Classic garden with a touch of eccentricity
Most of Shanghai’s classic gardens were originally built as part of private residential estates, but one exception is Qushui Garden in Qingpu District. It was created as a rest area for visitors to the Qingpu City God Temple.
For 260 years, the garden served as a tranquil gathering spot for visitors and area residents. Today, hidden in the back alley of a shopping mall in the downtown area of Qingpu, the garden is easy to miss.
Qushui literally means “meandering water,” and though the water of the lotus pond on the grounds doesn’t meander much, there is the pleasant sound of ripples in a nearby creek.
People still gather here to play chess, sing, gossip, dance and practice shadow boxing.
Like a typical Suzhou-style classic garden, Qushui is not large. Yet its two hectares contain all the requisite hallmarks: water, hills, halls, pavilions, stones, bridges, plants and calligraphy works.
Ninghe Hall, built in 1767, plays the central role in the southern area of the garden. Its name translates somewhat aptly as “stability and harmony.”
The hall’s eastern courtyard features 11 osmanthus trees, all over 100 years old. In mid-autumn, their sweet, refreshing fragrance intoxicates the air. In summer, raindrops falling on the large leaves perform the percussion music of nature.
Youjue Hall and Huashen Hall stand on either side of the hall.
Together the three buildings sit in perfect symmetry — a somewhat rare feature in a Suzhou-style garden, where natural design is supposed to trump contrived invention.
At the back of the Ninghe Hall, there is a lotus pond with three grotesquely shaped stones on the southwestern bank. Each is naturally shaped like a Chinese character. The trio spell out “good luck, wealth and longevity” — three of the most common wishes in China.
Money to construct the garden originally came from local people, each person paying a levy of one penny a year. As a result, the garden came to be known as One-Penny Garden. It was perhaps this grassroots influence that endowed the garden with slight deviations from the traditional aesthetic taste of Chinese literati, who preferred simplicity and natural beauty.
But deviations element didn’t damage the essential essence of the garden.
On a moat in the southeastern area of the garden is Shuiyue Pavilion. Known in English as the Water and Moon Pavilion, it was relocated to Qushui Garden 40 years ago from the Shuiyue Temple in the water town of Zhujiajiao. The pavilion and temple were built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as part of a flood-control system.
The six-corner pavilion is highlighted by a beautifully carved roof. Each corner is adorned with the statue of a red-crowned crane, and the six ridges of the roof feature carvings of auspicious Chinese elements — a dragon, phoenix, Mandarin duck, bat, plum, pomegranate, evergreen and peony. On the top of the pavilion, one gourd signifying peace and safety sits on six elephant noses that symbolize luck and happiness.
The pavilion is a perfect place to sit and rest, with the sound of rippling water blotting out any hint of the city hustle and bustle not far away.
In the west of the garden, there is a flowerbed planted with begonias of various species. Looking west, you see a small hill covered with lush green bamboo. The flowerbed and the hill are divided by a meandering creek but linked by a stone bridge.
On the eastern bank of the lotus pond is Jingxin Cottage, built in the Qing Dynasty. In English, it’s called Mirror Cottage. Its mirrored wall reflects the early morning and late evening sun onto the water’s surface, creating a stunning visual effect.
On the southern wall is a painting of the Immortal Liu Hai, a ragged man carrying a string of coins. Liu stands on clouds, accompanied by a golden toad. Legend has it that when Liu played with the toad, the animal would cough up coins, which were then distributed to the poor. Small wonder that Liu was widely worshiped by local people.
The eastern courtyard is filled with pine trees, boxwood, wisteria, cedar and camphor. They sit among an array of lake stones.
For a bird’s-eye view of the whole garden, climb to the top of Xiaofeilai (Flying Off) Hill in the center of Qushui. The 35-meter-high hill is built of yellow-stone rockery and extends almost 70 meters from east to west.
There are nine winding paths up the thickly forested hill, and the scenery changes with every twist and turn. You can choose to start the ascent from a cave at the eastern foot. When you finally emerge from the dimly lit cavern, you suddenly discover you are almost at the top.
The trees on the hillside are all more than 100 years old, surviving lightning strikes and moth infestation.
Halfway to the top of the hill is the three-cornered Fogu Kiosk, which is untypical because kiosks traditionally have an even number of corners. The three corners, according to ancient archives, teach a lesson. Though most deeds have two sides — right and wrong — a wrongdoer still deserves compassion to find a way out.
At the top of the hill, Jiufengyilan Kiosk, whose name translates as “bird’s-eye view of nine peaks,” was said to be the highest point of Old Qingpu. Today it is the best spot to enjoy Qushui Garden — a quiet panorama of greenery, flowers, pavilions and sun-lit waters.
No classic garden is considered complete without distinguished calligraphy and brush paintings. Qushui Garden has 84 ancient stone inscriptions and more than 20 calligraphy couplets, ranging from ancient to modern times. Every month or two, the garden hosts painting exhibitions in its southern corridors.
Another highlight of the garden is Shiguwen Yard. It contains inscriptions carved on drum-shaped stone blocks dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). They are considered the earliest Chinese characters ever found. Ten Shiguwen stones displayed in the yard are copies of the originals now housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
If you go
Opening hours: May 1-September 30, 6am-5pm; October 1-April 30, 6am-4:30pm
Address: 612 Gongyuan Rd, Qingpu District
Admission: 5 yuan
How to get there: If you drive, take G50 Highway to Waiqingsong Road and then to Gongyuan Road. For public transportation, take Metro Line 2 to Xujingdong Station, then transfer to bus Qingxu Line, and get off at Qing'an Road by Yiyuan Road.