Sunday, July 15, 2018

A second chance at paradise

Aha! I hope the Tibouchina did the trick and snared you: what follows isn't even a tad Melastomataceous--what I'm about to share is really a summation of a half century's Sinology on my part (I've been pretty obsessed with China since I read The Life and Times of Po-chu-i in 1962 or so--oops, that's more than a half century). More to the point, 19 years ago I was sent, along with my boss at the time (Jim Henrich) on a wonderful "Sister Cities" tour to China. The primary reason and justification for the trip was to visit an International Horticultural Exposition that took place in 1999 in our sister city, Kunming.

One of several gardens of Jiangxi province at the Kunming International Expo park

Somewhere or another I have transparencies I took way back then: the many hundreds of acres of Expo were thronged with (mostly East Asian) tourists, and I was using real film and ran out quickly. I spent years wondering, how could they have spent so much money on infrastructure for just one year (1999)? The answer, of course, was that they didn't intend it to be temporary: it has persisted as a park!
Closer view of Jianxi province garden #1: the characters are in Shang Dynasty script
The chance to actually RE-visit such an extraordinary complex of gardens almost 20 years after their first display was a wonderful side panel to my recent tour to Yunnan. Reviews about the Expo online were mixed: some said the Expo was "run down" and others said it was too commercial. The reviews of Waley's book above are likewise tepid (if you clicked on the link above you would have seen). And yet that book sparked a lifetime's passion for things Chinese for me and remains a touchstone for me of all I love and value. The half day spent at the Expo early this month was likewise rewarding for me.
Closer closeup of Jianxi garden #1
China isn't like anywhere else. This trip has underscored for me the many reasons I have been so fascinated with the place:  1) The Chinese culture and history is so vast and complex that one can spend a lifetime and barely scratch the surface 2) The "Han" culture is incredibly powerful and vibrant: a small tribe on the Yellow River now has grown to encompass 1 1/2 billion humans in a few millenia. There's a reason for that, and these gardens helped me understand 3) China is fantastically creative on the one hand, and very rigidly structured on the other: few places have greater scope for creativity and expression in business, art or architecture at the moment...but the P.R.C. government is undeniably one of the most dictatorial and repressive of dissent on the planet. The Expo represents much of what I most admire in China, however.

Who in the U.S. government would suggest "Let's build an International Park on hundreds of acres and spend billions, hire hundreds of artists, architects and horticulturists to design a Horticultural extravaganza and invite the world to see it?" I don't think that's even remotely possible in our cynical and somewhat mercenary times right now where even modest public expenditures for art and science are being slashed by the Federal Government. China puts us to shame! There are gardens galore at the Expo--some like this merely a grove of palms. Simple, but cool I think!

The place is full of common and obscure plants beautifully grown (and usually well labeled!) It's really a botanic garden on steroids! Here is a Tamarisk, for Heaven's Sake--the bane of the dryland West given pride of place in China! (Where it does grow natively, of course)...

And they have RARE native plants showcased artistically as well, like this Cycas panzhihuaensis, endemic to Yunnan, and neighboring Szechuan. Quite a specimen!

This is an example of many of the "cutsey" plantings designed to please the mass of non-plant-nerd visitors: most of such planting are quite delightful and would please a plant nerd too, if they'd get off their high horse!

Here is the ONLY horticulturist (or perhaps maintenance staff) we saw working on the hundreds of acres of Expo: they must dash out and do it when no one is looking!.

There are no end of weird plantings and special specimens. This is just one--never did figure out what it was!

There is a large, quirky conservatory that had a lot of delightful beds--this area showcasing some large succulent Euphorbias (and bedding plants)...

Not all the greenhouses pandered with color, but this one did! Rather charming actually...

Many of the original trees had gotten so big they'd been chopped down, and the trunks are being used to showcase other plants--rather clever I thought!

The tropical greenhouses were almost completely covered at ground level with moss: this made for a fantastic under planting for other plants--much nicer than bare mulch you find in most conservatories I have seen outside of China.

