Uncharacteristically, Kristophe Lionnet finds himself moved by the spiritual resonances of a Chinese Garden.
Yes, I am in Hong Kong. Yes, it’s a hubbub, a maelstrom, a wonderful, exciting, dynamic city that leaves one breathless but wanting more. And, maybe, desperate for just a moment of tranquillity. Amazingly, I found it.
An MTR train ride from Yau Ma Tei to Diamond Hill Station brought me to a noisy crossroads shadowed by an overhead bypass and flanked by yet another shopping mall. I could not have begun to imagine the contrast that awaited me just a few yards away.
Nan Lian Garden is a 35,000 square meters landscape, recently created under the auspices of the Chi Lin Nunnery, offering cultural sights, scenic vistas and, above all, an oasis of tranquillity beneath the high rise towers of this remarkable city.
A stroll through the gardens has been created by the use of traditional Chinese landscaping techniques, translated in a quite self-explanatory way as “borrowing scenes”, “concealing scenes”, sheltering scenes” and “penetrating scenes.” Beyond and above the gardens, across a bridge, sits the Temple of the nunnery itself, an impressive structure sheltered by the hills beyond. But more of that later.
I entered the gardens through a huge ceremonial Black Lintel Gate. The use of impressive timber structures was characteristic of the Tang Dynasty, in whose style this site has been created. The garden unravelled before me, its main four elements being artificial hillocks and ornamental rocks, water features, timber buildings and ancient trees.
The sun beat down with its full summer vigour, but the shade from the trees and the various pavilions along the way made the heat bearable. I first visit the Timber Architecture Gallery, full of extraordinarily detailed structures with a sense of timelessness. The winding path then takes me past rocky hillsides, through the Banyan Grove and the Pine Path, glimpses of the Blue Pond appearing at every twist and turn.
I pause at the Perfection Pavilion, agree on the appropriateness of its name, pass the babbling waters of Spring Hill and enter the Xiang Hai Xuan Hall to admire the exhibition of baby carrier fabrics created by the Guizhou tribes people. They have cute names like the Miao, the Buyi, the Peony, yes, quite floral, and my favourites, the Dong. Sorry. Couldn’t resist that.
The splash of Koi Carp swimming in the Blue Pond accompanies the plangent tones of traditional Chinese instruments piped along the pathways until these melodies are lost in the crashing tumult of the Silver Strand waterfall just by the old wooden Mill House. Across the Pond, the majestic structure of the Song Cha Xie Tea Pavilion is reflected on the gently rippling surface, sky, water and timber blending into an impressionist blur of soft colours. This is one example of the “borrowed scene” epitomising the subtlety of the landscape designers.
Beneath an impressive crag, the Nan Lian Rocks, an ornamental fountain offers the Light of Enlightenment. I recall the line from an ancient Chinese poem: “A man would be content with his lot if he stayed still in his mind and was in harmony with nature”. I am inclined to agree, while recognising how bloody difficult all that harmony is to achieve in this decidedly manic world of ours.
I mount a series of steps and come to the Chi Lin complex. Four lotus ponds symmetrically divide the main quadrangle, surrounded by the four halls exhibiting various Buddhist deities. The largest, most golden statuary features the Shakyamuni image looking benevolently on flawed mankind, the images accompanied by the chanting of the resident monks.
I linger, captivated by the beauty and serenity of this unique world, mere yards from that contrasting reality of the throbbing city. Reluctantly I follow the signs for the Exit. That is, of course, an entrance to another world entirely.
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