Lan Su Chinese Garden — Portland, OR

The Lan Su Chinese Garden, which occupies a city block in Portland, Oregon, is an authentic Ming Dynasty scholar’s garden. The name Lan Su combines sounds from the names of the cities Portland and Suzhou. Suzhou, Portland’s Chinese sister city, is well-known for its beautiful gardens. ‘Lan’, being the Chinese word for ‘orchid’, and ‘su’ being the Chinese word for ‘arise’ or ‘awaken’, united together is poetically understood as “Garden of Awakening Orchids”. This classic garden, stimulating all of the senses with its continuous reference to the principles of yin yang, striking symbolism, and elements of architecture, plants, stones, water, and poetry is meant to contain all of Nature and provide a tranquil retreat for the imperial scholar’s family, as well as a sanctuary where the scholar could take refuge and continue to pursue and cultivate his knowledge and skills into his retirement.

The balancing nature of the concept of yin yang can be experienced throughout the garden. In the way the water reflects the sky, the accompaniment of plants with stone, the patterned and alternating placement of dark and light colored rocks along the garden floor, as well as the various framed openings displaying organic garden views, seemingly opposing elements reveal their interdependent duality. After a lifetime of commitment to strict discipline and exhaustive study to memorizing Confucian texts, in contrast with the garden’s purpose to provide the retired scholar with a refuge for contemplation is, in itself, the epitome of the yin yang philosophy of complementary contrasting forces creating harmony. To quote our group’s very knowledgeable and reverent tour guide, “In the garden you can be a Daoist”.

© 2019 Diane Irby

The garden is comprised of layers of symbolic details harmonizing together to complete the not only sensory, but also spiritual, experience of the surroundings. The century-old osmanthus tree in the Courtyard of Tranquility, with its apricot-like fragrance, recalls the scholar’s long dedication to study and service. The abundance of fish seen swimming in the pond as one travels the meandering paths to and from the many pavilions and courtyards of the garden symbolize the scholar’s prosperity. Plum trees, as well as the coordinating plum blossom motif featured in the pattern of the floor of the Scholar’s Courtyard, are a reminder of resilience and revival. The delicately carved panels of the Hall of Brocade Clouds are designed to represent the Three Friends of Winter — the pine, bamboo, and plum — and are meant as a reminder to stay the course, even through adversity.

The man-made vistas and pavilions scattered throughout do not overpower the organic elements of the garden, but instead blend in perfectly amidst the meticulously designed landscape. Utilizing traditional materials and methods, every minute detail has been attended to in the design and creation of the structures. From elaborate bat-shaped drip tiles along the rooftops that create a delicate veil of droplets with each rain, to the intentionally placed blank walls that allow light and shadow to provide an ever-changing nature-made masterpiece, one is fully enveloped in an environment of sacredly and artistically manifested tranquility. In every direction, from both inside and out, intricate lattice framed doors and windows, along with gracefully shaped openings carved from the solid garden walls, offer to hold the moment in time, so that one may consider each scene’s own distinct beauty. Borrowed views from outside the garden walls create an endless expansiveness and a curiosity for what lies ahead.

© 2019 Diane Irby

Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden is considered to be a botanical garden. Nearly every plant contained within the garden walls is Chinese in ancestry. The garden’s plants and trees eloquently represent Nature in its truest sense, with their organic and seasonal cycles of perfect irregularity creating a balanced contrast against the permanency of the structures and stones they share space with. The greenery of the landscape serves not only as a visual element of beauty for visitors to enjoy, but also offers a variety of fragrances and textures that intermix within the many layers of complementary and contrasting features. The elegant bend of the bamboo exemplifies integrity and adaptability, while the chrysanthemum’s vibrant bloom boasts its endurance; symbolism surrounds the viewer. Leaves interrupt the patterns of precipitation while they rustle in the wind, as guests are swept into a sensory journey that seems to possess no boundary.

More than six hundred tons of prized Lake Tai limestone rocks were imported from China to be included in the Lan Su Garden landscape. Decades of erosion from being immersed in the acidic waters of Lake Tai, the stones take on distinctive and unique shapes. Displayed as if sculptures, the vertically oriented stones emulate distant mountains reaching up to the sky to touch the clouds above. Paired with the gush of the waterfall, or arranged together with the garden’s foliage, the balancing nature of yin yang provoke contemplation and reflection. Poetic inscriptions adorning the water-worn formations offer inspiration to ponder as one experiences the captivating wonder of the beauty around them.

The garden’s shimmering pond mirrors the sky above it, as the sound of the cascading falls lull the visitor into a kind of calmness that only being by the water can evoke. The waters symbolize Qi, the pervading cosmic life force energies that permeate the Universe. It serves as a habitat for the garden’s abundance of aquatic creatures, as well as a reflective portal into the soul of the beholder.

Placed with intention about the garden, speech and song are married together in elegant written form utilizing ages-old calligraphy techniques. Inscribed and brushed onto pairs of pillars and banners, Chinese couplets offer poetic perspectives in their two-lined composition. Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain pavilion features large wooden panels illustrating gardens located in Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, as well as verses written by Wen Zhengming, esteemed garden epicurist, artist, calligrapher and scholar, describing his affection of saving space for Nature, even in the midst of the bustle of the busy city.

© 2019 Diane Irby

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is a delightfully unexpected and magical oasis that transports its visitors to a different time, place, and state of mind. Distinctions of stone patterns are felt underfoot as one strolls from eclectic courtyards to ornate vistas, while the perfumes of the lush greenery wafts by on gentle breezes, creating a cosmic journey that transforms with each shift of the atmospheric elements and cycle of season. Whenever one wanders through the garden the visitor is granted a unique and sensory stimulating journey of enlightened contemplation. Shared from the ancient Ming Dynasty culture, this gift of a haven from Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, is one of not only botanical bounty, but an offering of a sanctuary escape from the whirlwind of our everyday realities.

art historian. writer.

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