The climate of Kunming, despite its elevation of 6,207′, is extremely mild: like San Francisco but instead of chilly fog, in Kunming it rains AT NIGHT! So palm trees develop a whole garden of ferns and epiphytes...

There are countless sculptures throughout the complex--running the full range of styles and taste. This one wasn't one of my favorites (a sort of a blend of Socialist realism and WPA era naivete). They often occupy "neutral" space between gardens, which I liked.

And of course, everywhere there are flowers of all sorts. I was enchanted with this Hymenocallis/Crinum along a path. No label, alas.

The sculptures do honestly get better: this one occasioned some witty interchanges among my friends accompanying me that day...perhaps better not to be repeated. Hang in there, they improve!

The park apparently has well over a million visitors a year: it's so immense that on a pleasant summer Saturday it did not feel crowded. The cost is rather dear (100 RMB [about $14 US] for adults) but children and seniors over 70 are free: needless to say, there were a lot of kids and grandparents there the day we visited!

The signage is extensive, comprehensive and attractive: this is the sign for my favorite section--a complex of nearly forty gardens representing every (I believe it's every) province in China--and a few of the bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. It must occupy nearly 100 acres--nearly a quarter of the Expos entire space. These gardens blew my mind 19 years ago--and they proceeded to do it again two weeks ago when I re-visited. They are so varied, complex and fascinating that I never even get through all of them (let alone see the entire park--you really would need several days to do that: it's just too big!)

福建生态园 (Fujian Province Ecological Garden)
The idea that one would create a garden comprising smaller gardens (usually over 1000 square meters or up to an acre or more) that are each meant to somehow represent, symbolize or express the spirit of a nation's provinces--frankly that concept would strike me as hokey and fraught with pitfalls. What astonished me then, and delights me now is that the Expo has pulled it off! Each of the gardens has its own style and appeal--each containing a wealth of decorative elements, and full of intriguing landscape materials, artwork and inspiring vignettes and vistas.

福建生态园 (Fujian Province Ecological Garden)
I cannot imagine the amount of planning, the detail of execution and the logistics involved to create forty such gardens containing the sort of elaborate detail such as you can see above and below. 

山东齐鲁园 (Shandong "Qilu" Garden

My Chinese began to gasp and resuscitate over the course of the trip: the mottos on each side of the arches declare "those who are wise delight in water" and on the right it says "Those who are good delight in mountains". 8 years of Chinese study wasn't entirely wasted. If you research "齐鲁" (Qilu:
which is the name of the garden) a vast realm of history, culture and philosophy will open up: Shandong is where both Taoism and Confucianism have their origins in the respective states of   and which were both destroyed by various dynastic invasions--and ultimately fused in this name which honors the twin cultural wellsprings of China that trace to the state of what is now called Shandong. This sort of complex allusion underlies not merely the names, but much of the structures and seemingly decorative motifs throughout this Expo--which even many Chinese visitors do not recognize.

山东齐鲁园 (Shandong "Qilu" Garden
This sort of sculpture may be just as corny as the Soviet Realism, but passed muster with me. Not sure if I could use this in MY garden, however...

山东齐鲁园 (Shandong "Qilu" Garden
Compare the view through these arches to the one above: Just a few steps and different vistas unfold. I can imagine that there is a vast reservoir of symbolism and cultural reference that I altogether missed in most of these gardens: they certainly convey a sense of depth. Of course it didn't hurt that there were orchestras and dancers in every other garden or so--sometimes a small ensemble, sometimes a few dozen players. I don't think they were paid--they looked like hobbyist musicians who gathered on a Saturday to practice Ancient Chinese music. The sponteneity of stumbling on this phenomenon was magical! The locals obviously love the place.,

Unlike the West, Dragons are a good thing always in China--the spirits of clouds and rain. Here on an artistic ramp at the entrance to the garden. The structural ornate entryway reflects the Confucian roots of Shandong, but Taoism soon makes a dramatic appearance within...

