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The Lion in the Garden

Posted On March 29, 2022 | 15:43 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Lihong Liu traces the history and art historiographical significance of the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou across dynasties

Lihong Liu, Sally Michelson Davidson assistant professor of Chinese arts and cultures in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “Garden, Painting, and Historiography: The Lion Grove Garden in China, 1342–1784” detailed the history of the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, China, as monastery, scholarly retreat, and imperial aspiration.

Q&A with Lihong Liu

What is the Lion Grove Garden?

Lion Grove Garden is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the old city of Suzhou in China. Originally built in 1342 as a Chan Buddhist monastery, the name of the garden in Chinese is Shizi Lin. “Shi” is a pun in Chinese, as it means both “lion” and “master,” which together symbolizes the dharma of Buddhist teaching. “Lin” is from the phrase “conglin,” which in Chan Buddhism refers to the egalitarian and self-sustained monastic life and livelihood; it literally means “jungle” (related to the Sanskrit word “jaṅgala”), which in Buddhism refers to the salvation of the multitude of life.

The builders used rocks from Lake Tai, a famous lake southwest of Suzhou. Due to geological formation and transformation, the rocks were irregularly shaped and full of holes. One of the rocks resembled a lion, which became the namesake of the monastery. The monastery emulated the imperially sanctioned Lion Orthodox Chan Monastery at Mountain Tianmu near Hangzhou, where a cliff allegedly looked like a lion. Zhongfeng Mingben, a great Chan Master, was the abbot of that monastery. Zhongfeng’s disciple Tianru Weize became the first abbot of the Lion Grove Garden monastery in Suzhou, so the construction of the site was originally intended to continue Zhongfeng’s legacy.

What was the significance of the garden when it was first built?

In the 1350s, after a decade troubled by both natural disasters and uprisings, the Yangtze Valley was a domain of military contention among several factional forces. One major force, led by Zhang Shicheng, maintained a temporary court in Suzhou City starting in 1356, and a group of eminent local literati that also frequented the Lion Grove Garden served his regime. They socialized with the abbots and laypeople there and would write essays and poems upon visiting. So, the monastery became a communal and discursive space for politics as well.  

In 1366, Zhu Yuanzhang defeated Zhang Shicheng and took control of Suzhou, and two years later, after over a decade of civil wars, proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Suzhou sank into a depression, and the garden gradually lost prominence. Visual representation of the site became necessary. In 1373, the abbot commissioned famous painting master Ni Zan to paint the site in collaboration with another artist, Zhao Yuan, and they painted a small panoramic handscroll of the site. In 1374, Xu Ben, another Suzhou literatus and painter, depicted twelve scenes of the garden in an album, based on twelve poems by a group of local literati. Presumably, the abbot commissioned these paintings to preserve the “life” of the garden in the face of local economic and social decline.

What was the significance of the garden in later dynastic symbolism?

The site’s prominence seems to have diminished after the fourteenth century, but it became significant again in the eighteenth century during the Qing dynasty, which was ruled by Manchus—a multiethnic group originating in the northeast of Asia. After their rule was consolidated at the court in Beijing, the emperors made tours to the south to bolster political authority and stability.

The emperor Qianlong fashioned himself as a universal and culturally minded ruler who would collect art and visit historical sites during his tours. After he acquired Ni Zan and Zhao Yuan’s handscroll, he visited the actual site during his 1757 tour, which he had assumed from the painting was Ni Zan’s private studio. Qianlong admired Ni and imagined himself as a quintessential literatus like him. Qianlong found that the site had become an estate of a certain Huang family, so he ordered it to be restored according to Ni’s painting. He was so fascinated by Ni’s painting and its relation to rediscovering and remaking the site that he commissioned two gardens modeled after the site: one in the Imperial Gardens (Yuanming Yuan) and another in the Summer Palace Bishu Shanzhuang in Chengde, Hebei, northeast of Beijing; both were named after “Shizi Lin” but as scholarly gardens. In 1784, he obtained Xu Ben’s album on his final southern tour, from which he learned the garden was a monastery, not Ni’s studio. He made some alterations in the palatial gardens but still favored the idea that the gardens emulated Ni’s scholarly retreat.

I am tracing the transformation and meaningful confusion, so to speak, of the garden over time, ultimately investigating how the garden became entangled with the history and historiography of Chinese scholarly art from the fourteenth century onward.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.