Lion Grove is most well known for its quirky rockeries that were created to represent a sacred mountain cave.
Set between ancient pavilions, ponds and bridges, the stones give this classic garden in the city of Suzhou, China, an atmosphere different than anywhere else.
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 a spectacular rock garden in the northeastern part of Suzhou City.
He named it Shi Zi Lin (Lion Grove) because of the numerous stones shaped like lions. They were inspired by Shi Zi Cave in Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang, where the great master had lived and achieved the state of Nirvana.
The lions also have a symbolic meaning, representing the guardians of the Buddhist temple.
From his arrival in 1341, Tianru was generally respected and admired in the city. The following year, with the help of his disciples, the monk established Putizhengzong Temple and created a garden in its grounds.
The garden soon 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 Tianru the garden was totally neglected until 1589. Another monk, named Mingxing, gathered donations to renovate the temple and garden.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last of the Imperial dynasties of China, the gardens and temple were separated.
The Qing emperors Kang Xi and Qianlong often visited the rocky garden. They were so impressed by its beauty that they had a replica garden installed in the Imperial Summer Resort in Rehe.
Later on, the garden was purchased by Huang Xingzu, the governor of Hengzhou, who changed its name to She Garden. It would be renamed once again in 1771 by his son Huang Xi, to Five-Pine Garden.
After the family fell 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 property, 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, 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 was inscribed by Emperor Qianlong, who frequently traveled to admire the magnificent garden.
At 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 artworks.
For instance, Ni Zan’s ‘Panoramic View of Lion Grove Garden’ and Xu Ben’s ‘Twelve Scenic Spots in Lion Grove Garden’ were created here, 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 within 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, 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“.