If you visit only one garden, visit this one. If you plan to visit many, make this your first. Master of the Nets is modest, small, unpretentious. It speaks softly, as the people of Suzhou are famous for doing. But if you want to learn about Suzhou’s classical gardens, you will find all the essential elements here.
It isn’t a garden at all, in the Western sense of the word. It’s a home, built around a central pond. The pavilions surrounding the pond are connected by paths and corridors. Farther on are other courtyards, formal rooms for entertaining guests, and the family’s living quarters, with the women’s rooms upstairs. A classical garden uses nature and architecture to create a life-sized, three-dimensional work of art. The Taihu rocks—limestone eroded by centuries of submersion in Lake Tai—may seem to be animals, or mountains, or humans. Whatever their shape, they inspire imagination. In the formal rooms, look for the slices of marble framed so that the jagged lines of color in the stone appear to be landscape paintings. Look for the calligraphy, too—it’s everywhere. If you are like me, you will not be able to read a word, but just realizing that you are surrounded by beautiful language will make you pause.
Every doorway, every latticed window (each of them different), every view down a bending corridor or around a corner, frames a picture as carefully designed as any work of art. Go slowly. Notice how the views shift, almost at every step. Turn around to look at the view behind you. Look down and find mosaics in the stones under your feet. Imagine the garden in winter, spring, summer, and fall. Imagine it in darkness, or under the steady drip of rain, or in the absolute stillness of mid-day in summer.
I can see the owner, retired after a difficult career of public service, spending his days sitting in a pavilion overlooking the pond, gazing out at the Taihu rocks and—walled off from the surrounding city—basking in the peace of a vast imagined wilderness as he sips his tea, smokes his pipe, and writes poetry in the beautiful characters he mastered so long ago. The noise of the city, so close, does not penetrate the walls of his refuge. If he squints just a little, he can imagine himself surrounded by trees and mountains. Too soon, these reveries are broken: perhaps a servant brings a message, or guests are announced; perhaps one of his wives speaks to him, or a grandchild calls him away. He will continue tomorrow.
These people were all here, once. Can you feel their presence?
Suzhou’s gardens and many of its other treasures—not all—survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to the easygoing resourcefulness of the Suzhou people. You can see a striking example near the entrance to the Master of the Nets. Upon entering, as always, the way is blocked; there is no direct path into the compound. You must wend your way through it. Go as directly as you can into the first small courtyard, then turn around and look up to see a wonderful stone bas-relief sculpture over the doorway you have just passed through. I am told the Suzhounese protected such treasures by covering them with plaster and writing on it, “Long Live Chairman Mao”. Though the Red Guards knew what was underneath, they dared not destroy those words.
Spend time around the pond, of course, but explore the more remote corners, too; there are wonderful surprises everywhere. South of the pond you will find a small art gallery featuring woodcuts and engravings of traditional Suzhou scenes, along with a variety of more modern works. The owner, Mr. You, may tell you about both the art and the garden. You will begin to feel yourself to be inside a work of art. Which you are.
How To Get There
The Master of the Nets Garden
网师园 Wang3 Shi1 Yuan2
Enter on the south side of Shi Quan Jie 十全街, a few metres east of the intersection with Feng Huang Jie 凤凰街. Exit onto Daichengqiao Lu 带城桥路, and then turn right (north) to return to the corner of Shi Quan Jie and Feng Huang Jie. The Lindun Lu subway station (Line 1) is about a kilometer north, up Feng Huang Jie. Bus 47 goes west along Shi Quan Jie to the Suzhou New District, or east along Feng Huang Jie to Suzhou Industrial Park.