Yuan Mei’s Garden of Accommodation

Translated and Introduced by Duncan M Campbell

Yuan Mei (袁枚, 1716-1797), who was born in Hangzhou, was the most important Chinese poet of the eighteenth century. He was also a prolific essayist, letter writer, critic, short-story writer, gourmet and scholar. He had a particular interest in both history and the role of poetry. After an unsuccessful attempt to pass the triennial imperial exams in 1736, Yuan was successful in the 1739 round and was appointed to a post in the Hanlin Academy. Thereafter, his limited ability in Manchu, the language of the ruling house of the Qing dynasty, the Aisin Gioro, however, led to him being appointed to a series of minor and local posts as district magistrate.

In 1752, Yuan Mei retired from office and, for the next fifty years, he lived off his writings, managing to avoid entanglement in the various literary inquisitions that characterized his age. Throughout this period he lived with few interruptions in his Nanking garden, Sui Yuan 隨園, a name variously translated as Harmony Garden or, as below, Garden of Accommodation.

‘If it is the garden that brings pleasure to one’s eyes’, Yuan Mei remarked, ‘it is also the garden that provides man with a refuge for his self.’ Sui Yuan was situated on the slopes of Little Granary Hill 小倉山 in the west of the city, a site that had first been developed as a garden in 1728 by Sui Hede 隋赫德, the Imperial Textile Commissioner. It had fallen into disrepair by the time Yuan Mei acquired it in 1749. As he expanded the garden, Yuan modelled its design on the West Lake of Hangzhou. By his own account, many of the early structures in the grounds were built by his carpenter, Wu Longtai 武龍臺, a tall and powerfully built man who, following his death in 1753, Yuan had buried in the western corner of the garden.

Ignoring the moralistic criticisms of a number of his contemporaries, Yuan Mei, a man committed to the education of women, gathered around him a group of talented female poets, known as 詩女, publishing their writings under the title of his garden, as he did also (in 1796) a celebrated book of recipes, 隨園食單 (see the translated excerpts from TC Lai’s ‘Choice Morsels’ in this Annual).

Unusual in that it lacked enclosing walls, the garden appears to have been open to visitors. Over the years 1749-1770, Yuan wrote a series of six accounts of the garden, a translation of the second of which is given below. Late in his life, he appears to have believed that his garden had been the site of the ‘Prospect Garden’ at the heart of the great eighteenth century novel Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone). Elsewhere in this Annual Yan Zhong indeed claims that the ‘Stone City’ 石頭城, that is Nanking, was the mis-en-scene of The Story of the Stone 石頭記.

The significance of the garden to Yuan Mei can be seen from his will, in which he listed it along with his other possessions:

The Garden of Accommodation was once a patch of wasteland. I had the ground flattened and ponds excavated, towers and terraces raised. Three times I undertook renovations of, at incalculable expense. Strange peaks and eccentric rocks were purchased at considerable cost; I planted ten-thousand green bamboos with my own hands. All the utensils I used there are fashioned from sandalwood and pear and patterned catalpa, or are of carved lacquer-ware or beaten gold; my baubles comprise rubbings from the Jin dynasty and stele of the Tang, wine beakers of the Shang and tripods from the Xia. The paintings and calligraphy in my possession all bear seals made of the finest Frozen Yellow stone from Blue Fields and carry inscriptions by famous men; my exquisite inkslabs from Duan county are decorated with banana leaf and blue flower patterns, and feature legends of great antiquity. All is such that no wealthy man, north or south of the Yangtze River, could vie with the splendour of my possessions.

On his death, Yuan Mei was buried in the family crypt within the garden. The garden was maintained by his family until 1853, when it was destroyed and turned into arable land after Nanking was occupied by the Taiping rebels. The accounts Yuan Mei wrote of the garden offer no actual description of the place. In his day, many paintings were, however, made of the Garden of Accommodation, but none appear to be extant. Working from memory some eighty years after Yuan Mei’s demise a grandson by the name of Yuan Yuzhi (袁祖志, 1827-1898) described the gardens features in an essay dated 1877.

Following the short account by Yuan Mei below I have append a study of the garden written by Tung Chuin, one of the great historians of the Chinese garden whose work has previously featured in the pages of China Heritage Quarterly.

Latter Record of

My Garden of Accommodation 

Yuan Mei

《隨園後記》袁枚 著

Having lived in my Garden of Accommodation for three years, I accepted an official posting in Shaanxi. Before a full year had gone by, however, my thoughts, like those of Tao Qian of old, had turned to the ‘Return Home’. Once back there, I found that the flowers I planted had all withered, the roof tiles had cracked and shaken loose, and the flowering apricot plaster was beginning to peel away from the rafters. Such were the circumstances that greeted my eye that I could not but seek to restore my garden to its former state. 余居隨園三年,捧檄入陝,歲未周,仍賦歸來。所植花皆萎,瓦斜墮梅,灰脫於梁,勢不能無改作

Thereupon, I led my servants out to clear the ground of rocks and to thus reveal the veins of the earth that ran beneath, in order that my garden’s full potential for the beauty of height and spaciousness might be realized. Even after a year of effort and the outlay of a thousand taels, the task I had set myself is not yet completed. 則率夫役芟石留,覓土脈,增高明之麗。治之有年,費千全而功不竟。

On one occasion, a visitor turned to me: ‘Given the amount that you have now spent on renovating your dwelling, why are there no splendid buildings to be had as evidence of the fact? How can you put up with these present desolate and half-finished circumstances?’ 客或曰:以子之費,易子之居,胡華屋之不獲,而俯順荒余何耶?

