Suzhou or Soochow in its romanised form is my hometown.
It was founded in 514 BC and has risen and fallen with the dynasties of China. The classical gardens of Suzhou were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites at the end of the last century.
This wonderful city - comparable to Venice with its canals and history - gave me as a child a chance to dream in its gardens and cultivated my sense of beauty and desire to capture my surroundings through painting.
It’s situated in the Yangzi River Delta, East of China, adjacent to Shanghai. In ancient times, due to its location, this area was often flooded. In 506 BC, General Wu founded Suzhou by creating the first canal in China to deal with the flooding. Since then, Suzhou city and Suzhou life have been built around canals. There are still over 160 bridges within the 14.2 square kilometers in the Ancient Town (district) of today’s Suzhou. At one point in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), there were nearly 330 bridges!
The gardens were created over a millennium primarily by scholars and according to UNESCO “represent the development of Chinese landscape garden design over more than two thousand years”. Frequently imitated but never exceeded in beauty and grace even in the various imperial gardens. Perhaps some of the literati who created them were using the gardens to demonstrate the error in judgment of those who had expelled them from the imperial court. They expressed their political “brilliance” through manipulating lime stones and slates to create a world for themselves behind closed doors; they transformed their philosophy of life into the highest artistic forms in the gardens.
The classic Suzhou gardens are never flamboyant but represent balance, harmony and perhaps a touch of melancholy.
Perhaps it’s this melancholy that is sometimes seen in my paintings.
China has changed dramatically but all property is still owned by the state. Before the opening up to the West over 40 years ago, it was inconceivable that anyone could own a garden.
However, my grandfather (Wai Gong/外公) managed to turn a courtyard that had become a communal ‘garden’ into a green paradise: orange blossom, peas, honey suckles, goji berries, roses, jasmine, cactus, toon, irises and of course peonies.
It became a place of dreams and wonder for me. Every time I went to visit my grandparents, I asked my mother (Ma Ma/妈妈/媽媽) to dress me in a floral dress so that bees and butterflies could land on me! I often picked the flowers and sucked the ‘honey’ myself without knowing some of them were actually poisonous. It was my refuge and happy place.
I think that is why I enjoy painting flowers so much more than anything else. It transports me back to a place of innocence and I hope that my audiences also find a special peace when they look at my art.
If you would like to read another Peony Girl blog click here.