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This garden opened my mind to the music of elegance

CANTONESE OPERA (粵劇), one of the most representative cultural symbols of the Lingnan region (嶺南地區), the area south of the Nanling mountains (南嶺山脈), is the foundation and origin of modern Cantonese music.

The first time I heard about Cantonese music was when I was learning the Guzheng (古箏). My teacher said that it would be difficult to express the elegance of Cantonese musical pieces if our playing technique was not skillful enough. Unfortunately, I was not old enough to understand the essence of “elegance” at that time.

However, I may have found the answer at the height of this summer on a visit to Shunde District, Guandong Province (廣東順德).

Shunfengshan Park (順峰山公園)

After around 45 minutes’ car journey from Panyu District (番禺區) of Guangzhou, I arrived at the foot of Taiping Mountain (太平山) in Shunde. In the sunshine of the afternoon, white pigeons were feeding in the cracks of the bricks under the shade of the trees. Looking up, I saw a tall paifang (牌坊), an arched structure (see image below). It bore the Chinese characters “順峰山公園”(”Shunfengshan Park” in English).

The paifang in Shunfengshan Park is an arched structure. Image: Emily Zhou

It was at the other end of a humped bridge, and is called China’s No.1 Paifang because of its massive size. I walked along the bridge and noticed upon closer inspection the extensive use of ornate patterns and exquisite stonework. This created a feeling of divine craftsmanship.

As one of the “New Ten Scenic Spots of Shunde”, Shunfengshan Park combines nearly all the architectural features of Lingnan Gardens together with corridors connecting the variously shaped pavilions, while artificial ponds, waterfalls and rock gardens are surrounded by the beams bearing carved paintings, so that people don’t have to travel thousands of miles to enjoy the “mountains” and “oceans”—the two elements that traditionally make great scenery.

Corridors and bridges connecti various pavilions and architectures. Image: Emily Zhou

The use of stained glass can be traced back to the time of the Manchu Eight Banner Soldiers stationed in Guangdong, and is a distinctive feature of Lingnan gardens, distinguishing them from those north and south of the Yangtze River. Stained glass was inlaid in the door grills, screens and windows, and painted with flowers, birds, fowls and calligraphy with positive messages.

Stained glass windows in Lingnan gardens. Image: Emily Zhou

When the sun shines on it, it produces a soft, colourful light on the floor and wall. The decorative style like this, inherited from the custom of having large windows in northeastern Manchuria, can reduce the brightness of direct sunlight and add a touch of beauty and charm to the interior light.

Qinghui Garden (清暉園)

Water is an important component of Lingnan gardens. Skillful use of water elements can make a garden more dynamic and vibrant, as can be seen in the Qinghui Garden. The water management principle of “a large division and a small gathering” and the pattern of “inward gathering towards the centre” fully makes use of the space of the entire garden, while making “white space” more intimate and tranquil.

Fountains in the Qinghui Garden are like shining strings of pearls in the sun. Image: Emily Zhou

The 35th year of Wanli Era in the Ming Dynasty (萬曆35年,1607AD), outside the city’s southern gate at the foot of the Feng Mountain (鳳山) decorated with colourful lights in a bustling atmosphere.

In the sunshine, ducks are bathing beside the pools. Image: Emily Zhou

As a scholar named Huang Shijun (黃士俊), a Shunde native, achieved a high grade in the imperial examination. Thus he constructed the Huang Family Ancestral Hall, Tianzhang Pavilion (天章閣) and Lingzhi’a Pavilion (靈阿之閣), showing glory to the family’s ancestors in a flamboyant way. However, time passes and the prosperity fades.

The main entrance of Qinghui Garden. Image: Emily Zhou

During the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty (清·乾隆年間), the Huang family’s fortunes declined and the exquisite gardens created by the Huangs were purchased by the Long (龍氏) family. Calligrapher Li Zhaoluo (李兆洛) was commissioned by the Longs to write the characters “清暉園”(”Qinghui Garden”in English) on a plaque and hang it above the main entrance, which was a quote from a Tang poem: “Such kindness of warm sun, can’t be repaid by grass.” (“誰言寸草心,報得三春暉”), as a symbol of parental kindness, like warm sunshine shining on one’s offspring.

Western architectural elements are mixed with Chinese-style patterns in Qinghui Garden. Image: Emily Zhou

Meanwhile, the addition of Western styles symbolises the extraordinary status and wealth of the owner of Qinghui Garden, as well as his eclectic approach to diverse aesthetics.

MY UNDERSTANDING OF “ELEGANCE”

Beauty and elegance have always been characteristic features of Cantonese music, but music has no form, no colour, and can only be imagined, while the beauty of the Lingnan Gardens is precisely the most tangible incarnation of Cantonese music. Confucius once remarked, “A wise man prefers waters, where he will stay active and become happier, while a virtuous man prefers mountains, where he will stay still and live longer.”(“仁者樂山,智者樂水”)

Chinese people’s pursuit of “good virtue” and “wisdom” has been refined and condensed into the elegant and beautiful art of gardening.


Image at the top by Lingchor on Unsplash.

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