Master of the (Fishing) Nets Garden

The Master of the (Fishing) Nets Garden in Suzhou, China was originally designed by Shi Zhengzhi, a 12th century official during the Southern Song Dynasty. He named the garden, Yu Yin, the Fisherman’s Retreat. Song Zonghuan, an 18th century court official renamed and restored the garden. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Court in New York is a replica of one section of the Master of the Nets Garden.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’ve walked through a warren of back alleys to find the entranceway to what was once a private garden in the city of Suzhou, known as the Master of the Fishing Nets.

Dr. Kristen Chiem: [0:17] The name was inspired by this idyllic life of a fisherman. That name came later, came in the 18th century, but the site itself dates to the 12th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] Back to the Southern Song dynasty, but this is a garden that has been continuously reworked over the years. Now, we should say that a contemplative Chinese garden is not what we think of in the West when we think of the formal gardens of Versailles, for example, or the lush, overgrown gardens of the manor houses in England. This is completely man-made.

Dr. Chiem: [0:45] This was a place where people lived. It’s an estate.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] The modern city of Suzhou has more than 50 surviving gardens, in part because this area has always been an important place of commerce and great wealth, but also because it is steeped historically in highly intellectual culture.

Dr. Chiem: [1:01] Suzhou is known as the ancient region of Wu. This idea of Suzhou as a Grand Canal city was also very important; it was a place that was in between networks of trade, and the city profited over the years, and still even today, as one of the prominent economic cities in China.

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] The Grand Canal links north and south, and it was one of the great engineering feats of ancient China.

Dr. Chiem: [1:22] Through the Ming Dynasty it was still a bustling center for trade, a very cosmopolitan city.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] The idea of a garden within a metropolis is a place of respite, it’s a place of contemplation, it’s a place into which one can retreat.

Dr. Chiem: [1:36] To call it a garden, it’s hard to see that on the first few steps. You see built spaces, walls and buildings, glimpses of courtyards along either side.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] It’s important to understand that the garden is in fact fully constructed. There is nothing natural here, everything is planned, everything is purposeful. As we enter into the garden we move through a series of halls, that is, small buildings punctuated by even smaller courtyards, creating a rhythm of enclosed, open, enclosed spaces.

Dr. Chiem: [2:04] We progress through these different structures, the reception halls, we get glimpses of the natural world as it’s drawn in through windows and doors.

Dr. Zucker: [2:13] We’ve just walked northward through a series of buildings and a series of courtyards, and we’ve entered into our first really open space. It’s this beautiful interior court that is paved with a begonia pattern, and then there are small islands in the corner of rocks, of plantings.

[2:30] When you look at the bamboo for example, having looked at so many Chinese ink paintings, when I look at these leaves I almost see the individual strokes of the paintbrush.

Dr. Chiem: [2:39] They draw you back to the rocks, these vertical stone slabs. These are bamboo rocks. They look like stalks of bamboo, following your eye down to a cluster of long leaves of grass that seem to echo that verticality.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] Then we have these wonderful grottoes, these rocks that are perforated, pierced with all these wonderful nooks, that are incredibly complicated. They’ve been carved naturally by the water in Lake Tai, but have been enhanced by the hand of the men who constructed this garden.

Dr. Chiem: [3:08] We have texts on constructing gardens that date to the 17th century. This idea of crafting a garden — how many groupings, how many rocks, which way they should lay — all of this was laid out very carefully.

Dr. Zucker: [3:21] This idea that a garden is a natural place is not quite right. This is a distillation of the qualities of nature that have been made more potent, very much the way that a painting will pick and choose elements of nature to create a specific kind of composition.

[3:35] In fact, when we look at some of the plantings against this beautiful, dirty, white wall with its cracks, we get a sense of the two-dimensionality of Chinese landscape painting.

Dr. Chiem: [3:45] It’s really a presentation of contrasts. It allows you to see these variations.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] There are so many contemplative aspects here, because you see the changes of the seasons in the foliage, but then you also have a sense of the eternity suggested by the great age of the rocks that are here — this is rock that has been sculpted by water over eons — that things change, but at different scales of time.

Dr. Chiem: [4:07] These very old rocks and these very young tender branches of bamboo. Then the garden will look entirely different from week to week and month to month of every year.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] We’ve moved into the northern part of the garden, which is associated with intellectual pursuits, and in fact, we’re in the Five Peaks Library.

