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Classic Chinese garden in Hong Kong hides architectural treasure

AT THE FOOT of Diamond Hill in Hong Kong, an elegant public park called Nan Lian Garden (南蓮園池) is a rare tranquil place nestling in the busy metropolis.

Neat paths paved by smooth cobblestones connect a variety of elements of wooden architecture in classic “oriental garden” style. At the centre is an orange-red bridge, connected to the yellow “Pavilion of Absolute Perfection” (圓滿閣), and surrounded by lush Buddhist pines, beautiful water features and standing stones.

Chinese architecture is built without nails. Photo from Rajiv Bajaj on Unsplash.

The panorama often reminds visitors of the imperial architecture in the Heian period (平安時代) 794 to 1185, the last division of classical Japanese history.

However, the temples, pagodas and decorations are not from Japan. They are actually inspired by the architecture of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (唐朝), 618 to 907, which greatly influenced Japanese culture 1,200 years ago. The newly opened exhibitions in the garden provide plenty of evidence for that.

Traditional Chinese structural elements

One of the extraordinary elements of traditional Chinese architecture is the process in which pillars and roofs are constructed with no nails or other metal devices. Wise Chinese architects used a system known as “mortise and tenon” (榫卯) instead. The architectural complex in Nan Lian Garden is a good example.

Look through the lush Buddhist pines and you’ll see Kowloon City. Image: Emily Zhou

The small exhibition items in Nan Lian Garden lead the visitor back 7,000 years, which is believed to be when Chinese first developed the ability to join timber frame elements by the mortise and tenon method. It took thousands of years for the system to be perfected. The joints are firm yet flexible, and structures can be easily disassembled for maintenance. Usually, there are the following types of mortise-tenon joints:

1) Through tenon and 2) mortise as a shouldered joint. Image: Wikimedia

Unfortunately, this ancient wisdom may even be close to extinction because there is little regard paid to it in professional architectural colleges around the world – or even in the ones in China itself.


The Chi Lin Nunnery (志蓮淨苑) on the other side of the street manages, operates, and conserves the park for a nominal fee of HK$1 per year. The religious organization is also responsible for the park’s design, construction and daily maintenance.

In the photo are a library and a school, both of them are managed by Chi Lin Nunnery. Image: Emily Zhou

The flower known as “Lin”(蓮), the Cantonese pronunciation of “lotus”, is important in Buddhism. The most attractive spot in the nunnery is a lotus pool in front of the main Buddhist hall. Unlike in the northern cities in China, where the lotus only blossoms in midsummer, the warm climate of Hong Kong prolongs the flower’s season. That’s why visitors and photography lovers can see the pool’s elegant lotuses in purple and white nearly all year round.

Lotuses lure photographers every day. Image: Emily Zhou

In front of the shrine, golden Buddha statues shine in candle lights. The zen tunes played on the guqin (古琴) and the slightly incense-shrouded air further add to the the magical spiritual atmosphere at the nunnery.

One can see devout people saying their prayers walking towards the main hall one after another. Holding incense sticks in their hands, they are silent and respectful. For tired people who have been busy for a whole week, here is a perfect place to set aside one’s cares and step into another world.

Image at the top by Ghis on Unsplash

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