山东齐鲁园 (Shandong "Qilu" Garden
As a rock gardener, you can imagine how shocked I was to find these enormous, dramatic and utterly exquisite rock mounds--perhaps half the gardens have some variation on the Chinese interpretation of rock gardens. The effort it took to create a mound 30, 40, 50 feet high, stud it with appropriate rocks in an artistic fashion and plant it up to look like an ancient painting--well, quite frankly, it blew my mind! And still does. Rock Gardens in Chinese, incidentally, are called "" which literally means "false mountain!"  I could use one of these in my yard! What surprised and pleased me was to see that the shrubs and trees studding these mountains were kept in scale--in this climate they can quickly smother the garden! There is evidence of care.

上海明珠园 (Shanghai the Bright Pearl garden)
A few too many pearls in this garden--not one of my faves. But not terrible either...
安徽园 (Anhui Province "Hui" garden)

Yet another dramatic entry gate--tradition! But complementing the rigid formalism look beyond at the naturalistic stone work and the calm repose of the garden--leitmotifs of Chinese horticulture!

安徽园 (Anhui Province "Hui" garden)
Here's a closer look at that rock: Denver is big on rocks too. You often see boulders plunked in public landscapes--usually amorphous, roundish things. The Chinese have a thing about sculptural rocks--they've out Moored Henry Moore for Millenia!

安徽园 (Anhui Province "Hui" garden)
Time and again it struck me how much Mid-Century American taste copied Chinese (and Japanese--which is of course a variation on the former) architecture and landscape styles.

But rarely has Western landscape art included so much stone, and used it so artistically (except, of course, the best examples of rock garden art in the West--which could be thought of as a subspecies of the Chinese garden gone Occidental!)

Most of the gardens have panels with beautifully executed Chinese writing in various modes chisled on stone. My Chinese wasn't quite up to translating most of these for the nonce (they were often in Ancient Chinese mode).....the art of Calligraphy in China really has no comparison in the West--where Calligraphy is a modest craft by comparison. In China it is a full fledged art.

北京万春园 (Peking Eternal Spring Garden)

The details of doorways and arches are always distinct--and of course each glimpse beyond is hardly accidental. Representing Beijing, this is understandably imposing in character.

My camera must have gone humid for a while--I apologize for the photograph I took of the weeping Sophora tree--the sight of which brought back memories of Paul Maslin (my mentor and dearest friend of my youth) who grew up in China. He once remarked how strange it was that this tree was so frequently used in China, but virtually unknown in America. There is a wonderful specimen of it in Denver's City Park, from which my friend Dennis Hermsen (from Iowa!) propagated: we now have two of his propagules in the Ellipse garden at DBG as a works that way...hence this picture....
北京万春园 (Peking Eternal Spring Garden)

The many pavilions throughout the park are each a little masterpiece of architecture.

北京万春园 (Peking Eternal Spring Garden)

北京万春园 (Peking Eternal Spring Garden)

湖北楚园 (Hubei the "Chu" garden)

湖北楚园 (Hubei the "Chu" garden)

园 The Hebei Yan-Zhao Garden
I composed a little essay when I was writing this blog--which alas! disappeared. Perhaps I shall write it again. But I seem to have written a bit too much let it be.

西 园 (Shanxi Tang Garden)
The province of Shanxi lies in the very heart of Ancient China. Its current capital (Xi-an) was formerly Changan during the Tang Dynasty, which is the thematic focus of this garden. The rampant Tang Horses remind one that the horse cult was never more beautifully expressed than in the Tang.

西 园 (Shanxi Tang Garden)

There are wonderful potted specimens of trees here and throughout the Expo.

Pinus bungeana in 西 园 (Shanxi Tang Garden)
I am surprised that the Northern Chinese Lacebark Pine does so well in Kunming.

I noticed some dancers along the pathway: I know Blogger is supposed to do video--I did tape the three graceful, middle aged ladies who were performing classical Chinese dance. Like the folk orchestras throughout the Expo, this did much to enhance the experience that day.