To this, I responded: ‘However fine an object, one does not treasure it unless one has created it with one’s own hands; however delicious the food may be, one does not appreciate its sweetness before having oneself tasted it. Have you, sir, not seen the ancient ruins of the ponds and cloisters of Gaoyang, of Orchid Pavilion and of Catalpa Marsh? Although such sites may well evoke in us melancholy reflections on the vicissitudes of time, they finally do not resonate within our souls. Why is this, I ask you? It is by reason of the fact that these sites contain nothing of the self within them. Often have rich men and nobles of the past summoned the carpenter to build them ponds and gardens, and expended every effort in producing ingenious conceits of various kinds, taxed their wits and tasked their imaginations. Once such gardens are complete, the master can only stand there dumbstruck, his eyes agape, accepting the congratulations of his friends. When asked about the name of a particular tree, however, the master has no reply. Why is this, I ask you again? It is by reason of the fact that such gardens also contain nothing of the self.’ 余答之曰:夫物雖佳,不手致者不愛也;味雖美,不親嘗者不甘也。子不見高陽池管、蘭亭、梓澤乎?蒼然古蹟,憑吊生悲,覺與吾之精神不相屬者,何也?其中無我故也。公卿富豪,未始不召梓人營池囿,程巧致功,千力萬氣,落成,主人張目受賀而已,問某樹某名而不知也,何也?其中亦未嘗有我故也。

It is only with the man-of-letters that each stream and every rock, every pavilion and each terrace, comes from an excess love of learning and profound contemplation. What is obtained is the result of a deliberate plan, and what proves less than excellent is immediately altered. His planting of trees and tending of flowers is akin to the caring for the common folk; his weeding is akin to the eradication of evil; his building of pavilions is akin to the setting up of a new prefecture office; his digging of moats and piling up of earth is akin to dividing the fields into registered lots. In silence does he understand the lay of the land and with inspiration does he reveal it. Sparing of expenditure, none of his endeavours is wasteful; relying solely upon his own conception, his every effort is premeditated. When the project is finally brought to a successful conclusion, it proves advantageous not just to he alone, neither does it simply bring joy to his own mind, for it serves also to testify to the assiduity in the selection of the right materials to be used and the ingenuity of conception.  惟夫文士之一水一石,一亭一台,皆得之於好學深思之余,有得則謀,不善則改。其蒔如養民,其刈如除惡;吞其創建似開府,其浚渠簣山如區土宇版章。默而識之,神而明之。惜費,故無妄作;獨斷,故有定謀。及其成功也,不特便於己,快於意,而吾度材之功苦,構思之巧拙,皆於是徵焉。

At present, although the exertions on my garden are not yet over, although my expenditure has yet to be paid off, what is still incomplete can await another day and what remains dilapidated may yet be restored sometime in the future, for the construction of my garden works to no set deadline. How could this compare with my early years when with insignia of office at my waist I had to bow and scrape among the noisy rabble? Mowing away the overgrown grass, pruning the dead wood from my trees, all this I do only as the desire takes me, for no longer am I under anyone’s thumb. How could this compare with my past when I had constantly to toady to the powerful or take my marching orders from my superiors? Long ago, during the Five dynasties, Prince Tufa Rutan while sitting at his victory banquet in the Hall of Proclaimed Virtue sighed: ‘Those who built this hall live here not, those who live here did not build it.’ This year I am thirty-eight years old and my intention to retire is firm. I will both build this garden and live within it, and who can tell what the future may hold? 今園之功雖未成,園之費雖不資,然或缺而待周,或損而待修,固未嘗有迫以期之者也;孰若余昔年之腰笏磬折,里魁喧呶乎?伐惡草、剪虯枝,惟吾所為,未嘗有制而掣肘者也;孰若余昔時之仰息崇轅,請命大胥者乎?五代時,傉檀宴宣德堂,嘆曰:‘作者不居,居者不作。’余今年裁三十八,入山志定,作之居之,或未可量也。

Thereupon I composed the following solemn pledge:

I quit this garden two years ago,
Overworked I became, desolate the garden.
This year I returned to my garden,
Dense the flowers, happy am I.
Never again will I quit this garden,
Office it is that I will quit.
Today I repudiate my former crime,
Swearing never to break this pledge.



Recorded in the Seventh Month of the Guiyou year [1753]

The Garden of Accommodation: A Study
Tung Chuin

《隨園考》童寯 著

The architectural engineer Tung Chuin (童寯, 1890-1983) was a long-time resident of Nanking. During his years living in the city he taught at various universities and became known also as one of the foremost garden historians of the twentieth century. A Record of the Gardens of Kiangnan 江南園林志, research for which was undertaken in the 1930s although the book only appeared in 1963, remains a definitive source on both the histories and the designs of some of China’s most beautiful gardens of old [reference to CHQ]. Through text (divided into five chapters: ‘Garden Design’, ‘Rockeries’, ‘Change Over Time’, ‘Present Circumstances’ and ‘Miscellaneous Notes’), photographs, illustrations, and plans, Tung Chuin sought to recapture something of the splendor of the gardens of Soochow, Nanking, Yangchow and the other towns and cities of Kiangnan. His book is elegiac in tone. To quote his ‘Author’s Preface’, dated Spring, 1937:

The craft of garden design in China, along with so many other aspects of our national essence, is gradually being eliminated. Since the popularization of the use of the use of cement, the rocks that form part of the rockeries of the gardens have begun to seem altogether too artificial; with the spread of the use of glass, the water-caltrop or willow-leaf patterns have been lost from the latticework of the windows; and now that the public park has become all the rage, it is only lawns that are to be found growing to the side of mansions or within empty courtyards… . In the face of the vicissitudes of the forces of both man and nature, the life of the gardens of old is now under ceaseless assault.

His conclusion is a somber one:

Whenever now I enter a famous garden of old I linger long and begin to mourn, unconscious of any pangs of hunger and overcome by that feeling one experiences when seeing a once lovely garden overgrown by weeds or a formerly beautiful woman grown old. We live at the very tail end of an age of decline and all that one can do is cherish this flower or that roof-beam in the hope that such things will not be swept away entirely by the floodtide of the times.

