A Chinese Garden

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Ah, the joys of listening to a piledriver.

And how is that relevant to the serenity and contemplation one might find in a Chinese Garden?  Read on.

As always, click on any photo for an enlarged view.
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It’s good to have a sister city.  While my initial exposure to the benefits of a sister city was years ago in the form of dragon boat racing, a recent excursion was a benefit from a more genteel version of the cultural exchange. The sib city this time was Suzhou, from the Jiangsu province of China, and the benefit was an urban Chinese garden.

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The Lan Su Chinese Garden was built in 1999-2000.  Considered the most authentic Suzhou style garden outside of China, I had a nearly front-row seat for viewing its construction.

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At the time I worked in downtown Portland for a natural gas company.  Established early in the city’s history it had several city blocks worth of property, and in the interests of cultural exchange (and I suspect a nice tax break), it donated one of those blocks for the construction of the garden.

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Working on the fifth floor of the building next door, this gave us just enough elevation for a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings.

And a bird’s-ear experience as well.  Piledrivers, heavy construction equipment, you name it.  Perhaps to my benefit, my cubical wasn’t on the correct side of the building to get the full effect.  But if I was curious to see what was going on, it was a short walk to get a direct view.

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Ok, so it was a direct view of something going on almost a block away, not the up close and personal views we’re sharing today. Still, how many folks can say they’ve witnessed the construction of a classical Chinese garden?

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What defines a classical Chinese garden?  Landscapes mimic the natural scenery of rocks, hills, and rivers,  featuring elegant aesthetics and subtlety.  Strategically located pavilions and pagodas fill out the ambiance, and provide a place for the user to kick back and take in the beauty.

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Even the rocks add to the aesthetics.  Most of the raw materials for the garden were shipped in from China. 500 tons of rock were imported, including oddly shaped natural sculpture from Lake Tai.  The waters of the lake are acidic with a natural circulation, eroding fantastic shapes and open holes into the rock.  These shapes are said to add to the natural flow of qi (pronounced “chee”).  The Chinese Daoists (or Taoists) believe qi is a cosmic life force, imbued into all things, and balancing its flow of positive and negative forces is essential for happiness and good health. Yin and Yang, interlocked, balanced, a top that spins best when both sides are equal.

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It should come as no surprise these gardens and their aesthetic were created by a wealthy, scholar class.  For those who could afford it, gaining what is now considered a rigorous liberal arts education provided an entry into higher paying government positions, and an appreciation for the more subtle beauties in life.

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Two Chinese philosophers wandered along a stream.  One noted the fish swimming along and told the other how happy he found the fish to be.

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The other philosopher replied, “You are not a fish. How can you know if the fish are happy?” The first responded, “You are not me. How can you know if I can tell if a fish is happy?”

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I’m no philosopher, or at least not enough of a one to take joy in splitting hairs that fine, but those fish look happy to me. Even the ducks seem to know the way of the Dao.

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But there’s one in the pool who takes his name from another tradition. The volunteers call him “Apollo”.  Burnished gold, named after the Greek god of the sun, he swims along merrily, and all in the pool note his passing much as we note that bright orb, passing through the sky.

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Here a different sort of orb provides brightness, passing across the sky. Perhaps that is the lesson of the garden.  Beauty is out there, in many forms. But sometimes we need to slow down, to look a bit closer, to see its variations.

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It’s true, the world is not a manicured garden. Sometimes we need to look a little harder.  Sometimes the beauty isn’t physical, it’s simply a feeling or an act of kindness. Sometimes we may despair, seeing the poor behavior that seems rampant and gets all the press. But if we look for balance, seeing all those little things that could be considered beautiful and weigh them against the bad, perhaps they’ll gain more impact.  The search for beauty and balance could help a transition from piledrivers to peace, or at least give incentive to produce more good and tamp down the bad.

Or in a pinch, we could just find a garden.

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40 thoughts on “A Chinese Garden

  1. Beautiful, looks like an absolutely magical garden.
    Excellent essay, excellent photos.
    When confronted with bad behavior, sometimes there’s an impulse to further upset the balance. Maybe the bad things will lose their balance, depending on if there’s witnesses, and end up under that piledriver. But seriously, you’re absolutely right, it’s so much better to focus on and encourage the positive and the beautiful things. Wow, Portland is so lucky to have both Japanese and Chinese gardens!!

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      1. Quality is more important than quantity. Your stuff is always top notch!

        In my case, appearances can be deceiving.
        It sometimes takes me a day or two of false starts to get something posted. Like this week … I haven’t posted hardly anything at all. The creative juices just aren’t flowing. But that is the way of the writing life.

        Keep ’em coming!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Much appreciated, Biff. This was my first post in nearly a month. I seem to be slowing down more all the time. Some of it’s being busy with other stuff, some motivation, some not really knowing what to feature next. Maybe I’ll delve into really old trips, maybe I’ll get more eclectic, or maybe I’m just doing an unofficial recharge. Writing has never been a compulsion for me, it’s more just an occasional challenge to myself to keep those gray cells firing. Time will tell.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It’d be awesome to hear about some of your old trips. Sometimes our impressions of those trips gel and take on new meaning after we have had some time to reflect on them.

