Looking through the Garden Gate into Old Shanghai.

Looking through the Garden Gate into Old Shanghai.

Space has always been at a premium in China.  Its population first reached 100 million around the time of the Crusades, when London’s population numbered less than 50,000.

Today China has 3 cities larger than twenty million people, 14 of five million or more, and 40 of over one million.

 

Walking through the entrance gate of Yu Garden.

Walking through the entrance gate of Yu Garden.

 

 

It’s no wonder, then, that urban parks are today an important fixture of the Chinese urban landscape, or that the classic Chinese garden courtyard has provided a respite from city congestion for centuries.

An example of a carefully composed tableau.

An example of a carefully composed tableau.

Shanghai’s Yu Garden, adjacent to Old Shanghai, is such an oasis.

Driving there – or anywhere else in Shanghai – is not recommended for visitors, for this city has some of the world’s most unforgiving traffic.

Tree branches float like clouds.

Tree branches float like clouds.

 

Cars have right-of-way over pedestrians and motor scooters are universally oblivious to both traffic signals and crosswalks.

Even so, Shanghai’s population of nearly 25 million owns only about 8 million cars, because the biggest Chinese cities fight air pollution by limiting the number of registrations issued.

A "Moon Gate" passage between landscape tableaus, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

A “Moon Gate” passage between landscape tableaus, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

The few hundred thousand available each year are awarded through an on-line lottery.

Old cars are rare, since they have become affordable only as a result of the recent prosperity.  Luxury cars, however, are abundant, since one-time registration fees can approach the cost of the vehicle.

 

A tree stands like a sculpture awaiting the arrival of summer.

A tree stands like a sculpture awaiting the arrival of summer.

Fortunately for the visitor, the Yu Gardens and Old Shanghai are a regular stop on Big Bus Tours, which operates double-decker busses along three routes that pass most of the city’s most popular sites.

One fare buys unlimited on-and-off privileges and free connecting service for 24 hours, and headset tour narration offers channels in many languages.

 

The Imperial lion is a symbol that recurs in Chinese architecture.

The Imperial lion is a symbol that recurs in Chinese architecture.

Most Chinese landscape gardens stand in striking contrast to the geometrically manicured sprawls of Europe’s palaces and chateaux.

The Yu Garden is a shining example of intimate spaces created by scholars, poets, and retired bourgeoisie for reflection and escape from the outside world.

 

Water-carved rock is part of a composed formation.

Water-carved rock is part of a composed formation.

 

 

These gardens create an idealized miniature landscape meant to express harmony between man and nature.

 

 

Cottage-sized buildings dot the grounds, but are integrated into the overall design.

Cottage-sized buildings dot the grounds, but are integrated into the overall design.

 

 

 

 

They are usually enclosed by walls and include ponds, rock works, trees and flowers, and pavilions connected by winding paths and zig-zag galleries.

 

Moving from structure to structure reveals a series of carefully composed scenes that unroll like a scroll of landscape paintings.

 

 

 

 

Carved rooftop dragon head, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

Carved rooftop dragon head, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

 

 

The Yu Garden dates from the mid-1500’s, and its construction took nearly twenty years.

 

At the time it was Shanghai’s largest and most prestigious, but its expense ruined its builders, and it passed through a succession of owners until it was renovated and first opened to the public in the 1700’s.

 

Detail from cottage rooftop, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

Detail from cottage rooftop, Yu Garden, Shanghai.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a miracle of sorts that the Yu Gardens has survived.

During the First Opium War, the British army used it as a base of operations, and the Taiping Rebellion was later headquartered here.

 

 

 

 

 

Decorative .window grate, Yu Garden, Shanghai

Decorative .window grate, Yu Garden, Shanghai

 

By the time Imperial troops aided by the British and French retook the garden, the original structures had been nearly destroyed. They were damaged again by the Japanese in 1942.

 

Traditional "Moon Gate" doorway.

Traditional “Moon Gate” doorway.

 

Repaired by the Shanghai government in the late 1950’s, Yu garden was re-opened to the public in the 1960’s and has since been declared a national monument.

 

Modern high-rises may tower beyond its walls, but beneath the canopy of its trees they are out of sight, and the cacophony of streets outside is muted.

 

Poet's study, Yu Garden cottage, Shanghai.

Poet’s study, Yu Garden cottage, Shanghai.

 

The compact size belies the maze of walkways which meander among trees, flowers, and composed rock formation, and bridges that span brooks and ponds.

 

Each new point of view reveals a delicately composed scene otherwise unseen, and even reflections on the pond appear as intentional tableaus.

 

 

 

 

Springtime blossoms add brilliant color.

Springtime blossoms add brilliant color.

Fantastic carved figures cap the tiled rooftops of pavilions with eaves upturned at the corners.

When it’s finally time to pass through its gates back into the outside world, the feeling is not unlike waking from a peaceful dream.

 

See these earlier posts from my China trip, and come back for more of “21 Days In China”:

Reflections in a pond are part of the composition.

Reflections in a pond are part of the composition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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