A Place to Live

A Place to Live

Finding the proper place to live and raise a family had become an obsession for many scholars. There was a desire to belong to a community with peers in close proximity, the main byproduct being the profound effect this had on artistic endeavors. In a country so vast and topographically diverse, the scholars gravitated to Jiangsu and Zhejiang, two of the richest provinces in China. The temperate climate and beautiful natural landscape of seacoasts and mountain forests had been attracting scholars for centuries. Rich cultural traditions, art academies, universities, important historical sites and great tea plantations all thrived there. The flourishing economy of the region included rice plantations, silk production, tea for export and salt for domestic consumption. The salt trade had become so important at one stage of China's history that salt tax became the main source of national revenue. It was the sons of families that had grown wealthy from these industries who would, in most cases, take the imperial examinations and be awarded some official post. After a relatively short career—the average tenure of office being about eight years—these scholars would return and devote the rest of their lives to their desired literary and artistic pursuits.

During the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, many of the scholars looked to nature as a retreat. This was a particularly difficult time- As the Ming dynasty rulers invoked harsh treatment in an attempt to retain control, the encroaching Manchu created even greater turmoil and upheaval in seizing power. Since most of the turmoil took place in the urban centers, the first choice for a location to find a home would have been away from the cities, off in the countryside. Retreating into nature had long been a theme in Confucian literature. Ideally, a scholar might retire from government service, relinquish the conveniences and attractions of the city and return to a rustic life on a provincial farm or a mountain retreat. At the same time many scholars expressed doubts about the wisdom of retreating to secluded dwellings on the grounds that they were less than ideal for raising a family, were often far away from colleagues and other factors - The general consensus was that a life in the suburbs was the best compromise. From a practical point of view, there were more compelling reasons. A suburban locale was probably a safer haven, economic conditions were better, famous teachers would be close by to help with the education of their offspring and the overwhelming tumult of urban life could be avoided.

An urban setting did have advantages, and many scholars had a taste for city life if it was the right city. Many lived in the great port city of Shanghai or the former capital, Nanjing. But most scholars favored modestly sized cities like Zhenjiang, Suzhou or Hangzhou; in fact the region between these three cities became known as the best in which to live, thereby creating a "Golden Triangle." As the Chinese saying goes, in heaven there is paradise, on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou." Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, lies about one hundred miles southwest of Suzhou on a southern extension of the Grand Canal. Hangzhou became one of the largest and richest cities whose majestic buildings and scenic beauty were acclaimed as unsurpassed in China, The Southern Song dynasty established Hangzhou as its capital, and the population then swelled to a million people. The city's jewel is West Lake, its banks surrounded by landscaped gardens and tree-shaded pathways. In the nearby hills were temples, pagodas and monasteries. Many scholars enjoyed long stays among the beautiful mountains, near gentle streams that blended naturally with the scholar spirit.

Marco Polo had visited Hangzhou in the late thirteenth century. His journal notes recorded the following description, "It is without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world. The streets and watercourses alike are very wide. There are said to be at least 12,000 bridges mostly of stone. Vast are the numbers of those accustomed to dainty living. The West Lake commands a distant view of all the city's grandeur and liveliness, its temples, palaces, monasteries and gardens with their towering trees running down to the waters edge. On the lake is the endless procession of barges thronged with pleasure seekers, their minds and thoughts are intent upon nothing but bodily pleasures and the delights of society." As for the beautiful women for which Hangzhou was famous, Marco Polo described them as "heavily perfumed, attended by many handmaids and lodged in richly ornamented apartments. These ladies are highly proficient and accomplished in the uses of endearments and caresses so that foreigners who have once enjoyed them remain utterly beside themselves and so captivated by their sweetness and charm that they can never forget them."

In 2003, I visited Hangzhou, still one of the most beautiful cities in China, and found that the area around West Lake retains several of its teahouses. It was easy to see how the picturesque scenery by West Lake provided the scholars an excellent backdrop to watch the sun rise through the morning mist, see passing boats set sail or view the moon reflecting off the water. The beautiful and historic atmosphere of Hangzhou makes its rustic tearooms all the more captivating.

Founded in the Song dynasty, Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, is an area dotted by lakes and ponds. It is situated about fifty miles west of Shanghai and twelve miles from Taihu (Lake Tai) on the old Imperial Canal, which joins up with the Grand Canal. The city is threaded by a spider's web of canals lined by whitewashed houses and roadways linked by fine old hump-backed bridges, A garden city, Suzhou was home to many of the most beautiful and famous gardens.

The scholars, many of whom built teahouses in their courtyards or gardens, preferred to have their tea gatherings within these idealized landscapes- Most tea gardens were created as a relaxed setting where the scholars would drink tea by Zisha tea cup while painting, sharing stories, playing musical instruments (a zither or flute), chanting poems or appreciating the scenery - ideally under a moonlit sky. Structures in the garden typified area dotted by lakes and ponds. It is situated about fifty miles west of Shanghai and twelve miles from Taihu (Lake Tai) on the old Imperial Canal, which joins up with the Grand Canal. The city is threaded by a spider's web of canals lined by whitewashed houses and roadways linked by fine old hump-backed bridges. A garden city, Suzhou was home to many of the most beautiful and famous gardens. The ideals of frugality and simplicity. Scholars would build a tearoom of simple thin, unlacquered wood or bamboo poles that supported a thatched roof. Walls of the structure were done in latticework filled with rice paper. The beauty of the experience was further manifested through a variety of accouterments. The furnishings were likely to be sparse - a couch and a small table with wooden chairs or porcelain stools. The furniture, rustic in character, was made of plain wood, bamboo, rattan, gnarled tree roots and the like. The essentials for practicing tea art were needed, namely a water cup, a portable charcoal tea stove and shelves or a cupboard for smaller accessories. Lanterns hanging from the beams would invariably have a simple elegance, never garish or ostentatious. Everything would have been its natural color: the off-white of the rice paper, the yellows of straw, yellow/green of bamboo and the various browns of the unpainted wood. Often there would be a water feature as the more elaborate gardens and teahouses were generally surrounded by a miniature lake or lotus pond. In addition to patches of massed lotus leaves, the pond might include water irises and other flowers according to the season. Curiously shaped rocks built up to form caves or grottoes, with perhaps tiny waterfalls or miniature cataracts, added further interest. The surrounding gardens would not have lawns or flowerbeds, but were laid out to form a varied landscape with tiny hills, willow clumps or bamboo groves. Plantings of contorted pines or trees notable for spring blossoms or autumn colors would be strategically placed as well Scholars always sought to make use of the surrounding landscape, remaining faithful to untamed nature, and when possible, they included "borrowed landscapes" such as orchards or rice fields.

Suzhou, which I first visited in 1992, is still home to two of the most beautiful gardens in China. Located in the older section of the city; the Humble Administrators Garden and the Liu Garden remain magnificent. Designed by a scholar during the Ming dynasty, the Liu Garden was laid out as a series of buildings and small manmade lakes linked by numerous bridges. Square, circular and hexagonal buildings with fantastic roofs of fancifully curling eaves are supported on massive wooden pillars. Intricately designed windows shaped to resemble a fan, a bell, a flower, a leaf, a vase, a full moon and so on create extraordinary views of the landscape which includes "a mountain" made of stones from Lake Tai with a teahouse at its summit, In cold weather the interior of the teahouse would have been warmed by a charcoal brazier so one could sit snugly inside gazing out across the water at the landscaped rocks and trees, admiring, say, chrysanthemums in autumn or moonlit snow in winter.

City-centered teahouses also were meeting places for Chinese scholars, just as Parisian cafes were for artists in France. The Chinese teahouse created an atmosphere where scholars could read, meditate or enjoy each other's company. This was a place to exchange ideas, draw inspiration, renew old acquaintances or play chess; some teahouses even became trading floors to buy and sell antiques. These urban teahouses were simple, refined, elegant, quiet and artistically beautiful. They might be adorned with seasonal flowers, poetic prose or works by famous painters and calligraphers, A place to get warmed by yangutang tea in winter or cooled by plum blossom wine in summer, a teahouse was clearly an indicator of its cultured patrons.

Teahouses were not the private domains of scholars, nor would they have wanted them to be. These were public places where townspeople gathered. From dawn to midnight, young and old, high officials, noble lords and commoners alike came to frequent them. Locals would come to teahouses to meet, read their newspapers, share information and learn about affairs of state. The teahouse became the place where businessmen negotiated, disputes were arbitrated and marriages were arranged. Visitors were brought to a teahouse to be entertained by variety shows, storytellers or poets. In addition to the fresh locally picked teas, one could order soups, fried onions, fried dough twists and many other small delicacies.