A tour of California’s best hidden botanical and architectural masterpiece

“Enter when a hundred sorrows disappear. Laugh as the great river expands.”
Vertically inscribed couplet at the entrance of the Chinese Garden Tea House.

Liu Fang Yuan, or The Garden of Flowing Fragrance, is an incredible 15-hectare garden designed in the traditional style of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholars’ gardens in Suzhou, China. This stunning garden is the result of almost two decades of international collaboration, uncompromising craftsmanship and intense attention to detail. Revolving around a central lake (Lake of Reflected Fragrance or Ying Fang Hu), the garden has been artfully designed as a “moving painting” composed of architectural structures, plants, trees, rare rocks, ornate walkways and bridges.

The Bridge of Delight in Fish / Yu Le Qiao / 魚樂橋 offers a view of the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu / 映芳湖 and the many areas of the garden that surrounds and is reflected by it. (Jeff Perkins)

Each area of ​​the garden offers new compositions and sensations to stimulate the mind and engage the senses. Aside from their aesthetic and sensual beauty, the landscape and architecture are brimming with messages in Chinese calligraphy, lush Chinese plants, stones, and architectural features intricately incorporated for cultural significance. Incredibly, Liu Fang Yuan is just one of an amazing collection of 16 themed gardens that make up 130 acres of botanical gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California. Thousands of plant species, extensive art galleries and priceless book collections make The Huntington a unique historic property and living museum.

Replica of a Ming Dynasty garden

Chinese gardens make creative use of their surroundings, framing distant vistas and creating a balance between environments inside and outside the garden. True to the principles of Suzhou landscaping, the gardens were designed to respect the natural landscape. Set against a backdrop of mature oak and pine trees near the San Marino Mountains, the Huntington estate’s vast acreage provides the space needed to create the illusion of being far from Los Angeles County.

Epoch Times photo
The Terrace of the Jade Mirror / Yu Jing Tai / 玉鏡臺 is a window and portal in the garden, the meaning of which is associated with the white moon. (Jeff Perkins)

A natural pool originally used to collect rainwater provides an authentic landscape to create the garden’s central 1.5 hectare lake. The Lake of Reflected Fragrance is a focal point for the surrounding walkways and structures. Visitors stroll serenely along the waterfront and gaze at vistas meticulously designed by master gardeners. From its conception, designers from Suzhou, China developed the vision for the garden based on specific elements from several classic Chinese gardens of the past. The result is a symphony of wooden beams, tiles, granite terraces, Taihu rocks and fragrant plants that line detailed walkways and courtyard pavilions.

“All of the posts and beams in the structures are connected using wood carpentry techniques that were used in this type of garden structure five hundred years ago. It was crucial that the garden was built by Chinese craftsmen. Their craft has been passed down for hundreds of years. They know all the subtle details of this traditional way of building,” says US architect Jim Frye. “Three languages ​​were spoken during construction: Mandarin, Spanish and English. They were constantly converting measurements from imperial to metric and then back to imperial. There was no room for error.”

90 percent of what visitors see in the garden’s structures were crafted in Suzhou workshops. These include bridges hand-carved from granite, a whopping 850 tons of imported Taihu rock, carved pavilion beams, ornate window panels, intricate fired clay roof tiles, sculpted wood panels and much more. Most of the work was done by hand in true Suzhou fashion. The high level of craftsmanship and authenticity of the garden is a true testament to the dedicated effort of all designers to create a living, breathing work of art. Many years of this dedicated work have allowed visitors to learn more about and truly immerse themselves in classical Chinese culture.

Epoch Times photo
World in a Wine Pot / Hu Tian / is part of the new Verdant Microcosm, a natural gallery of Penzing and Taihu rocks. (Jeff Perkins)

Features of classic Chinese garden design

Classical Chinese gardens have a history dating back to the 11th century. Hand-carved woodwork, windows, roof tiles, stone, and doors are features of this practice. Wealthy merchants in Suzhou in the 16th century created large gardens on their estates dedicated to this style. The Huntington Library is a rare modern example of such gardens, with large collections of art, books and plants.

