The Classical Gardens of Shanghai

A Chinese garden is not a western garden — there are tricks to “seeing” a classical Chinese garden, explains Shelly Bryant, author of The Classical Gardens of Shanghai. Bryant does just this in her brilliant book, opening the reader’s eyes to an appreciation of Chinese gardens.


Yu Garden, Shanghai.

The Classical Gardens of Shanghai  looks at Shanghai’s five remaining classical Chinese gardens through their origins and tumultuous histories, guiding the reader through the gardens as they are today and providing the context with which to begin to truly appreciate this ancient Chinese art form.

Viewing a Chinese classical garden is not meant to be a passive activity, explains Bryant. She quotes Ming-era garden designer Ji Cheng: “The visitor is expected to enter the garden not only physically but also intellectually and emotionally. There is no definite way of making the most of scenery. You know it is right when it stirs your emotions.”

Yet without an underlying intellectual understanding, how does one respond with the heart? Thus the aim of the book is to help readers interact with the gardens intellectually, in the hope that this will open up the possibility of emotional engagement as well. Bryant, who researched the original literature that inspired the gardens as well as Chinese references, captures the fascinating stories behind each of the gardens, from Yu Gardens’ family drama to the literary legacy of Qiuxiapu; Qushui Garden’s spirituality and the story of Guyi Garden’s revival, and the ancient history of Zuibaichi.

Yuyuan Moon Gate

Moon Gate, Yu Garden.

The classical Chinese gardens were created by the literati, creating microcosms of the world, and here, they showed off their learning. The gardens are an expression of culture, rich with literary references, and more: these are poetry and paintings brought to life. As Lynn Pan says in describing the book, “Shanghai’s classical gardens are as much text as space: they exist in art, poetry, and literature, as much as in stone, rock, and earth.”

One of the highlights of Classical Gardens is the inclusion of this ‘text’ – the literature that inspired the gardens – beautifully translated into English by Bryant, an acclaimed poet and translator.

An interesting insight from the book is that none of the gardens are “original”, and the aim of restoration is not to restore their original design. The gardens that survive have been through social and dynastic shifts, failing family fortunes, revolution – and remodelling.


Yu Gardens.

The classical gardens survived the turbulent 1950s and ‘60s, for example, in part because the wartime Japanese destruction of gardens immediately made them a symbol of national pride, and in part because of Zhou En Lai’s protection, knowing that once China reopened, it would need unique cultural attractions. But the politics of the time meant that the 1950s-era gardens de-emphasized culture (inextricably linked as it was to “old society”).  Instead of poetry and art, the gardens during that period were simply about nature.

Through the centuries, designers have referenced the old literature in restoring and remodelling the gardens, with fresh interpretations. In restoration, the critical point is to reproduce the effect the original designers sought, in ultimately achieving the same goal: to stir the heart.

Shelly Bryant, The Classical Gardens of Shanghai (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016).

Books available at Madame Mao’s Dowry, 207 Fumin Lu/Changle Lu.



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