Tung Chuin was writing at the cusp of the Sino-Japanese War. Now that peace and prosperity has again returned to Kiangnan/Jiangnan 江南 (the Lower Yangtze Valley), and the traditional garden culture of China is being revived, it is to Tung Chuin’s book that both designers and prospective garden owners will need to turn to in order to reconnect with the practices of old.

In the December 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly, I offered a translation of Huang Shang’s (黃裳, 1919-2012) essay about Tung Chuin and his book (‘On Reading Tung Chuin’s A Record of the Gardens of Jiangnan’), along with a reproduction of Tung’s English-language account of the gardens of this region (‘Chinese Gardens, Especially in Kiangsu and Chekiang’) first published in the journal T’ien Hsia Monthly (vol.III, no.3, October 1936: 220-244). Tung Chuin’s study of Yuan Mei’s Garden of Accommodation first appeared in the pages of the Nanjing Shifan Xueyuan Wenjiao Ziliao Jianbao 南京師範學院文教資料簡報, No. 7.8 (1982): 37-45. It was later appended to the 1984 reprinting of Tung’s A Record of the Gardens of Kiangnan. This translation is of the text as found in this latter publication. Footnotes added by the translator are in square brackets; all other annotations are those of the author. I have also given the essay a number of subheadings.


Tung Chuin’s Study of Yuan Mei’s Garden

In his Gazetteer of Mount Bo 盋山志 (1869), the late-Qing scholar Gu Yun 顧雲 says of the Garden of Accommodation in Nanking that: ‘Its praises were sung throughout the empire’. This garden was owned and managed by the early Qing man-of-letters Yuan Mei (袁枚, 1714-1797). Yuan Mei was a widely published author and the titles of a number of his books bore the name of the garden or its features. These include: Complete Edition of the Writings of the Little Granary Mountain Hut 小倉山房全集, Discussions of Poetry from the Garden of Accommodation 隨園詩話 and Prose Selections from the Garden of Accommodation 隨園文選, among others. Few at the time, then, would not have heard about the garden. Today, of course, the garden itself has disappeared completely, but its fame as one of Nanking’s historical sites remains.

Acquiring a Site

Yuan Mei was born in Hangzhou during the Fifty-fourth Year of the reign of the Kangxi emperor but died (in the Second Year of the Jiaqing emperor) in Nanking, having served in a number of posts in various parts of southern China (Lishui 溧水, Kiangp’u 江浦, Liyang 溧陽 and Kiangning 江寧) and earned himself something of a reputation as a fair and able official.[1] During his posting to Kiangning county (the official seat of which was within the walls of Nanking city), he acquired Sui’s Garden 隋園 and proceeded to renovate it. In the first of the six records occasioned by his possession of the garden and written over the period 1749-1770, Yuan Mei gives the following account of both the site of the garden and its name:[2]

A short walk of two li westwards from Nanjing’s North Gate Bridge 北門橋 brings one to Little Granary Hill 小倉山… . During the reign of the Kangxi emperor,[3] Master Sui, who was the Imperial Textile Commissioner, began to build on Little Granary Hill’s northern peak. Within this estate, he constructed a series of majestic halls and chambers, enclosed them with walls and windows… . [The garden] became known as ‘Sui’s Garden’ 隋園. By the time I served in Kiangning some thirty years later, the garden had fallen into disrepair. Its buildings were being used as a tavern… . I enquired as to its purchase price. I was told that I might acquire it for 300 taels of silver, and so for just a month’s salary the garden became mine… . Accommodating to the Garden’s heights, I established a river tower; accommodating to its hollows I built a brook pavilion. Accommodating to the land that abuts a ravine I erected a bridge, and accommodating to the swirling stream I moored a boat. Accommodating to the land that juts up sharply, I had peaks made; and accommodating to the flatlands, where vegetation flourishes, I had the buildings constructed. Here raising the land; there lowering it; everything was achieved by accommodating to the shape of the land, and taking the various scenes from the existing contours, rather than regarding that which is natural as an obstacle to be overcome. Consequently, I renamed it the Garden of Accommodation 隨園, a name that sounds exactly the same as the surname of the garden’s original owner but which means something very different.[4]

Work on the garden commenced in 1749 (the Fourteenth Year of the reign of the Qianlong emperor), and in his ‘Latter Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ [see above], written after having lived there for four years, Yuan Mei tells us of his decision to retire and live permanently in the garden, writing:

Mowing away the overgrown grass, pruning the dead wood from my trees, all this I do only as the desire takes me, for no longer am I under anyone’s thumb. How could this compare with my past when I had constantly to toady to the powerful or seek my marching orders from my superiors?

From that year onwards, Yuan Mei devoted himself to his books and to his writing.

The Design of the Garden

The eastern ridge that leads down and away from Bracing Mountain 清涼山 in Nanking is called Little Granary Hill. It divides into two branches, a northerly and a southerly, in between which the land is low-lying and marshy. Today, this is where Canton Road lu 廣州路 runs, with the former site of the garden found halfway along this road. Little Granary Hill once had an undulating contour, but its peaks and ridges are no longer in evidence, having been flattened and turned into terraced fields when the Taiping rebels established their capital here and sought to expand the grain supply for their troops. The design of the Garden of Accommodation, in accordance with the lay of the land then, was divided into three separate and parallel systems, to east and west: all the main structures of the garden were found along the ridge of the northernmost system, whereas the southernmost system contained just a kiosk and a pavilion, and the middle system comprised the stream flowing along what today is the course of Canton Road. The north and south systems were high; the middle system was low, thus creating the conceit of a river being hemmed in by two mountains.

