The Lion’s Grove Garden and the Canal Boat Tour

The Lion’s Grove Garden

Inside the city, there is the famous Shihtsulin (“Lion’s Forest”), supposed to be in the style of the famous painter Ni Yunlin, which, despite its many old trees and elegant rocks, resembles on the whole more a refuse heap of coal ashes bedecked with moss and ant-holes, without any suggestion of the natural rhythm of sweeping hills and towering forests. For an uncultivated person like myself, I just fail to see where its beauty lies.

—Shen Fu (沈復, 1763-1825), Six Chapters of a Floating Life (浮生六记, Fu Sheng Liu Ji), 1809. Translated by Lin Yutang, 1935.

The Lion’s Grove (狮子林, shi1 zi3 lin2) was always my children’s favourite Suzhou garden when they were young, precisely because of the sprawling labyrinth of Taihu rock that Shen Fu found so unappealing. For a ten-year-old, nothing could be better than to run, climb, and lose oneself in that maze of tunnels, stairways, and caves. I.M. Pei, the designer of the Suzhou Museum and the glass pyramid at the Louvre, among many other great buildings, must have done just that when he played here as a boy in what was then his uncle’s backyard. So if you have young children, or if your inner child is still active (and you are not too tall, or too wide) you will find the Lion’s Grove rock labyrinth reason enough for a visit.

Mid-pond pavilion with Taihu rock in the background, at Lion's Grove (Shi Zi Lin).

Mid-pond pavilion with Taihu rock in the background, at Lion’s Grove (Shi Zi Lin).

Pei, whose name (贝聿铭) is Pei Ieoh Ming in Cantonese but Bei Yu Ming in Mandarin, provides another reason to visit the Lion’s Grove. Comparing the Lion’s Grove or the Master of the Nets with Pei’s Suzhou Museum, we can understand much better how he carries out his lifetime project of modernizing traditional Chinese architecture in the museum, which is in essence a stylized classical Suzhou garden.

Most important, however, is the garden itself. Shen Fu thought it ugly. I like his opinion because he dares to disagree with the crowd. I understand his point of view, but the defects he points out do not bother me; perhaps I am too uncultivated. The garden was extensively rebuilt in the early 1900s, a century after Shen Fu’s verdict, so possibly he would have a different opinion today. His main object of criticism, the rocks, are unlikely to have changed much, but whereas I can see why he would describe them as “a refuse heap of coal ashes”, they rather make me think of the contorted landscapes in Van Gogh’s paintings. For a more Chinese view of the rocks, we turn once again to the indispensable Lin Yutang:

For beauty resides in the huts, in the grasshoppers, in the cicada’s wings, and, strangest of all, in the rocks, too. The Chinese alone in the world would paint a jagged piece of rock and hang it on the wall for daily contemplation and enjoyment. These rocks . . . are not the carved stones of Venice or of Florence, but the rugged and untamed works of nature . . . . I think the enjoyment of the rhythm of a common rock is the last refinement of the Chinese mind.

—Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, p. 98.

While the kids are playing in the labyrinth, then, you can find a comfortable seat and attempt to contemplate the rhythm of a common rock.

Whether you like or dislike the rocks, there are scenes of surpassing beauty in the Lion’s Grove. Some of the latticed windows are quite unusual. Some of the views framed by round doors are stunning. I find the small pavilion in the middle of the pond, with the zig-zag bridge on either side, very charming. The red-stained woodwork provides wonderful colour contrasts with the greys of the rocks and the greens of the foliage, and from certain vantage points and at certain times of day the reflections in the water are as beautiful as you will find anywhere. Take care to look up, where you will find amazing polychrome woodwork in the ceilings; and down, where you will find more than the usual number of stone mosaics in the pathways and courtyards. For a bird’s-eye view, sit upstairs in the teahouse and look out over the garden as you sip your tea.

A warning: the Lion’s Grove is a major attraction on the bus tours. It is almost always crowded, but especially on weekends and in the summer. I suggest that you visit on a weekday and either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Not only will you avoid the crowds and the microphone-armed tour guides, but you will also see the garden at its loveliest, when the light is at an angle.

Suzhou Folk Customs Museum (the Bei family home)
Either just before your visit to the garden (if you visit Lion’s Grove in the afternoon) or after (if you visit in the morning), take a few minutes to step into the Suzhou Folk Customs Museum, which was actually the home of I.M. Pei’s uncle. The exhibits may interest you, but I go there for the house itself. Although the upstairs rooms are closed to the public, walking through the rooms on the ground floor will begin to give you an idea of how wealthy families lived in the early 1900s. At the west and the south, the house abuts the garden, so you can look through the latticed windows in the western wall and through the glass doors at the south end and see Lion’s Grove itself. The entrance to the museum is on the west side of Yuan Lin Lu. It’s the only doorway in an otherwise blank whitewashed wall, just north of Bashang Lane, which leads off to the east.

The Canal Boat Tour
After a morning visit to Lion’s Grove, or before an afternoon visit, a 40-minute canal boat tour will give you a chance to rest your feet and see a bit of Old Suzhou from the water. The dock is just opposite the entrance to the Humble Administrator’s Garden Museum, on the pedestrianized part of Dong Bei Jie. The boatman (who is usually a woman) will use the boat’s single oar to navigate the canal first to the east and then to the south, along Ping Jiang Lu, and back again. The boats are charming, as are the views. Often you will meet some interesting people as fellow-passengers. Besides all that, you can ask the boatman (or boat lady) to sing, and then you will be treated to some old folk songs in “Suzhouhua”, the local dialect. I have enjoyed myself every time I have taken the tour, but my favourite experience came in the summer of 2013 when my friends and I were caught mid-tour by a terrific thunderstorm. The rain was so heavy that the boat lady pulled us to a stop under one of the small stone bridges where we waited for several minutes. The combination of the rain, the scenery, the summer scents, and the boat lady’s singing was unforgettable. Do remember to tip your boatman or boat lady for the singing.

How to Get There
The Lion’s Grove Garden and the Canal Boat Tour
狮子林, Shi1 Zi3 Lin2

If you want to visit Lion’s Grove first and don’t want to take a taxi, take Line 1 on the subway to Lindun Lu, and then take a bus (or three-wheeled bike, if you are feeling touristy) north on Lindun Lu. Buses 2, 178, and 518 all work. Tell the bus driver where you want to go and he (or a helpful fellow passenger) will tell you where to get off. From there walk east on either Bai Ta Dong Lu or (more directly) Shilinsi Alley. The entrance to the garden is on Shilinsi Alley, at the corner with Yuanlin Lu. To reach the canal boat dock from Lion’s Grove, walk north on Yuanlin Lu. The boat dock will be on your right when you reach the end of Yuanlin Lu where it intersects with Dong Bei Jie, the walking street.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *