Nature has always been an important part of ancient Chinese culture, especially mountains, which were believed to be sacred places. In these holy mountains, pilgrims went in search of spiritual contemplation, emperors performed sacrifices, and Buddhist holy men established temples. In honor of one such holy man, the Chan master Zhongfeng, a Buddhist monk named Tianru created the Lion Grove Garden, a spectacular rock garden in the northeastern part of Suzhou City.
From his arrival in 1341, the monk Tianru was generally respected and admired in the city. Only one year later, during the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), with help of his disciples he established the Putizhengzong Temple and created a garden in its grounds. He named it Shi Zi Lin (Lion Grove) because of the numerous stones shaped like lions, that were inspired by the Shi Zi Cave in Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang, where the great master lived and achieved the state of Nirvana. The lions also have a symbolic meaning, representing the guardians of the Buddhist temple.
In a short time, the garden became an inspiration for artists who celebrated the beauty of nature. One of the most famous Chinese painters, Ni Zan (Yunlin), raised the popularity of the garden even more by painting his well-known scroll of Lion Grove Garden.
However, after the death of the monk Tianru the garden was totally neglected until 1589, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Another monk named Mingxing, gathered donations to renovate the temple and garden. Later, during the reign of the last Imperial dynasties of China-Qing (1644-1911), the gardens and temple were separated. The Qing emperors Kang Xi and Qianlong often visited the rocky garden. They were impressed by its beauty so much that they had a garden designed as a replica of the Lion Groove Garden in the Imperial Summer Resort in Rehe (Jehol).
Later on, the garden was purchased by Huang Xingzu, the governor of Hengzhou, who changed its name to “She Garden”, only to be renamed once again in 1771 by his son Huang Xi to “Five-Pine Garden”. After the family went into bankruptcy, the garden was once again abandoned. The turbulent times of the garden were finally over in 1917, when Bei Runsheng bought and restored the garden and his family donated it to the government in 1949. Since 1956 the garden with its original name and glory has been open to the public.
Today, the Lion Grove Garden covers an area of 2.7 acres and is divided into two parts: decorative pavilions and towers with courtyards, and the “Kingdom of Rockeries” set around a central pond adorned with lotus flowers. The most impressive pavilion in the garden is Zhenquting (True Delight Pavilion). It was constructed in the royal architectural style and has inscriptions of the Emperor who always returned to admire the magnificent garden – Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.
The highest point of the garden is the Feipu Pavilion (Flying Waterfall pavilion) and its waterfall, while the romantic Pavilion for Greeting the Plum Blossoms (Wenmeige) was the place where many famous painters and poets created their precious artwork. For instance, Ni Zan’s ‘Panoramic View of Lion Grove Garden’ and Xu Ben’s ‘Twelve Scenic Spots in Lion Grove Garden’ were created and are still kept safe in the pavilion of the garden.
But the most popular part of the garden is the labyrinth made of rocks in the “Kingdom of Rockeries”. The rocks that were once placed to look like nine stone lions nowadays unfortunately have little resemblance to the guardians of the temple due to erosion. However, they remain the focal point of the garden.
All in all, the Lion Grove Garden with its lavish pavilions, flower beds, bamboos and cherry trees looks like a spectacular Chinese landscape painting. Since 2000, the historical garden is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose committee wrote: “masterpieces of Chinese landscape garden design in which art, nature, and ideas are integrated perfectly to create ensembles of great beauty and peaceful harmony“.