The garden’s main gate was situated in the north-eastern corner, at the intersection today of Canton Road and Shanghai Road 山海路. The street sign here still reads ‘Garden of Accommodation’. The garden’s south-eastern corner abutted upon the Temple of Eternal Felicitation 永慶寺 on Five Platform Mountain 五臺山.[5] To the north, the garden overlooked, in the near distance, a stretch of land that included Eastern Gourd Temple 東瓜寺 and Unification New Village 合群新村, this being where, formerly, the living rooms and bedchambers, the library, the terrace and the pavilions and so on that once constituted the structural elements of the garden were concentrated—in the 1970s, the Five Platform Travel Agency 五臺旅社 was built here. In the north-western corner, the garden had stretched all the way to what is, today, the southern entrance to Ninghai Road 寧海路, this having been the edge of the Garden of Accommodation’s Little Fragrant Snow Sea 小香雪海. To the south-western corner were situated the tombs of the Yuan clan.[6] The south ridge is today called Hundred Pace Slope 百步坡, this being where once the garden’s Half Mountain Kiosk 半山亭 and Heavenly Breeze Pavilion 天風閣 had once been situated—between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Five Platform Sporting Complex 五臺山體育建築群 was built here. Canton Road was the lowest point of the garden, this having been where the lotus pond, the sluice gate, the embankment, the bridges and the kiosks had been situated.

In Yuan Mei’s Discussions of Poetry from the Garden of Accommodation we read: ‘The Garden of Accommodation was not surrounded by a wall, the uneven contours of the slopes upon which it was built making it difficult for bricks to be laid for this purpose. For this reason, on fine spring or autumn days, the young women who gathered here would be as numerous as the clouds, and the master of the garden would let them roam as they wished, never barring his gates against them, only restricting entry to the twenty-three rooms that surrounded Green Purity Studio 綠淨軒 just to acquaintances’. Yuan Mei entertained his guests in the main structure of the garden, his Little Granary Mountain Hut 小倉山房. He would read and write in his own living quarters, however, his Cool in Summer and Cosy in Winter Room 夏涼冬燠所, situated to the left side of the Mountain Hut. Above this stood the Pavilion of the Green Dawn 綠曉閣, also called South Tower 南樓. From here, one could see in the far distance both Terrace Town 臺城 (today’s Crowing Cock Temple 雞鳴寺) and the Tomb of the First Emperor of the Ming. Yuan Mei’s Bookroom 書倉 contained 30,000 fascicles. There was also a chamber called Poetry World 詩世界 where Yuan would gather all the poetry manuscripts sent to him by his contemporaries. This would be where one began any tour of the garden sites.

In his ‘Twenty-four Poems in Celebration of my Garden of Accommodation’ 隨園二十四詠 Yuan Mei wrote a seven-word old-style poem 七言古體诗 to go with each of the Twenty-four Scenes 二十四景 of the garden.[7] The most important scenes were located at South Terrace 南臺, at the centre of the garden. The gingko tree growing on the terrace was old and thick of girth, and Yuan Mei had a structure built that made use of its trunk. He called it A Tree Becomes a Room 因樹為屋. All the other structures of the garden were constructed in harmony with the lay of the land. That is because the site undulated and snaked around the slopes of the hill. Once these buildings were constructed, one did not need to clamber up and down stairways to move from one part of the garden to another.

The branches of the six old cypress trees that grew on South Mountain 南山 had grown to intertwine with each other to form a canopy. Here a thatched kiosk was formed named Cypress Kiosk 柏亭. There was also a pavilion called Six Pine Kiosk 六松亭 which also used tree branches in its structure. The Miscellaneous Records of the Garden of Accommodation 隨園瑣記state that: ‘The swaying of the branches here was as majestic as the uneven green tiles’. All of this illustrates the extent to which the design of the garden availed itself of the natural conditions of the landscape, thus serving both to reduce the materials required for the various constructions, and to increase their natural mien. The Little Granary Mountain Hut housed three seven-foot-high square mirrors, and both the line ‘the dancing reflections of the trees and the rocks seemed to promise an alternative world’ and a line from a poem by Yuan Mei that goes ‘Staring at the empty hall one suspects that therein lies a path’ suggest the manner in which these mirrors served to expand the sense of space. The walls of the studios, halls, galleries and chambers of the garden were all inlaid with blue, purple, white and green glass, in the stead of window paper. Glass was still a rare commodity at the time but was beginning to find increased use and in places like Canton and Yangchow, where one could see glass windows.[8]

The water source for the garden flowed in an easterly direction from West Mountain 西山. Once reaching the garden it gathered to form the Lotus Pond 荷池 before flowing on and, passing North Gate Bridge, turn to the east and skirt the Qinhuai River 秦淮河. It finally reached West Water Gate 西水關 enter the Yangtze River. In his ‘Fifth Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ Yuan Mei writes:

Some thirty years have past since I quit the banks of West Lake, but my home is never far from my thoughts. When attending to my garden, I amuse myself by modelling its layout on that of the Lake. I have built embankments and wells, an Inner and an Outer Lake, a Flower Harbour, Six Bridges and a Northern and a Southern Peak.

Little Fragrant Snow Sea was situated on the western section of North Mountain 北山, and here five hundred flowering apricot trees were planted in imitation of the splendours of mounts Luofu and Dengwei. As flowers bloomed throughout the year in the Garden of Accommodation, and its delights were further augmented by both the music made by the insects and the ever-changing scenes created by rain and snow, the stream of visitors to the garden was unbroken. Sometimes over 100,000 people visited over the course of a year; such were the numbers that the doorstops had to be replaced several times a year. The usual practice with private gardens was that they were either frequently closed to visitors, or completely inaccessible. Yuan Mei’s willingness to share his garden with others, therefore, was rare. It serves as a possible modus operandi for other enlightened garden owners. Much of the construction work of the garden was undertaken by the carpenter Wu Longtai 武龍臺; when he died without issue, Yuan Mei had him buried in a corner of the garden.[9]