园 (Ningxia Ning Spring Garden)
Ningxia is not one of the larger provinces, but they seem to have merited a sizeable space. Between Shanxi and Gansu, it is one of the less populated provinces with a large Muslim (Hui) population, which is reflected in this garden. The skull somehow suggests a Mongolian Georgia O'Keefe.

园 (Ningxia Ning Spring Garden)
(Qinghai All River origins garden)

"All rivers" in the garden's name of course means the Yellow River and the Yangtse--"all rivers that matter to China" would be a better explanation!

The only shot I seem to have taken was this hedge of Ginkos tortuously shaped into spelling out some characters I couldn't quite read...a fascinating use of that tree!
  (Gansu Dunghuang Garden)
This image from Gansu's garden is this rather graceful figure suggesting a Buddhist deity perhaps? Dunhuang is certainly renowned for its Buddhist relics: I was intrigued how much religious iconography was found through the Expo. Not that long after the Cultural Revolution, it's apparent that there was a yearning for things past, things that were lost and that perhaps explains part of the success of this Expo.

Again, a strangely modernistic ramp next to the pond. China is a source for much Mid Century modernism.

 西 (Sinjiang "beyong the pass" feeling garden)
Even the names of the gardens possess a deep cultural history: here a garden reflecting the Islamic history of Xinjiang province includes in its name the Han Dynasty term for the region--"Western area" i.e. West of 玉門關 (Jade gate Pass). The great unknown of that time where princesses were married to "barbarians" and many poems of longing and homesickness (hence the "情" feelings) were written, This sort of cultural shorthand is packed into so many facets of Modern Chinese--a challenge for non-Han to absorb!

A Balbal sculpture
Seeing this Balbal reminded me of my time in Mongolia and Kazakhstan where these sculpted stones are such a feature of the landscape. The ties to Central Asia in China are strong.

A lovely view with the characteristic "Islamic" point to the arch.

The sculpture is not especially Chinese in style or execution. I rather like it it,anyway.                     


西 园 (Tibetan "good times" Garden)
  There is an amazing depth of cultural symbolism in the naming of these gardens: the term " " gesang in the name of this garden has a wealth of associations in Tibetan. Here is a translation of a discussion of this term translated from Baidu (the Chinese Google):

Gesang (Tibetan culture symbol plant)

Gesanghua is also known as Gesang Meiduo, and there is a wide controversy about which plants. In Tibetan, "Gesang" means "good times" or "happiness". " Mei Duo " means flowers. Therefore, Gesang flowers are also called happy flowers. For a long time, the Tibetan people have been waiting for happiness and auspiciousness. Beautiful emotions [1]   .
According to the ethnobotanical method, the Institute of Plateau Biology of Tibet Autonomous Region has conducted research on the original plants of Gesangmeidu. According to relevant literature research and interviews with key figures, it is said that a large number of Tibetan movies, songs, and Tibetan periodicals are considered to be Gesang's Qiu Ying ( Cosmos ) is not a real Gesang flower. Broadly speaking, "Gesangmeidu" is very likely to be synonymous with the most stubborn wildflowers on the plateau. From the botanical characteristics, the Aompositae of the genus Asteraceae and the cultivated plant Aster , which is common in Lhasa to Changdu , are consistent with Characteristics of Gesanghua [1]   . In addition, in Tibetan areas, there are also such as: Jinlumei , Stellera chamaejasme , Alpine rhododendron , snow lotus and other plants called Gesanghua.

Tibetan script adds authenticity to the Tibetan garden

Remarkable trained shrubs and trees throughout the Expo
Malvaceae: perhaps an Abutilon?

川蜀风园 (Szchuan Shu wind garden)
This garden is almost twice the size of most of the rest: considering Szchuan's population and importance in China, this is not surprising. and of course the "Shu feng" (Literally: "Shu" wind) in the title alludes to the name of the kingdom during the 3 Kingdom's period right after the fall of the Han Dynasty. Chinese packs an enormous semantic load on a very few syllables! Here within a Calligrapher practices his art. I wish I had bought some (it was amazingly inexpensive)...

