Huntington Library’s traditional Chinese garden takes root in California

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BRIDGING EAST AND WEST: The Jade Ribbon Bridge forms the focal point of the Huntington Library’s Chinese garden in San Marino, Calif.
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IMPRESSIVE SIGHTS: Chinese emperors used highly sculptured­ rocks for their gardens because of their unusual forms. This site – the Pavilion of the Three Friends – refers to the traditional “three friends of winter” in Chinese culture: bamboo, pine and plum blossoms.
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HAND-CRAFTED ELEGANCE: Chinese artisans created the garden’s eight winged-roof pavilions, including the Terrace of the Jade Mirror.

Suzhou, one of China’s oldest and most prosperous cities, is home to magnificent gardens that were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997. The gardens’ meticulous design reflects the sense of peace found in the Chinese relationship with nature.

Now, a bit of those gardens’ poetic grace can be experienced without leaving American soil. At the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., a Suzhou-style classical garden achieves the harmonious balance between humanity and nature that is found in the Chinese gardens.

Achieving the authentic look of a Suzhou-style garden in California has been no small undertaking. The garden has been some 10 years in the making, with a budget of more than $18 million. After first opening in a preview phase in 2006, the garden has an official opening Feb. 23, to coincide with the Huntington’s Chinese New Year Festival. After that, the garden will continue to develop for some years.

Authentic craftsmanship

To create the garden, the Huntington Library contacted the Suzhou Garden Development Co. in China. The company supplied 50 craftsmen and 11 stone artisans, who built five hand-carved stone bridges, paths and eight winged-roof pavilions.

Now, walking through the garden’s main entrance is like stepping back into 16th-century China. The beauty of the garden is reflected in its name, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance – Liu Fang Yuan, in Chinese – a reference to the scent of the many flowers and trees.

Names have an important place in Chinese art and literature. Selecting names for everything in the garden took more than a year for a panel of three experts on Chinese culture. Stonemasons who specialize in calligraphy etched all the names for the bridges, courtyard, lake, pond and pavilions.

Among the gardens’ many attractions is the Pond of Reflected Greenery. In the summer, it is alive with lotus and water lilies. Nearby, one can admire limestone rocks – 800 tons of it – exported from the Lake Tai region just west of Suzhou. These highly sculptured “scholar rocks” – admired for their texture, holes and wrinkles – date back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-906), the golden age of Chinese civilization. Emperors sought the unusual natural forms for their imperial gardens. Many of the rocks were presented as tributes to emperors.

A sculptural, craggy-looking, 8-foot rock that represents immortality and wisdom stands next to the Pavilion of the Three Friends. The pavilion’s name refers to the “three friends of winter” in Chinese culture: bamboo, pine and plum blossoms.

Paintings come to life

The Jade Ribbon Bridge dominates one of the garden’s vistas. Gardens in China were designed like paintings, and the view from the bridge – with golden and black bamboo, flowering pear, plum and cherry trees, and magnolias and azaleas positioned for carefully planned views – certainly brings to mind a painting.

Another excellent vantage of the bridge can be had from the Terrace of the Jade Mirror, which lies on the bank of the Pond of Reflected Greenery. Looking from here – across the pond to the Jade Ribbon Bridge and the Pavilion of the Three Friends – it would be easy to imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago, amid the beauty of Suzhou’s Classical Gardens.

Other notable stops in the garden include the teahouse – the Hall of the Jade Camellia – which pays tribute to the Camellia sinensis bush, from which all true teas are made.

If you decide to visit the garden, you may also want to explore the other specialized gardens that form the 120 acres of the Huntington’s Botanical Gardens. There are more than a dozen in all, and they range from a Shakespeare Garden to an Australian Garden.