Life in the Garden

As the garden served as Yuan Mei’s permanent place of abode, it was fully provided with living quarters and produced, besides, an amount of vegetables. Its fields and ponds proved large enough to ensure self-sufficiency in both grain and fish. As a complex, with its fields, the garden, its housing and its tombs, the Garden of Accommodation constituted a complete entity that totaling in size some 100 mu. This made it one of the largest private estates inside the city walls. Our history is replete with the gardens of men-of-letters. Few there are amongst the owners of these gardens, however, who were able to enjoy the long life afforded Yuan Mei, a life for the most part spent in peaceful retirement. Yuan was a man who need not entertain any thought of pandering to those in power. He was a man who had seen through the vanities and sycophancy of official life; a man intent upon withdrawal from the world of service and one who, surrounded by friends and guests, wine and poetry, was able to spend fifty long years in his garden, gathering around him almost thirty female disciples. Having thus rid himself of the constraints of hidebound tradition he established a new vogue. He was mindless of the reproaches to which he might be subjected. Yuan Mei can truly be considered a man of contrary temperament. Nor was he was a man who never ventured away from home, for Yuan Mei was also an inveterate traveller. In his Jottings from the Studio of Simple Idleness 庸閑齋筆記, Chen Zizhuang 陳子壯 records that a wall of Corner Garden 隅園 in Haining (also known as the Garden of the Peaceful Waves 安瀾園) carried a poem by Yuan Mei that read:

A hundred mu square pond, ten mu of flowers,
Trees that stretch to the heavens and green rafters.
Spoon flowering apricots like ancient pines,
Almost as if one had in view the grand ministers of the ancient Three Dynasties.

Yuan Mei also visited Mao Xiang’s (冒襄, 1611-1693) Garden Painted by Water 水繪園 in Rugao 如皋, recording of it that: ‘It has become a wasteland of weeds, with not a trace of the past remaining’. Soochow is not too far from Nanking, and in Yuan Mei’s day, the Garden of the Humble Administrator 拙政園 was named the Garden of the Return 復園. It was owned by the Jiang 蔣 family, to which Yuan Mei was related through marriage. Because of this connection, Yuan visited this garden on a number of occasions. In Soochow, the Garden of Ease 逸園, Water South Garden 水南園, and the Garden of the Fisherman’s Retreat 漁隱園 all offer evidence of his visits. The last of these gardens evoked a record from his pen. On one occasion when he was on his way to visit Tiantai 天臺, Yuan Mei made an especial detour that took him to Songjiang 松江 where he twice visited the Zhang 張 family’s Stupa Garden 塔射園. All of this testifies to Yuan Mei’s interest in travel.

Many where the gardens of Nanking, both official and private, and during his years in the city hardly a day would go by that Yuan Mei was not expected at some literary gathering or another. In the West Garden 西園 that was part of the official residence of the Governor of Jiangsu and Jiangxi Provinces (originally the residence of Mu Ying 沐英 (1345-1392) at the beginning of the Ming dynasty), for instance, there was a stone boat, on which topic Yuan Mei wrote his ‘Rhapsody on the Untethered Boat’ 不係舟賦. Each year, whenever the flowers growing in the Garden of Reverence 瞻園 that formed part of the office of the Provincial Administration Commissioner (a garden that in the early Ming had been that of Xu Da 徐達, 1332-1385, Prince of Zhongshan) bloomed, Yuan Mei would always make a point of visiting the garden to admire them. He even transplanted a tree peony from that garden to his own. Yu Yue (俞樾, 1821-1907), the Evidential Scholar of the late-Qing period, once expressed the view that: ‘Rare, in times ancient and modern, are cases such as that of Yuan Mei in which a man-of-letters can experience the blessings of mountain and forest for several long decades’.

As Yuan Mei’s fame grew, and the products of his brush became more and more numerous, visitors to his garden from throughout the empire increased. This established something of a trend, so much so that some would dream about visiting his garden before actually having done so.[10] Whenever impelled by simple curiosity, or from the desire to network with famous men, his visitors would invariably laud each other to the skies, all in the hope of finding their own poems analysed in Yuan Mei’s Discussions of Poetry from the Garden of Accommodation, to the benefit of their fame. The claims made of ‘dream visitations to the Garden of Accommodation’ may well have been spurious, but a short distance away to the east of the garden stood Red Earth Bridge 紅土橋 and important officials from Kiangning, when calling on Yuan Mei, would express their respect for him by not proceeding beyond this point in their official garb. All this illustrates the extent of his reputation at the time.

The earliest gardens of Nanking date from the Yuan dynasty, and garden building reached its peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the age of seventy or so, Yuan Mei suddenly came across a reference to an earlier Garden of Accommodation, owned by Jiao Runsheng 焦潤生 during the Ming, and situated, he believed somewhere on Little Granary Mountain not far from his own garden. Both Hu Xianghan 胡祥翰 and Chen Yifu 陳詒紱, in their books Gazetteer of the Scenic Spots of Jinling 金陵勝跡志 (1926) and Gazetteer of the Gardens of Jinling 金陵園墅志 (1933), respectively, point out that this earlier garden was located near to Eastern Forge Pavilion 東冶亭, or what today is East Water Sluice 東水關.

The Garden’s Afterlife

As the reputation of the Garden of Accommodation spread, visitors began to write about it. In his Critical Edition of Discussions of Poetry from the Garden of Accommodation 隨園詩話批本, Wu Shukun 伍舒坤 tells us that he first visited the garden in the Forty-seventh Year of the reign of the Qianlong emperor [1782]. He went a second time the following year and made a record of its circumstances, pointing out that the garden was subject to frequent depredation as a result of its lack of an encircling wall. He also complained that the sounds of bird and beast often prevented a good night’s sleep, and that, as the garden was somewhat removed from other human habitation, buying things was most inconvenient. He paid a third visit during the Fifty-sixth Year of the Qianlong emperor [1791] and a fourth in the Twenty-fourth Year of the Jiaqing emperor [1819], by which time Yuan Mei had been dead for more than twenty years and his garden had become a teahouse. Qian Yong [錢泳, 1759-1844], the author of A Record of Conversations Held Whilst Walking Through Gardens 履園叢話 writes of his three visits to the garden: in the Fifty-sixth Year of the reign of the Qianlong emperor [1791] when Yuan Mei was still alive, and both in the Second Year of the reign of the Daoguang emperor [1822], when Yuan Mei was long dead, and in the emperor’s Twenty-fifth Year [1845], by which time the garden had become a ruin.

