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AN ELEGANT RETREAT
by N.F. Karlins
 
The opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics left me craving to experience a more venerable Chinese culture. With its pollution, political repression and casual attitude towards the rules (just how old were those female gymnasts?), contemporary Beijing left me sad.

So I paid a visit to the Ming dynasty scholar’s garden at the Metropolitan Museum, with its exquisite wooden furniture and implements, and its perfect landscape of rocks and plants. The only problem was that the garden is inside, rather than out in the open air.

Seattle is building a vast outdoor Chinese garden. Other cities in this country with their own scholar’s gardens include Portland, Ore., and San Marino, Ca., where it is a part of the Huntington Library’s gardens. Other scholar’s gardens are in Vancouver and Sydney.

But not far from the Met, New Yorkers have their own Chinese scholar’s garden, and that’s where I went next -- to Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Besides boasting a maritime collection, loan exhibitions, a glasshouse and many other plantings, Snug Harbor is the home of "The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden."

All the elements of the garden were made in Suzhou (pronounced "sue-joe"), China, once the nation’s capital, located south of Beijing. It was the home of many of the best gardens in China. (While Suzhou once had thousands of gardens, only about 60 remain, and many can be visited today.) The garden was reassembled in Staten Island by Chinese artisans in 1999, but I visited for the first time at the end of August.

Walking down a path of over-arching bamboo, I came upon the house with a large pool and waterfall in front on it. Interesting views are framed from every side.

The yin and yang of Chinese gardencraft requires that the plantings, water, rocks and buildings embody contrasting qualities, such as craggy rocks against a flat pool, and smooth walkways framed by jagged pines.

The house is made of mortise-and-tenoned wood, without nails or glue. Three pools bind the house and grounds together, creating a microcosm of the world.

The garden includes a variety of special rocks. A tall "taihu shi" of limestone represents a mountain, for example. A special pebble, shaped like a goose egg, adds interest and color contrasts to walkways.

Here are no period artifacts, but no ropes either. Visitors can sit for hours in chairs that are 19th-century reproductions in the style of the Ming Dynasty.

"Leaky windows" -- patterned screens that allow glimpses of the outside -- are meant to provide surprise and delight, as are the framings of a moon gate and banana-leaf doorways.

The Chinese developed earlier gardens into scholar’s retreats, like this one, after the invasion by the Mongols in the 14th century. With the return to power of the native Chinese during the Ming Dynasty, the attributes of a scholar’s garden became more codified. Scholar’s gardens put a premium on the concept of "ya," or unostentatious elegance. In this, the Snug Harbor Chinese scholar’s garden certainly succeeds.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.



 



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