园 (Szchuan Shu wind garden)

园 (Chonqing BaYu garden)
Adjacent to the Szchuan garden, a very different garden inspired by the city of Chongqing--which may indeed be the most populous city in the world as well as China--with a title alluding to the ancient name for the region and the city: 渝.

园 (Chonqing BaYu garden)
I like the combination of water, structure and wild mountain in this garden.

A hedge of azaleas just finishing up.

I have not researched to see how many of the buildings and monuments are precise replicas of those in the original province. I have a hunch that many are. Most Occidental visitors are probably not aware of how much in the way of ancient pavilions, architecture, art and historical monuments were maliciously and deliberately destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I'm sure that part of the power of this Park for Chinese visitors is the way it celebrates the past. Many of the Gardens include the ancient names of their provinces and the descriptive panels dwell at length on ancient themes. I daresay trillions of dollars worth of art and history were demolished in the living memory of so many of the Chinese who linger here--and this Expo must be a bit of an expiation, or least atonement for that tragic loss.

园 (Guizhou mountain and lake garden)

I had to include at least one of the descriptive panels that are placed outside each garden (whence I copied the name and some of the information I've repeated). Simplified Chinese at the top, then English and then French. Not Japanese or Russian, one may note.

园 (Guizhou mountain and lake garden)
I love the chiseled depictions of grass writing: the various forms of ancient Chinese script (and its modern Simplified version) is a leitmotif throughout this garden. Calligraphy is not a craft here but an art.

园 (Guizhou mountain and lake garden)
Guizhou and the neighboring province where the city lies both have major garden installations.

There are not very many intensive herbaceous plantings in these gardens--where they occur they are striking. A clever curator who might install unique, endemic plants from each province in the appropriate gardens would earn the eternal admiration of visiting plant nerds (like me). China being what it is right now, that's not beyond the realm of possibility!

园 (Guizhou mountain and lake garden)
The varied pathways and the immense variety of materials used for them are a whole other theme throughout this complex.

I love the cactus, albeit it's not really appropriate!

Of course, neither is the Bougainvillea! But who's complaining?

Some intriguing totem poles--who invented them first I wonder?

All this is in just one garden!
园 (Guizhou mountain and lake garden)
It is a tour-de-force in my book!

园 (Yunnan colorful cloud garden)
As one would expect, Yunnan had several gardens representing the home province--each of a very different style. This one was essentially a sculpture garden with bedded sweeps of annuals suggesting the clouds in the garden name, and in the name of the Province (Yunnan==Clouds of the South).

园 (Yunnan colorful cloud garden)
I believe we have a replica of this given to us by the City of Kunming as a gift which is now at Chatfield farms. Long story!
园 (Yunnan colorful cloud garden)
Another sculptural/architectural feature which no doubt has symbolic and historical depth and allusion!

园 (Yunnan colorful cloud garden)
I don't know about you, but I find this simian to be delightful... Wouldn't mind it in my garden!

园 (Yunnan colorful cloud garden)
I can only imagine the many layers of significance expressed in this: and you musn't accuse me of "bull"!

广西园 (Guangxi garden)
Although Guilin--a city and touristic region best known in the province--was already well represented, yet another entry for the province itself featuring the dramatic, pointed karst formations so familiar as images from this province that neighbors Yunnan.

These towering rock gardens kill me. I would really love to have one. There are a jillion Chinese Gardens that have been built in so many North American cities in recent decades: Vancouver had one of the first, Portland, Los Angeles--there's even a FLOOR with a Chinese garden replica at the Metropolitan Museum. And they all hearken from the great gardens of Suzhou--especially the humble Administrator's garden and the Garden of the Nets--all with their Lake Tai rocks.

But if I had the budget and the authority, I would have one of these dramatic rock gardens instead!