Linqing [麟慶, Wanggiyan Lincing, 1791-1846], in his Wild Swan on the Snow: An Illustrated Record of My Pre-ordained Life 鴻雪因緣圖記 [Note and link], when speaking about his visit to the garden in Third Year of the Daoguang emperor [1823], tells us that ‘although the garden offers no particularly novel or remarkable sights, it does nonetheless embody something of the delights of twists and turns, in a manner akin to the style of both the prose and the poetry of the master of the Little Granary Mountain Hut’. There is an item in Miscellaneous Records of the Garden of Accommodation that goes: ‘In the mid-autumn of a particular year it was suddenly announced that the Governor-General Lin Zexu [林則徐, 1785-1850] was to pay the garden a visit but that under no circumstances was the master of the garden to be disturbed; all Lin would require of him was a simple pot of tea’. In his Seven Essays from the Golden Pot 金壺七墨, Huang Junzai 黃鈞宰 provides a description of the garden’s dilapidated state. Yuan Mei rather prided himself on his liberal mindedness; on his deathbed he even counselled his two sons that ‘… there would be satisfaction enough were they to be able to preserve the garden for thirty years after his death’. When the Taiping rebels established their capital in Nanking in the Third Year of the reign of the Xianfeng emperor [1853], initially the garden was occupied by the Grand Councillor of the Ministry of War, but he soon moved elsewhere. By the time Qing troops surrounded the Heavenly Capital, no one had oversight of the garden and it became more dilapidated with every passing day. This was fifty-six years after Yuan Mei’s death and 104 years after the garden had first been built. Its longevity far exceeded even Yuan’s own expectations.

The Garden and The Dream

With reference to the great eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢, also known as The Story of the Stone 石頭記, Yuan Mei had once made the claim that ‘Prospect Garden is in fact my own Garden of Accommodation’ 大觀園余之隨園也. Three generations of the family of the author of this novel, Cao Xueqin [曹雪芹, 1715-1763?], had indeed lived in Nanking, in service as the Commissioners of the Imperial Textile Manufactory. When dismissed from this post in the Sixth Year of the reign of the Yongzheng emperor [1728], the family had moved to Peking. Cao Xueqin was between five and fifteen at the time, and so, around twenty years before work on the Garden of Accommodation commenced, the Cao familywere already living in the capital. Twenty or so years later Cao Xueqin was already dead; during this forty-year-long period, he only spent the period between the autumn of the Twenty-fourth Year of the Qianlong emperor [1759] and the Double Nine Festival of the next year in Nanking, as the Private Secretary to Yinjishan [尹繼善, 1696-1771], the Governor-General of the provinces of Kiangsi and Kiangsu. Yinjishan was also Yuan Mei’s patron, and so in all likelihood Yuan knew Cao Xueqin personally, perhaps even having invited this ‘Princeling Xueqin’ to attended one of his literary parties. After all, by this time the Garden of Accommodation had existed for almost a decade. And obviously, Cao Xueqin would have been even more familiar with the West Garden situated within the compound of the Governor-General’s headquarters.

Having spent so much of the rest of his life in Peking, Cao Xueqin would have been familiar also with the habits of the upper class families of the capital, whilst through personal experience or the tales of his family members, he would have had a good understanding of both the customs of the south and the manner of daily life there, thus being able to bring the south and the north to bear in his novel. In Chapter Two of the novel, we are told that, to the east and the west, the two mansions of the Ning-guo 寧國 and the Rong-guo 榮國 sides of the family in Stone City were connected with each other, and that behind the mansions lay a flower garden. The next chapter describes Lin Daiyu’s 林黛玉 arrival in the capital, and tells also of the flower garden of the Ning-guo family to the east and that of Rong-guo family to the west. Prospect Garden 大觀園, the construction of which is told about in Chapter Sixteen of the novel and which involved the dismantling of the structures to the east of Rong-guo mansion and the extension of the Ning-guo mansion’s existing All-Scents Garden 會芳園, must be situated in Peking, therefore, the overwhelmingly northern Chinese background of the novel proven also by the use of the dialects of the north-east and of Hebei Province, along with the presence in the rooms of heated raised beds or kangs and so on. At the same time, however, the architectural style of a number of the structures found in the novel, or certain of the plantings, could only be found in the Kiangnan 江南 region, along with dialect usages that derive also from this southern Chinese area, thus illustrating the fact that Prospect Garden really was ‘Earth’s fairest prospects all are here installed 天上人間諸景備,[12] the extent to which the realm described was a product of the author’s imagination. Were this not to be the case, then aspects of the plot of the novel would defy explanation.

For instance, Hu Shi [胡適, 1891-1962] argued that whereas the mansion of the Zhen 甄 family was all along in the south, that of the Jia 賈 family was in the capital. And yet Grandmother Jia occasionally lapsed into Nanking dialect.[13] Critics have pointed out that as the book is, after all, a dreamscape, whatever contradictions or sins of omission or inconsistencies or disjunctions that it may perpetrate, such infelicities are deliberate used by the author to create the imaginary and illusory world of the novel; it is part of the way in which he creates something out of nothing, hides the real [zhen 甄/真] and expresses truth in the false [jia 賈/假].