Dr. Chiem: [4:24] First we’ve gone from this area that’s very public to now the very private area, the very contemplative realm of the garden. We see windows that open to big views of stone gardens, rockery, and walls that are ornamented with trees, with foliage, with windows, glimpses through to the other buildings.

Dr. Zucker: [4:43] It’s true, this hall the Five Peaks Library is surrounded on, it’s two long sides by rockeries with immense stones, and the stones here feel powerful. It feels concentrated. It feels a little more intense. This would be a great place to study, to read and to write.

[4:59] We’ve just rounded a bend and looked through a wooden doorway, through a moon gate, into this wonderful surprise, this pond in the center of the garden.

Dr. Chiem: [5:10] This is only about an acre. This entire garden’s quite small, but it’s so artfully presented. We go from even just looking at the ground that we’re walking on, these rocks that are laid in patterns of triangles and hexagonals, and then we step up and over a little ledge which is part of a moon window, leading us into this organic realm of the pond.

Dr. Zucker: [5:30] I love the fact that the paving changes from courtyard to courtyard. In this case, what almost look like shards of broken glass are reflected in the latticework of the doors that frame that courtyard. We’ve walked around the edge of the pond into a little six-sided pavilion that seems to cantilever over the water.

Dr. Chiem: [5:50] It seems like the water is so expansive, creeping and meandering beneath the buildings, and they seem to float on top of it. This particular pavilion is named in reference to a poem. The verse that it recalls reads, “The twilight brings the autumn, and the breeze sends the moon here.” This idea of the end of the day, the darkening of autumn.

Dr. Zucker: [6:11] I love the ephemeral evocation, and also the literary reference, that the pond is referring back to literature which would be known by the people that would inhabit this space.

Dr. Chiem: [6:21] Every one of the buildings, every one of the views, all of the sights, all have names. You’ll see buildings inscribed with poetic couplets. We’ll see rocks with hints at verses, this connection between all of the media that we’ve been studying.

Dr. Zucker: [6:36] We spent the last few days looking at ink painting, and it really helps me see the compositions that are intended here. Throughout the architecture of the garden, there are framed windows, there are screens that set up very particular views in this miniaturized, intensified landscape.

Dr. Chiem: [6:51] Along one side of the pond would be the area where intellectual activities would take place. Down to the other side would be more for social areas. You can see larger halls, spaces where perhaps poems would be read, where painting might be appreciated, where guests might come to hear music.

Dr. Zucker: [7:08] Although the garden of course is three-dimensional, there is that collapsing of space with rocks and foliage against those white walls, creating a two-dimensionality. Yet at the same time, we’re asked to wander up paths that rise up into rock formations so that we can get views and begin to see this very small garden from a whole different set of perspectives.

[7:27] You get the sense that the people who designed this garden over generations were intensifying the qualities of nature in order to provoke a kind of intensified creativity for their own literature, for their own poetry, and for their own painting.

[7:41] If the garden functions as a refuge, what were the creators of this garden protecting themselves from? What were they turning their backs away from?

Dr. Chiem: [7:49] Oftentimes these were sites of retirement; of course, they’re sites of leisure, they’re private worlds of these scholars, places for them to entertain their guests and to meet with others. They often had careers at court. Some of them in other contexts were merchants, in this case most of the hands that this passed through, they were officials.

[8:06] This idea of having this Confucian self-cultivation, this idea of perfecting your calligraphy, the things that they had been studying since they were young children, sitting for their examinations, trying to get into the civil service. Cultivating that lifelong talent, and then writing to each other, admiring calligraphy and painting together.

Dr. Zucker: [8:24] It wasn’t just about skill, it was about moral cultivation, that calligraphy, literature, the making of gardens, the making of paintings, these were all things that helped one perfect oneself, to rise to a higher level.

[8:37] [music]

The classical gardens of Suzhou, UNESCO

Ron Henderson, The Gardens of Suzhou (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Suzhou”]

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Take notes while watching the video, using the Master of the Nets Garden Video Activity.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Master of the (Fishing) Nets Garden," in Smarthistory, February 15, 2017, accessed June 14, 2024,