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China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

Updated: Mar 10

Yuyuan Garden, located in the old town of Shanghai, is an outstanding example of the classical Chinese gardens of the southern Yangzi region. Dating back to the Ming dynasty, it is a masterpiece of landscape architecture, a symbol of Chinese culture and history, and a continual source of inspiration for generations of artists.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

Yuyuan Garden (also known as Yu Garden) is an oasis of tranquility just steps away from the Chenghuangmiao Temple. It stands as a wonderful example of harmony and beauty, faithful to the principles of Chinese philosophy which advocates balance between man and nature. The name "Yuyuan" translates to "Garden of Harmony and Health".

Through its elegant pavilions, shimmering ponds, and winding paths bordered by lush vegetation, Yuyuan Garden offers an enchanted break from urban hustle. This iconic place not only captivates visitors with its beauty but also serves as a window into China's complex history and cultural traditions.

In this article, I delve into the history, evolution, and distinct features of this exceptional garden which, through the centuries, has remained a place of contemplation and joy for all who visit. Yuyuan embodies the ideals of peace, harmony, and beauty that are at the heart of Chinese culture.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

History and Evolution

Foundation and First Phase (1559-1577): The construction of Yuyuan Garden began in 1559 and was completed in 1577. It was the creation of Pan Yunduan, who aimed to create a space of tranquility and beauty for his father, Pan En, a retired governor. Originally, the garden was part of a larger estate that also included residences and lavish buildings. It covers an area of about 2 hectares.

Period of Decline and Restorations (17th-19th Century): After the fall of the Ming dynasty, the garden fell into disrepair and suffered significant damage over the centuries, particularly during rebellions and invasions.

It was not until the 18th century that the garden was restored on several occasions, under the Qing dynasty, but it continued to suffer damage and neglect. Notably, during the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) when the gardens were occupied by imperial troops, the garden was also damaged by the Japanese in 1942.

Reopening to the Public (20th Century): In the early 20th century, Yuyuan Garden was acquired by the Shanghai municipality and opened to the public. During the period of the Republic of China, it underwent further restorations. More recently, in the 21st century, the garden has been restored to its original version in an effort to preserve its historical and architectural heritage.

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Characteristics and Features

Classical Architecture

Yuyuan Garden is a typical example of the architecture of Chinese gardens in the southern Yangzi region, characterized by elegant pavilions, winding bridges, clear ponds, sculpted rocks, and an impressive variety of trees and plants. The spaces are designed to create miniature scenes, offering picturesque views at every turn.

Pavilions and Halls

Among the notable structures in Yuyuan Garden, several pavilions and halls stand out along the walkways. These elements are designed to provide visitors with an immersive experience while creating a space for serenity and reflection. Here are some of the most notable pavilions and halls and their significance:

The Great Rock (大石舫, Dà Shífǎng): This is not a pavilion per se but a remarkable feature of the garden. It is a large porous rock weighing over 5 tons, chosen for its unique shape and texture, symbolizing robustness and perseverance in Chinese culture.

The Jade Oil Pavilion (玉油馆, Yù Yóu Guǎn): This pavilion gets its name from the sheen of its tiles, which resemble oil spread on jade. It symbolizes purity and wealth.

The Hall of Fame (名人堂, Míngrén Táng): This hall was used for meetings and discussions among scholars and intellectuals. It represents the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

The Autumn Dew Pavilion (秋露轩, Qiū Lù Xuān): Located near the water, this pavilion evokes the freshness and beauty of autumn, a season often celebrated in Chinese poetry and painting for its themes of melancholy and change.

The Jade Spring Pavilion (玉泉亭, Yù Quán Tíng): This pavilion is associated with water, a crucial element in the design of Chinese gardens, symbolizing purity, flexibility, and constant renewal.

The Mountain and Forest Hall (山林堂, Shānlín Táng): It reflects the love and respect for nature inherent in Chinese culture, inviting visitors to meditate on the relationship between man and the natural world.

The Cool Breeze Pavilion (清风亭, Qīng Fēng Tíng): Located at a high point in the garden, this pavilion captures pleasant breezes, offering a place for rest and contemplation.

The Yuyuan Rockery (豫园石舫, Yù Yuán Shífǎng): While more focused on rock formations than a specific pavilion, this area highlights the Chinese fascination with strange and beautifully formed stones, symbols of longevity and resilience.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

The Four Seasons Garden

The Four Seasons Garden (四季园, Sìjì Yuán) reflects the essence of traditional Chinese garden design. The concept of a natural garden that mirrors the four seasons is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, symbolizing the cycle of life and harmony with nature.