Rocks are one of the main features of classical Chinese gardens. Liu Fang Yuan owns over 800 tons of Taihu rock, a limestone traditionally quarried in the Suzhou area. Over thousands of years these rocks formed in the oceans and were uplifted into lakes before being brought to the surface. These rocks are spiritually and energetically significant due to their unusual shapes and natural holes in their shape. Their ethereal forms and holes throughout their form are symbolic of the spiritual essence of pre-modern Chinese culture. Taihu rocks symbolize the process of making the heaviness of the physical form light. For these reasons, the Taihu Rocks in Liu Fang Yuan have dreamy names like Embroidered Cloud and Patching up Heaven or Bu Tian.

Epoch Times photo
The Waveless Boat / Bu Bo Xiao Ting / 不波小艇 is an architectural feature that looks like a peaceful boat on the calm waters of the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu / 映芳湖. (Jeff Perkins)

A newly expanded area by Liu Fang Yuan called Verdant Microcosm or Cui Ling Long was recently completed in 2020. Verdant Microcosm is an area designed to house Huntington’s Penjing Collection. Penjing, meaning “scenes” or “landscapes” in a “tray,” is the Chinese equivalent of bonzai trees. The art of penjing is to cultivate the small tree over decades so that it looks like the miniaturized version of a magnificent tree or a scene in nature. The penjing are displayed in front of large, white walls that are shaded by the trees all day long. The white walls are like a piece of paper while the penjing is a work of art painted on it.

Epoch Times photo
Part of the Green Microcosm / Cui Ling Long / 翠玲瓏, this penjing casts its elaborate shadows on the wall of clouds behind throughout the day. (Jeff Perkins)

Plants in classical Chinese gardens are chosen for their cultural significance. Bamboo symbolizes an unbreakable strength, lotus flowers symbolize purity and plum blossoms (which bloom in winter) stand for perseverance in difficult times. The world owes a great debt of gratitude to ancient Chinese horticulture, as it is believed that most of the plants we take for granted today originated in China. Huntington Botanical Gardens director Jim Folsom puts it bluntly:

Epoch Times photo
Lotus pods have dropped their seeds to continue the cycle of life in the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu / 映芳湖. (Jeff Perkins)

“The plants found in gardens throughout North America, or at least the common garden plants, are not native to North America at all, and are not even native to Europe. They come straight from Asia. So you start looking at the camellias and wisteria, forsythia and lilac and understand that these plants were cultivated by Chinese gardeners for thousands of years before westerners even knew they existed. There is a whole range, a whole range of materials that you would encounter and feel very comfortable with if you went to China and visited the Gardens. One would almost look around and think, what are they doing with our plants? Well the truth is, what are we going to do with their plants?”

Words and meaningful literary references are present in classical Chinese gardens in the form of calligraphy, poetic couplets, and Chinese script. Each structure, courtyard, pavilion and water feature is given a name in Chinese characters. Many literary references of ancient cultural importance fill the garden. In this sense, Liu Fang Yuan is a veritable “scholar’s garden” in the tradition of those found in Suzhou. It is a place for cultivating higher thoughts and feelings. The creative forces of mankind seem to be in harmony with the creative forces of nature in such a place. The unifying power of being and presence is palpable. Strolling through this living work of art, everyone is offered the opportunity to view the garden’s collection of meaningful glimpses. Though they may seem worlds apart, the gardens’ peaceful symphony has the potential for even greater impact given their proximity to one of the world’s greatest cities.

Epoch Times photo
Love for the Lotus Pavilion / Ai Lian Xie / 愛蓮榭 is one of Liu Fang Yuan’s main buildings and features sculpted scenes from traditional Suzhou gardens. (Jeff Perkins)

Though rooted in mud, how could the lotus be defiled? Its fragrance spreads far and wide with even greater purity. Lou Qing

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