        And I know what you mean about not being able to write sometimes. I’ve always found it ironic that, during the most “interesting” times of my life, I seldome have time to write about it. And in the most boring parts of my life, I have the time to write, but nothing to write about. One of the great ironies of the writing life.

        Keep on writing! I enjoy reading your stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful, serene place. I was stunned that they brought the materials from so far and fascinated by the use of acidic water to perpetuate the rock erosion. There are always skeptics who decry spending on beautification projects in big cities, but I always hope the presence of these oases has a calming effect on people rushing about their usual mad lives!

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    1. It does seem a bit odd to have such a garden in what might be considered downtown Portland. In some sections traffic noise can be pronounced. But after spending a bit of time it just seems to melt away. It’s not a public park, but a nice refuge just the same.

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    1. I have not read it, and am largely ignorant of the tenets of Taoism. What I’ve read of it reminds me a bit of what is sometimes called the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid). Surprisingly, Wikipedia tells me The Tao of Pooh was written by a guy who was working at the time in Portlands Japanese garden. Maybe I should look into it.

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  3. Nicely done! There are some great photos here – the three Mallards and carp is fantastic. I also really like the opening shot, the Wisteria, and the curved rooftops among the foliage. It’s nice to revisit this beautiful garden – we saw it a few years ago when i was in Portland for a conference. That day the Portland Rosarians were there to greet Al Roker, who was doing a US tour. He was delayed with a flat tire but we waited…and waited. It was fun to finally see him and the Rosarians though. And there was a barred owl in a tree near a bridge, too, right in the midst of all the foot traffic, crazy. Altogether a very good experience, and a great asset for Portland.

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    1. Guess you could say I had my ducks in a row on that one. 🙂 Although the garden is small, especially compared to the Japanese garden, it’s amazing how much they’ve included in it.

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    1. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to perceive the world from an animal’s perspective. Consider that they can make long migrations to the same spot without Google Maps, that they seem sensitive to pending earthquakes, etc. Maybe they are qi-ting.

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  4. I find it fascinating how culture travels from one part of the globe to another, enclosed in a ‘preservation capsule’. 🙂 Chinese gardens are truly beautiful and peaceful. Sadly, I couldn’t view your pictures. I seem to be having a problem with the internet or the site. But your words paint a beautiful picture.

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      1. I re-visited your post today and the pictures loaded! 🙂 I loved the delicate flowers and Koi swimming in the pond. They have recreated it without making it look kitschy! These gardens reminded me of the Summer Palace in Beijing.
        I’ve been reading about cultural appropriation. Culture is hard to understand and define. And we’re living in very confusing times, I suppose. 🙂

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  5. I love that Portland has a Chinese Garden! And you’re right, there is still so much beauty and good in the world…we just have to look for it , and take the time to appreciate it when we find it. The bad stuff always gets center stage, but that doesn’t mean we have to put it front and center in our own lives, does it?

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  6. We’ll be sure to visit when we visit Portland (one day). It was really cool seeing a Chinese garden for the first time when we went to Vancouver, Canada. We only saw Japanese ones. We laugh because anytime we see something Chinese related like and arch or garden, it’s always being renovated. The arch and garden in Montreal, arch in Vancouver, arch in Victoria. We found out we have a Chinese garden in Staten Island! We have to check it out. Would have love to seen one being built like you.

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    1. I don’t think it’s as well known as the Japanese garden, I suspect a lot of visitors miss it because they didn’t know about it up front, or stumble upon it but don’t have time. In any case, it’s something to keep in mind for your next trip up here.

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  7. How wonderful it must’ve been for you to watch the construction of this serene garden, Dave. You note there wasn’t a lot of serenity at the time with the piledrivers, but I hope by now the garden brings much peace in this urban setting. Beautiful photos to accompany the lovely narrative.

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    1. I suspect the construction crew wasn’t thinking it was so wonderful when they were having trouble preventing the “lake” from leaking. I think it took them a couple tries before they found and sealed all the leaks. Glad they did, it adds tremendously to the ambiance.

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  8. What a peaceful place. It’s interesting … I would have never thought about a garden like this being created. I’m so glad you shared your gorgeous photography and story, because it’s a reminder of the good things humans are capable of consciously creating.

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    1. True, humans can create beauty, given time, motivation and resources. The bigger question is for much of society, what constitutes beauty? Something media driven, dictated by someone else saying what is stylish? Can we look beyond that?

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  9. I’m sorry it took me so long to read this, but then again, maybe I read it at the perfect time, when I would be most receptive to it. Not only were the pictures beautiful and relaxing, so were your words. And I agree with you, those fish definitely look happy. Why wouldn’t they be?

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