In this spirit, the Four Seasons Garden is designed to provide visitors with an immersive experience through the seasonal changes, featuring plantings and landscape elements that reflect the specific characteristics of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Spring: This section of the garden is characterized by spring flowers such as plum and cherry blossoms, symbolizing renewal and the beginning of life. Meandering streams and delicate bridges evoke the melting snow and the start of life's flow.

Summer: The summer area is lush, with lotuses blooming in ponds, trees providing generous shade, and open pavilions allowing visitors to rest and enjoy the breeze. Water is a predominant element, reflecting the quest for coolness in the summer heat.

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Autumn: This part showcases the changing colors of leaves, with maples and other deciduous trees taking on hues of red, gold, and bronze. Harvests and seeds also play a role, symbolizing abundance and preparation for the cooler times ahead.

Winter: The winter garden is designed to show beauty in dormancy, with evergreens, rocks covered in moss, and structures resistant to the cold. Water is presented in a more symbolic form, and pavilions become a refuge against the cold.

The Dragon Wall

One of the most iconic elements of the Yuyuan Garden is the Dragon Wall, whose head is represented by a large dragon sculpture. This wall serves both as a barrier and as a major decorative element, illustrating the importance of symbols and patterns in the design of Chinese gardens.

The Dragon Wall not only represents protection and the separation of different garden spaces, creating varied perspectives and visual experiences, but it also symbolizes the cultural and spiritual virtues of China.

Through its fluid forms, the wall embodies the dynamic energy of Qi and the connection between heaven and earth, reminding visitors of the power of nature.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

The Yuyuan Bazaar

The Yuyuan Bazaar, also known as the Yuyuan Market or Old Shanghai Town (豫园商城, Yùyuán Shāngchéng), is a commercial and tourist center located immediately next to the famous Yuyuan Garden, which it now seems to be a part of.

The Bazaar is famous for its traditional architecture, with curved roofs, facades adorned with wood carvings, and colorful lanterns, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of old Shanghai. The buildings are designed in the architectural style of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The market is a favorite spot for shopping. It offers a wide range of products from traditional crafts, such as silk, jade, painted fans, and lanterns, to more modern items. A great variety of teas, medicinal herbs, and spices can also be found there.

Gastronomy also plays a central role at the Yuyuan Bazaar, where visitors can enjoy a wide selection of traditional dishes and local specialties. Among the most famous delicacies are Shanghai soup dumplings (小笼包, xiǎolóngbāo), snacks, and traditional desserts.

In addition to shopping and gastronomy, the Yuyuan Bazaar offers visitors cultural experiences such as traditional theater shows, art exhibitions, and craft demonstrations. The streets are often lively with festivals and cultural events, especially during holidays like New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival.

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Cultural Significance

Yuyuan Garden is more than just a garden; it stands as a cultural and historical icon for both China and the world beyond. Its esteemed reputation arises from a combination of factors, including history, architecture, philosophy, and cultural influence, which together establish the garden as a major point of reference.

Its creation by the Pan family, intended as a retreat and place of enjoyment for the aging parents of the owner, reflects filial piety, a cornerstone of Chinese society. The architecture and landscape design of Yuyuan Garden embody the principles of harmony and balance, hallmarks of classical Chinese gardens.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

The design follows the concepts of Feng Shui and Chinese painting, seeking to represent a perfect harmony between man and nature. This integration of natural and architectural elements makes it a model of traditional Chinese aesthetics, studied and admired internationally.

It also mirrors beliefs and values from Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions. This symbolic richness not only attracts visitors interested in horticulture or architecture but also those seeking spiritual and philosophical depth.

As a tourist destination, Yuyuan Garden plays a vital role in promoting Chinese culture abroad. It acts as an educational platform and cultural exchange, enabling visitors from different cultures to explore the principles of Chinese garden design, the history of Shanghai, and Chinese traditions.

China: Yuyuan, the Garden of Harmony and Health in Shanghai

© O. Robert

The Final Word

Yuyuan Garden, with its enveloping serenity, embodies a deep connection between man and nature. It reveals the nuances of Chinese culture through its meticulously arranged pavilions, ponds, and gardens. This harmony of natural elements arranged by human hands opens a window onto Chinese philosophy, where balance and contemplation hold a central place.

In capturing the essence of places like Yuyuan Garden, photography becomes a bridge between the tangible and the intangible, between the past and the present. Through the lens, the photographer does not only capture the physical beauty of the garden but also the atmosphere of peace and reflection it emanates. The ability of photography to immortalize the moment and to reveal meaning beyond the visual establishes a dialogue between art, nature, and culture.

Yuyuan Garden in its silent splendor, and photography in its quest to capture this silence, come together in a celebration of beauty and philosophy. They encourage us to find our own inner peace garden amidst the tumult of the outside world. They invite us to recognize the power of art to reveal the hidden truths of our surroundings.

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