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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #39 (September 26, 2006), page 15.

Plenty comprehensive

Gardens in China

By Peter Valder

Timber Press, 2002

Hardcover, 400 pages, $49.95

By Josephine Bridges

In the introduction to Gardens in China, Peter Valder points out that, "while it would be almost impossible for anyone to write comprehensively about the gardens of so large a country, it has been my aim to bring to notice, in one book, a wider range of Chinese gardens than has been done previously." Among these are gardens of "temples, shrines, and mosques," "imperial tombs and ancient burial grounds," and "parks, botanical gardens and arboreta." Most of us will find these 400 pages of lavish photographs and description plenty comprehensive.

"In order to place my own descriptions and opinions in context, I have chosen to begin this book with a chapter devoted largely to a survey of those of Western visitors who have gone before me," Peter Valder writes. "Through Western Eyes" is the author’s homage to these predecessors.

The remainder of Gardens in China is organized by region, beginning with "The Centre," which includes "the provinces of Shaanxi, Henan, and Shandong, which embrace that portion of the Yellow River valley and its tributaries where Chinese civilisation is believed to have evolved." Lingyansi (Temple of the Divine Rock) is among the gardens described and depicted here. In addition to a wealth of old trees, this garden contains some of "the finest Buddhist statues in China."

Moving on to "The North" — "the provinces of Hebei and Liaoning, together with the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and their surrounds" — we discover Bishu Shanzhuang, usually known in English as the Imperial Summer Villa. Here are the island Jinshan (Golden Mountain) with its three-storey pagoda, a causeway with three double-roofed pavilions, and a herd of Père David’s deer.

Guangxi, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao make up "The South." In Yuexiu Park, Guangzhuo’s largest, is the fanciful Statue of the Five Goats. "It is said that long ago five Immortals wearing robes of five colours and riding through the air on male goats arrived in Guangzhou. Each carried a stem of rice which they presented to the people as a sign that the region would always be free from famine." And near the small town of Yangshuo on the Li River is a venerated 1,300-year-old banyan tree, complete with written supplications attached to its trunk.

"For the purposes of this chapter, ‘The East’ is taken to mean the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, together with what is now the separate administrative area of Shanghai." This chapter contains two of the more charming photographs in Gardens in China. The first depicts dozens of red and yellow umbrellas on a weed-covered pond subsidiary to Mochou Lake near Nanjing. The second is a tiny jewel of a courtyard at the Qingteng Shushi (Green Vine Studio), "a rare surviving example of a Ming house."

Sichuan and Yunnan are the subjects of this book’s final chapter, "The West." The Kunming Zhiwuyuan (Kunming Botanical Garden) is home to a number of vegetative treasures, including Buddha’s Belly Bamboo and Edgeworthia papyrifera "grown in the traditional fashion with its stems tied in knots." The site of the 1999 International Horticultural Exposition is now known as Shijie Yuanyi Bolanyuan (World Horti-Expo Garden) and run by a private concern. "A huge junk in full sail, entirely covered at the time of my visit with pansies" is the centerpiece of one floral display here.

"I have not always been able to conform to the convention, followed by most garden photographers, of ensuring that depictions of gardens do not include people. In China one might wait forever to achieve such an aim," writes the author. It’s a happy accident. Far from detracting from their depiction, photographs of people enjoying the beauty of these gardens make the reader want to join in.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books