园 (Hunan Xiang River Garden)
Another dramatic "false mountain" garden, representing the province of Hunan--birthplace of Mao Ze-Dong. This was one of the more complex and varied gardens in the complex...hence quite a few shots of it below...
园 (Hunan Xiang River Garden)

园 (Hunan Xiang River Garden)

园 (Hunan Xiang River Garden)

园 (Hunan Xiang River Garden)

西园 (Jiangxi Porcelain Garden)
Jiangxi was also represented by several gardens--notably one near the entrance apart from the vast Provincial garden complex.This province contains the famous "capital of porcelain" (Jing De Jen 景德镇市) and no end of historical, cultural and natural features including Lushan National Park bordering Hangzhou--where my dear friend in Boulder, T. Paul Maslin was born and grew up).

西园 (Jianxi Porcelain Garden)
I love dragons almost as much as the Chinese do: it's intriguing to speculate why the West sees dragons as fierce, dangerous and evil (hence St. George killing one) while the East sees them as auspicious, beautiful and graceful.
西园 (Jianxi Porcelain Garden)
More stone calligraphy: can't have enough!

西园 (Jianxi Porcelain Garden)
Jiangsu comes through with yet another garden: this one having by far the most intricate and beautiful mosaic paving.

(Jiangsu Eastern Wu Model Garden)

(Jiangsu Eastern Wu Model Garden)

(Jiangsu Eastern Wu Model Garden)
Here the writing stye is archaic--reminding us of the past: so much of which has disappeared almost overnight in China.
(Jiangsu Eastern Wu Model Garden)

Wutung tree (Firmiana simplex)
I couldn't resist photographing this tree which is so often alluded to in Chinese literature.

Wutung tree in blossom (Firmiana simplex)

I kept waiting for them to move, and they wouldn't. So now they're preserved in my blog!

海南园 (Hainan Scenery Garden)

Perhaps the strangest garden--although no doubt honoring some of the indigenous art and people of that island. They must be related to the Polynesians?

My friend, Scott Smith under Crepe Myrtles. Couldn't resist including these...

One of the few restaurants on the site--suspiciously quiet on a Saturday noon,...

Feature in restroom area
Pretty much all of us agreed that the restrooms near the entrance are probably the cleanest and most elegant we've seen everywhere: considering they have been used by countless millions of visitors, this is no mean feat for the Expo.

And as we leave, the enormous transformation that has occurred since Deng Xiao-Ping opened the floodgates of economic possibility. It is said that the largest migration in Human History has happened in China over the last 30 hears: hundreds of millions of young people have abandoned villages and moved into cities. There must be an enormous nostalgia on the one hand, and the occasional wish to revisit and reconnect. I have a feeling that these Gardens tap into those emotions for many visitors.The concept may seem hokey, but the proof is in the pudding and this one is tasty!

You can't escape plants in China: here Ginseng is being touted on a billboard.

There was a large stand promoting the World Cup Soccer tournament taking place in Russia: This is a similar stand I found near our hotel.

Jin Jiang Hotel, downtown Kunming
Speaking of which, here it is! I stayed here four days altogether: the hotels we stayed at during this Chinese trip (over 3 weeks) were generally newer and in better repair than those I stayed in recently on a trip costing three times as much in a first world Country. I cannot believe the enormous changes since my last visit nearly 20 years ago: I hope I can return again soon: I fear that China will not remain the astonishing bargain it is today!


  1. I am exhausted just reading about it let alone actually walking through it. What an amazing place. Loved your art references to Henry Moore, mid-century modern, and the Soviet Realism/WPA mash up: all very much on the mark to my eye and ear. And I gasped when I saw that "cutsy" display; those flowery umbrella shapes above the greenery were fabulous.

    1. Thanks to both of you: I spent a little time on this blog as you can imagine. I hope some day I might come back and actually see the whole place (they have vehicles to drive you around--and I shoulda done it). Who knows what treasures I missed?


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