I recently went to Shanghai for some research for my next book. Pudong is the shiny new financial district built opposite the Bund, home to the Pearl Tower. It's built on reclaimed swamp and the buildings each try to be taller than the other. It's the visual representation of the China boom.
But, among all these buildings, shopping malls and overpasses there are the most beautiful gardens. Pristine, tranquil and almost unused (which is unusual in China where public spaces are used and loved) by all the people scurrying like worker ants between the buildings.
I went and sat in the garden for a while, much to the amusement of the local gardeners. I'm no meditator, but the garden did manage to calm and still the constant whirring of my mind. There, among some tufts of grass and riverstones, underneath five storeys of uplit Dior I finally realised the purpose of Chinese gardens. But every plants and stone in a Chinese garden has a meaning. Yellow stones and tiles represent imperial palaces, whereas grey represents humility. Large rocks can represent mountains. It looks simple, but every section is a a frame. It forces you to stop and look at the detail. Every planting, every tree and the shape of every branch is contrived. Gardens aren't just a pretty space, they represent a whole philosophy in China. Confucionism teachings are all about order and duty, Taoism philosophy is all about simplicity and restraint. They are about nostalgia for their ancient culture, calming the mind, that balance between ying and yang. It's really quite extraordinary and Pudong proved to be a great spot to contemplate the dynamic contemporary Chinese culture with all it's contradictions.
And no Chinese garden would be complete without a tasty snack truck.
Chinese gardens (especially the new ones!) are nostalgic, peaceful and indeed quite the spiritual experience.
In this bubble of the shiny and new and billion-dollar deals, there is still this revereance to the threads of Chinese culture that have been before. Their link is the nature, even if they have to recreate it. But all gardens are moulds and reflections of a lifestyle. It was an Ah-ha moment for me. I instantly decided on a new character for my book.