Over the years, the novel, subject also as it has been to the introduction of typographical errors as it was printed and reprinted, to the author’s own carelessness, to deliberate distortion in order to avoid unpleasantness, suspicion or taboo, has nonetheless managed to delude generations of readers into thinking that it was a realistic account and that Prospect Garden actually existed as it was described. An example of this fallacy is the short introduction by Fumingyi 富明義 to a poem he wrote about the novel, which reads as follows: Cao Xueqin produced the Dream of the Red Chamber that he had written, in which he gives exhaustive record of all the splendours of dissipation and luxury, his ancestors having been the commissioners of the Kiangning Imperial Textile Manufactory, and so when he talks about Prospect Garden, what he is actually describing is the previous incarnation of the present-day Garden of Accommodation’.[14]

In his Selection of Poems and Words of Congratulations on the Occasion of my Eightieth Birthday 八十壽言詩選, Yuan Mei included ten poems by Fumingyi. The first line of the seventh poem reads: ‘The Garden of Accommodation is on the former site of Red Chamber’. This accords perfectly with Yuan Mei’s own claim that: ‘Prospect Garden is in fact my own Garden of Accommodation’. Of course, in that too he confuses the respective sites of the two gardens, thus ignoring both geography and chronology. In actual fact, the connection between the two gardens is an indirect one; that is, once the Sui family had taken possession of the Cao family’s Little Granary Mountain flower garden it later reverted to Yuan Mei, and that, as he wrote his novel, Cao Xueqin based his description of Prospect Garden on the aristocratic gardens that he had visited in Peking as well as on memories of the Garden of Accommodation that he had visited whilst he was serving in Nanking. He recreated them in a somewhat exaggerated manner. The Garden of Accommodation was real; Prospect Garden was false. Led astray by their curiosity, not only have readers failed to investigate the matter, but they have indulged in fanciful and far-fetched archaeology. This is not the only instance of such ridiculous phenomena in the world of letters.

The Garden Depicted

Yuan Qi 袁起, a grandson of the younger brother of Yuan Mei’s cousin, was a painter of some note and a disciple of the artist Qian Du [錢杜, 1764-1845]. He produced a painting of the Garden of Accommodation. This was copied during the Fourth Year of the Tongzhi emperor [1865], some twelve years after the destruction of the garden itself. As depicted, the garden accords well with the description of it in the Miscellaneous Records of the Garden of Accommodation that this man also produced. Two thirds of the features found described in Yuan Mei’s own ‘Twenty-four Poems in Celebration of my Garden of Accommodation’ can be found in the painting. The drawing of the garden that accompanies Linqing’s ‘Visiting the Splendours of the Garden of Accommodation’隨園訪勝 in his Wild Swan on the Snow: An Illustrated Record of My Pre-ordained Life (published in the Twenty-seventh Year of the Daoguang emperor, that is, 1847) [see Features in this issue] was drawn by his secretary Wang Yingfu 汪英福 in 1823. Like the illustration of the garden produced by Yuan Qi, it too depicts the garden from the south looking north. Although, the two depictions differ in their respective details, they are both nonetheless realistic and of artistic value.

In his Collected Records from Fantian Hut 梵天廬叢錄, Chai E 柴萼 of the late Qing records that: ‘There are four painting of the Garden of Accommodation, the earliest of which was done by Shen Buluo 沈補蘿. There are three paintings of the garden done also by Luo Ping [羅聘, 1733-1799] and others. Later on, Yuan Xiangting 袁香亭 (Yuan Mei’s paternal cousin), too, produced a most realistic painting of the garden depicting it from a northern vantage looking south, with the brushwood gate in a lower corner. None of these painting are extant. All we have is Yuan Qi’s depiction, one that ‘Although not wrong in any of its details, is nonetheless somewhat amateurish’. If to assess the style of garden illustrations by means of the criteria of landscape painting means that a painting that is ‘not wrong in any of its details’ would be hard to adjudge a masterpiece, precisely because of this we are afforded a glimpse of what the Garden of Accommodation looked like in its heyday.

The overall plan of the Garden of Accommodation that accompanies this article has been drawn up with reference to Yuan Qi’s painting. The painting itself carries a colophon written by Yuan Zuzhi [袁祖志, 1827-1898], Yuan Mei’s grandson. He once worked as an editorial writer for the Shanghai newspaper Shenbao 申報 and he produced the two-fascicle Miscellaneous Records of the Garden of Accommodation, reprinted in wood-block print in the Fifth Year of the Guangxu emperor [1879]. It contains a note on Yuan Qi’s painting from the Fourth Year of the Tongzhi emperor. The painting itself was reproduced as a lithograph by the Hall of the Five Marchmounts 五岳堂 in Shanghai. The colophon reads:

… by the time of the guichou year of the reign of the Xianfeng emperor [the Third Year of his reign, that is, 1853] … the garden was destroyed, having lasted almost a full sexagenary cycle from the dingsi year of the Jiaqing emperor when my grandfather retired to his garden in order to care for his mother … . My cousin Zhuqi 竹畦 once painted a version of the garden which captured the true face of it and now I have had the painting reproduced lithographically, not just to preserve a trace of what once had existed, but also so that it may serve as the blueprint for some future artisan. How could this garden now provide only for imaginary visitations? Written in the late spring of the bingxu year [Twelfth Year of the reign of the Guangxu emperor, that is, 1886] by Yuan Zuzhi, in Shanghai.

This printed version of Yuan Qi’s painting is kept in the Nanking Museum. I was kindly given photographs of this copy by the museum in 1958. The present essay has been discussed with Guo Husheng 郭湖生, and emended accordingly. The ‘Overall Plan of the Garden of Accommodation’ appended to the article was drawn by Yan Longyu 宴隆餘.



[1] [Translator’s Note: For a brief English-language biography of Yuan Mei, see A.W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1644-1912), Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1943, pp.955-957. For a full-length biography, see Arthur Waley, Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet, New York: Grove Press, 1956. J.D. Schmidt, Harmony Garden: The Life, Literary Criticism, and Poetry of Yuan Mei (1716-1798), London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, offers a more recent treatment of the poet. The translator is grateful both for the care with which the Editor, Geremie Barmé, has read through this translation, and for the suggestions he has made to improve it.]

