In the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, gardening is serious business.
Here, gardens are not mere spaces for relaxation and contemplation—by the definition of Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese architect Wang Shu, they are “thinking machines” and “living philosophy installations.”
Unlike Chinese imperial gardens, which have been around since the Qin dynasty (beginning 221 BC), private gardens emerged during the third century. Disenchanted with corruption and political strife during that era, Chinese officials sought solace by designing their own green sanctuaries. Establishing the tradition of the Suzhou garden, these rejuvenating spaces embraced Taoist and Buddhist tenets such as maintaining harmony with nature through the practice of meditation, and avoiding artificiality.
Collectively known as the Classical Gardens, these oases of calm are major attractions of Suzhou, where a few are bestowed with the UNESCO World Heritage status. Lesser-known gardens in Suzhou city are just as worthy of a visit—read on to find out where they are.
1. Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园 Zhuozheng Yuan)
Fans of the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) should take note: author Cao Xueqin is thought to have drawn inspiration from the Humble Administrator’s Garden for his masterpiece.
Wryly known as the “Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician,” Suzhou’s best-known garden has been in existence since 1509, during the Ming Dynasty era. Its first incarnation is credited to imperial official Wang Xianchen, who, after being forced into early retirement, found therapeutic release in constructing a garden.
To soak in the significance of the 52,000-square metre garden, visit in the morning to avoid crowds. You can then revel in its poetic details—the view seen through the Moon Gates (circular entrances) and the evocative names of the pavilions, which include “Listening to the Sound of the Rain” and “Faraway Looking.”
Two of China’s “Top 4 Classical Gardens” are located in Suzhou; the first is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, and the second is the Lingering Garden. Both gardens share similar origin stories, that of a disillusioned government official restoring his faith in humanity through the healing art of gardening.
Between the two, the Lingering Garden was constructed on a more modest scale, at 23,300 square metres. It is best known for its thoughtful use of architectural elements such as windows, doorways, and arches, to “frame” a view. These present visitors with an array of perspectives as they wander through the garden.
For the best view, head west. Once there, bask in the warm glow of the maple trees and make your way up the hill for a panoramic view of Suzhou’s western suburbs.
3. Half Garden (平江府 半园 Pingjiangfu Ban Yuan)
Is your glass half full or half empty? Take a walk on the positive side at one of Suzhou’s two Half Gardens, built around the premise that contentment is the key to happiness.
The North Half Garden is located on East Baita Road. Here, you will encounter a “half bridge,” a “half pavilion,” and even a two and a half-storey library. The South Half Garden is on Renmin Road, and as you enter the garden, you will be greeted by a Chinese couplet cautioning against the pursuit of perfection.
4. Couple’s Retreat Garden (耦园 Ou Yuan)
If you need evidence that Suzhou is truly the “Venice of the East,” visit the Couple’s Retreat Garden, which is flanked by canals on three sides. The garden’s Chinese name is a reference to the roots of a lotus, which are intertwined and virtually impossible to separate—the embodiment of a perfect romance.
Slip into a bygone era as you explore the compound, which consists of three parts—a residential complex and surrounding houses, and two gardens to the east and west.
To be further drawn in by the garden’s tranquil beauty, book a traditional boat ride along the moat to complete your tour. While you may not be serenaded by a singing gondolier, you will still be charmed by the quiet allure of your surroundings.
5. Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty (环秀山庄 Huan Xiu Shan Zhuang)
At a little over 2,000 square metres, the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty is diminutive by Suzhou standards, but it is said that a visitor can stand at any spot in the garden and be able to view pavilions of varying heights, which gives the illusion of space.
In the words of China’s City Weekend, this manmade shrine to the beauty of nature will be a “gift to your eyes.”
Welcome to Suzhou! For a list of fun things to do in Suzhou, read our Suzhou travel guide, featuring seven landmarks you need to see. For more travel and accommodation advice, speak to our team at Pan Pacific Suzhou.