai are basically plants that resemble tiny trees), etc. There're no straight lines in Chinese gardens as there're no straight lines in Nature. Bridges are arched and zigzag, and garden paths meander. In short, Chinese garden is a microcosm of Nature. Such intimate embrace of Nature is very much followed the principles of Taoism where one is to live in harmony with Nature. And become part of it. It's really the Chinese ancient philosophy of Environmentalism.

Western classical garden designs are polar opposite. It's about conquering Nature, making them yield to the will of Man, and making them resemble as little to Nature as possible. They reflect the plans in the dwellings, with rectangular shapes and spaces. They're designed with rulers and squares, resulting in neat, orderly geometrical patterns. Trees are transformed into hedges so they look like walls. Pools are rectangular. Even the jets of water are hydraulically controlled to form pleasing geometric arches. I suspect the spirit of the Industrial Revolution has a lot to do with it. It's about Human controlling their Destiny, and sculpting Nature in the image of their other creations like office towers, apartments, etc. They don't live in Nature, they live in Civilisation. It's like saying, we're God, Ruler of the Earth, and Nature is our subject, and it should reflect our desires, and plans. We improve on Nature.

Today the West is in Post-Industrial Age while China is industrialising, and so you see that Chinese developers have the same attitudes as the West in the 19th Century towards Nature while the West embraces the same ancient Taoist attitude that embodied in the Chinese gardens. And today, Western garden designs tend to emphasise on the natural similitude to Nature. Ironic, isn't it? At the same time, perfectly understandable[1].

These days in China, everything that are old are considered an impediment to the path of progress would be bulldozed over to make way for the new supertall skyscrapers. The kinda thing that USA aspired to in the 1930s when they erected soaring towers like the Empire State Building. Chinese traditional buildings are low and earth hugging, obeying the Taoist principle. They tend to go horizontally rather than vertically. Pagodas are structures imported from the West - ancient India (piggybacked on Buddhism). And pagodas are religious structures, in India or in China.

Suzhou Classical Garden, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden

In the morning, we covered 3 highly recommended gardens of Suzhou: Master of Nets, Lingering, and Humbled Administration. The last 2 are UNESCO listed. The sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air. In other types of landscapes (e.g. beaches) this would be depressing, but here it added to the quiet, meditative qualities of these gardens (although the packed Chinese crowd subtracts it. Come here in low season should see lower crowd).

Pipa player in Chinese classical costume, China
Pipa player in Ming costume
Window in the shape of a vase in a Suzhou Chinese classical Garden, China
Window in the shape of a vase

Erhu player in classical costume in a Suzhou Chinese classical Garden
Erhu player in Ming costume
While it's crowded during busy season, the secret of Chinese classical garden is that there're so many twists and turns and niches that you could always find yourself a quite corner - a secret garden as it were - that you're totally alone and could claim it yours. Your little piece of heaven

For lunch, Mary took us to a local restaurant. We ordered a veggie and beggar chicken dish. I heard about beggar's chicken many times before (sometimes in wuxia movies) and they're available in HK restaurants only with advanced booking. This dish was ready in 5 mins. It looked like cured chicken, and tasted it too. It actually tasted leg hammy, or pork spammy.

Dish disinfecting machines are popular in China (Etta's dad owns one in his Guangzhou's home). This machine is used after the washing.

After you disinfected your tableware, if you just simply leave them in the open, you defeat the purpose as it gathers dust, at least. What to do? Simply shrink wrap them after disinfection. They look as if they are just coming out of a factory. I've seen This practise in restaurants of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou (flash forward), even in some down-market restaurants. Especially them. Their kitchens may not be clinically clean, but at least their tableware is. What you don't see won't ruin your appetite. Ignorance is bliss.

shrink wrap tableware

Looking at the printed info on the shrink wrap, it looks like they're disinfected by some factory (or approved by some hygiene standard that the government set out ), and not done willy nilly. In a country that has a less than flattering record of food safety, this practise becomes a selling point for restaurants.

Gone were the days of the HK dining table ritual (which still practise in HK and southern China) whereby diners disinfect their tableware's themselves by placing it into a large bowl of piping hot tea. Of course, nobody would stop you if you simply drink the tea, instead of using it as dish washing liquid. We all have different tastes. Each to his/her own.

With 3 gardens in 1 morning, we were gardened out. We went to Tiger Hill (虎丘) for something different ever so lightly after lunch about 3pm. Mary said that if we don't visit Tiger Hill, we can't consider we had visited Suzhou. Well, who am I to argue with a tour guide?

Yunyan Temple Pagoda, Suzhou, China
Yunyan Temple Pagoda, Suzhou, China
Tiger Hill has a variety of sights: river, rowing boats, temples, gardens, sword ponds, deep dales, and the climax of a leaning 47m Yunyan Temple Pagoda (云岩寺塔, aka Huqui Tower), not to be outdone by 56m Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it's more than a century older. But its tilting isn't as noticeable as the Pisa's one. Both co-incidentally have seven stories. But unlike Leaning Tower of Pisa, there's no staircase to go up the Tiger Hill Pagoda. Not that I got to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa as only a batch of 50 people are allowed to go up at a time, and there are a long queue; not to mention the stiff fee. Also, because we joined a packaged tour, the schedule is very tight.

Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China

Boats, Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Boats for hire

There're more estates with classical Chinese gardens in Tiger Hill. You wouldn't think you can get away with seeing more gardens in Suzhou, do you? For people who don't ever get sick of looking at gardens, well Suzhou would their candy stores.

Bridal sedan chair, Suzhou, China
Bridal sedan chair used during traditional wedding ceremony (for hire)

Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China

Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China 

We spent about 2.5 hrs there before the darkness made photography difficult.

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