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Yu Yuan is a pleasant enough, well-contained classical Chinese garden, if not quite the loveliest of its kind, as local boosters would have you believe. Bearing the burden of being the most complete classical garden in urban Shanghai and therefore a must-see for every tourist, this overexposed garden overflows daily with hordes of visitors, and is no longer the pastoral haven it once was. Built between 1559 and 1577 by local official Pan Yunduan as the private estate for his father, Yu Yuan (meaning "Garden of Peace and Comfort") is a maze of Ming Dynasty pavilions, elaborate rockeries, arched bridges, and goldfish ponds, all encircled by an undulating dragon wall. Occupying just 2 hectares (5 acres), it nevertheless appears quite expansive, with room for 30 pavilions.

Essentials

Yu Yuan is located at the heart of Old Town (Nanshi), a few blocks southwest of the Bund in downtown Shanghai (Metro: Yu Garden [Line 10]). The main entrance and ticket window (tel. 021/6355-5032 or 021/6326-0830; www.yugarden.com.cn) are on the north shore of the Huxin Ting pond. It is open from 8:30am to 5:30pm (last ticket 5pm), and admission is ¥40. The least crowded time to visit is early morning. Allow 2 hours for a leisurely tour of this site.

Exploring Yu Yuan

The layout of Yu Yuan, which contains several gardens-within-gardens, can make strolling here a bit confusing, but if you stick to a general clockwise path from the main entrance, you should get around most of the estate and arrive eventually at the Inner Garden (Nei Yuan) and final exit. The major sites from the northern entrance clockwise to the east and south are as follows:

Sansui Tang (Three Ears of Corn Hall) -- This is the first and largest of the garden's grand pavilions, although it was built in 1760 after Yu Yuan had been sold to a group of merchants. The highlight here is the fine window and wood-beam carvings of rice, millet, wheat, fruit, and other emblems of a plentiful harvest. The building was used as a meeting place for local officials and for proclaiming imperial announcements.

Yangshan Tang (Hall for Viewing the Grand Rockery) -- Immediately north of the Three Ears of Corn Hall, this graceful two-story tower with upturned eaves serves as the entrance to the marvelous rock garden behind. Its upper story, known as Juanyu Lou (Chamber for Gathering Rain), provides a fine view of the Grand Rockery.

Da Jia Shan (The Grand Rockery) -- A pond separates the viewing hall from the Grand Rockery, which consists of 2,000 tons of rare yellow stones fused together with rice glue and designed by a famous garden artist of the Ming, Zhang Nanyang. The twisted mountainlike sculpture, intended to evoke peaks, ravines, caves, and ridges, stands 14m (46 ft.) high and was the highest point in the city during the garden's construction. East of the pond is Jian Ru Jia Jing (the Corridor for Approaching the Best Scenery); notice the beautiful vase-shaped door frames. Off the corridor to the east, you'll find the small Yule Xie (Pavilion for Viewing Frolicking Fish) with schools of happy carp and goldfish swimming in a stream that appears much longer than it actually is (less than 50m/164 ft.). Northeast of the rockery is the Cui Xiu Tang (Hall of Gathering Grace); to the east is Wanhua Lou (Pavilion of Ten Thousand Flowers), where a 4-century-old gingko tree stakes out the front courtyard.

Dian Chun Tang (Hall of Heralding Spring) -- If you continue east from the Grand Rockery and the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Flowers, you will come to two halls in the northeast section of Yu Yuan: the northern Cangbao Lou (Treasury Hall), and the most famous historical building in the garden, Dian Chun Tang (Hall of Heralding Spring). It was here in 1853 that the secret Small Sword Society (Xiaodao Hui) plotted to join the peasant-led Taiping Rebellion based in Nanjing, which aimed to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. The uprising was a bloody one in Shanghai, forcing countless Chinese to flee into the British Concession. Rebels ruled the Chinese city for a year before being put down by a combination of Chinese and Western soldiers. Today, there is a small collection of uprising artifacts in this hall, including weapons and coins minted by the rebels.

Hexu Tang (Hall of Harmony) -- South of the rebels' old headquarters, past the Kuai Lou (Tower of Joy) perched atop a pile of rocks, is the glass-enclosed Hall of Harmony, worth stepping inside to examine its display of old Qing Dynasty furniture, fashioned by hand from banyan tree roots.

Just to the west of this hall is a wonderful dragon wall with a lifelike clay carving of a dragon's head perched at the end and gray tiles along the top evoking the dragon's body. Such walls are used throughout to divide the garden into different sections. A detour west of this wall leads to a bamboo grove and eventually to the airy Jiushi Xuan (Nine Lion Study).

Yu Hua Tang (Hall of Jade Magnificence) -- This hall opens into a southern courtyard with the most celebrated stone sculpture in the garden, Yu Ling Long (Exquisite Jade Rock). This honeycomb slab was reportedly originally procured by the Huizong emperor of the Northern Song (reigned A.D. 1100-26) from the waters of Tai Hu (Lake Tai) where many of the bizarre rocks and rockeries found in classical Chinese gardens were submerged to be naturally carved by the currents. Such rocks represent mountain peaks in classical Chinese garden design, and this rock satisfies the three elements of appearance (that it be rough, craggy, and pitted). Water poured into the top of this boulder will spurt out through its numerous holes; incense lighted at its base will swirl outward from its openings. Destined for the emperor, the rock was reportedly shipwrecked in the Huangpu River, and was later retrieved by Pan Yunduan and placed here across from his study.

Nei Yuan (Inner Garden) -- South of Exquisite Jade Rock is the entrance to the Inner Garden, which was constructed in 1709 and made a part of Yu Yuan only in 1956. This is often the quietest section of the garden, particularly in the morning. Its Hall of Serenity (Jingguan Tang) at the north entrance and Tower for Watching Waves (Guantao Lou) are magnificent, as is the ornately carved Acting and Singing Stage (Gu Xitai) to the south. Local artists and calligraphers sometimes use these and other pavilions to display (and sell) their works. The exit from Yu Yuan is located next to the Inner Garden entrance (west); it puts you on Yuyuan Lu, which leads back to the Old Town pond and the Huxingting Teahouse.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.