[2] Yuan Mei’s Prose Selections from the Garden of Accommodation collects more than a hundred works of prose, including his ‘Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1749), ‘Latter Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1753), ‘Third Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1757), ‘Fourth Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1766), ‘Fifth Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1768) and ‘Sixth Record of My Garden of Accommodation’ (1770). In these Yuan Mei offers a complete account of his decision to retire from office in order to live in the garden, the process of the garden’s renovation, the decisions he made regarding materials and design, the pleasure he took in wandering around the garden, the changes he made to the original plans for the garden, the development of its terraces and the growing of its trees, the pines and the flowering apricots that lined the path to the family tombs, along with the pleasure that the garden afforded him and his pledge never to quit it.

[3] This is an error. The last member of the Cao family to hold the title of Imperial Textile Commissioner, Cao Fu 曹頫, was removed from office in the Sixth Year of the Yongzheng emperor [1728], at which point in time Sui Hede 隋赫德 was appointed as his successor.

[4] [Translator’s Note: I have given here a slightly longer extract from Yuan Mei record than offered by Tung Chuin, in the translation of Stephen McDowall, and to appear in Earth’s Fairest Prospects: The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology of Chinese Garden Writing (forthcoming, 2014).]

[5] The Temple of Eternal Felicitation is located on what is today called Emei Ridge 峨眉嶺. It was built by Princess Yongqing during the Tianjian reign of Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty (502-519CE). It is also known as the Temple of the Hundred Pagodas 百塔寺. The pagoda itself, along with the South Tower of the Great Hall, were destroyed during the reign of the Xianfeng emperor of the Qing (1851-1861), and were repaired in the Twentieth Year of the Guangxu emperor [1895].

[6] Nine tombs of the Yuan clan survive to this day. Yuan Mei’s own tomb is situated in the middle of the graveyard, beside which stands a stone stele with the inscription: ‘Tomb passage of the late Master Yuan of the Garden of Accommodation of the Qing dynasty’.

[7] The Twenty-four Scenes of the garden were: Granary Hill Cloud Hut 倉山雲舍, Bookroom, Rubbings Treasury 金石藏, Napping Studio 小眠齋, Pavilion of the Green Dawn, Willow Valley 柳谷, Gathered Jades Mountaintop 群玉山頭, Welcoming Bamboo 竹請客, A Tree Becomes a Room, Twinned Lakes 雙湖, Cypress Kiosk, Strange Pebble 奇礓石, Eddy Sluice Gate 迴波閘, Translucent Jade Spring 澄碧泉, Little Roosting Amidst the Clouds 小棲霞, South Terrace, Realm of the Essence of Water 水精域, Bridge Crossing for the Cranes 渡鶴橋, Floating 泛航, Fragrant World 香界, On the Plate 盤之中, Red Snow of Mount Steep 嵰山紅雪, Azure Heaven 蔚藍天 and Cool Room 涼室.

[8] On his Southern Tour of 1784, the Qianlong emperor wrote a poem on glass windows. When describing the Pure Jade Hall 澄碧堂 of the Huang 黃 family, The Pleasure-Boats of Yangchow 揚州畫舫錄 records: ‘Westerners love glass and amongst the Thirteen Hongs of Canton there is a glass hall, this hall in Yangchow having been built in imitation of that in Canton.’ In the Forty-ninth Year of the Qianlong emperor [1784], Yuan Mei visited Canton and there is a poem he wrote in celebration of the Thirteen Hongs. Both Nine Peak Garden 九峰園 and Water Bright Tower 水明樓 in Yangchow had glass windows. In Chapter Seventeen of the Dream of the Red Chamber we are told that Prospect Garden had a glass mirror. All these instances are dated to the Qianlong era.

[9] [Translator’s Note: Arthur Waley translates a poem that Yuan Mei addresses to the spirit of his carpenter: ‘Life has a pattern, has its retributions;/ Such things cannot be mere chance./ It fell to you to make my house;/ It fell to me to make your coffin./ I buried you in a corner of the garden,/ And having done so, felt at peace with myself,/ For I felt as though you still came and went/ Among the things your own hand had made./ A fresh wind fans your mortal form;/ The wild wheat makes you its offerings—/ Happier here than if pious sons and grandsons/ Had carried you off to the dismal fringes of the town./ Here forever you shall be our Guardian Spirit,/ Unsaddened by the murky winds of Death’, for which, see Waley, Yuan Mei: Eighteen Century Chinese Poet p.70. Tung Chuin refers to the carpenter as Long Wutai.]

[10] Yuan Mei’s Discussions of Poetry from the Garden of Accommodation notes that Yue Jing 岳瀞, Bao Zhizhong 鮑之鍾 and Yan Xiaoqiu 嚴小秋 dreamed of visiting the garden before they had in fact done so.

[11] For which, see both Gazetteer of the Gardens of Jinling and Miscellaneous Records of the Garden of Accommodation.

[12] As stated in Chapter Eighteen of the Dream of the Red Chamber. [Translator’s Note: As translated by David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, vol.1, p.356.]

[13] In Chapter Three of the Dream of the Red Chamber we read: ‘You don’t know her’, said Grandmother Jia merrily. ‘She’s a holy terror this one. What we used to call in Nanking a “peppercorn”. You just call her “Peppercorn Feng”. She’ll know who you mean!’ [Translator’s Note: Again as translated by David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone, vol.1, p.91.]

[14] For which, see Wu Enyu’s 吳恩裕 1959 Eight Notes on Cao Xueqin 有關曹雪芹八種. Fumingyi was a Manchu. His residence, the Villa Surrounded by a Stream 環溪別野, was built on the site of the former garden for Taking Pleasure in Goodness 樂善園. After the 1911 Revolution, this garden was renamed Flower Garden of the Three Princelings 三貝子花園 and is, today, the site of the Beijing Zoo. Wu Enyu’s work claims that the manuscript of the Dream of the Red Chamber was completed in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth years of the Qianlong emperor [that is, 1748-1749]. At that time, Cao Xueqin was living in Peking and work on the Garden of Accommodation in Nanking had just begun.