The Met's Ming garden, an oasis of quiet

In the first permanent US-China cultural exchange since 1949, 27 Chinese craftsmen from Suzhou, including their director, Zhang Biaorong, plus engineers, stoneworkers, carpenters, and masons, have spent the past four months assembling a garden courtyard inside the Metropolitan Museum. It is expected to open in November.

Located in the Metropolitan's new Sackler wing, the courtyard is modeled on China's Ming Dynasty gardens where scholars retreated to meditate on nature, paint scrolls, and compose poetry. It borrows elements from Wang Shih Yuan's larger "Garden of the Master of Fishing Nets" in the city of Suzhou.

Although the rest of this garden is new -- other than the "pedigreed Tai hu rocks," some of which are three centuries old -- the tiles, wooden columns, and lattice windows were handmade in China.

Depending entirely on simple hand tools, many of them handcrafted and used in these craftsmen's families for generations, Suzhou workers are carefully reconstructing heaps of this tile, rock, and timber into an oasis of quiet.

Benches in the courtyard will offer visitors a place to sit and emulate those scholars, contemplating the "changing landscapes" to be seen in the mind's eye.

The trees and flowering shrubs will be symbolic of the scholar's life -- plum blossoms for purity, pine trees for strength in the face of adversity, bamboo for moral integrity. A pavilion will stand against one wall, flanked by taller Tai Hu rock formations; along the opposite wall runs a covered walkway.

Suzhou, 50 miles west of Shanghai in the Jiangsu province, was "the Venice of the East," China's cultural center during the Ming Dynasty, and was celebrated for its labyrinth of canals and arched bridges and its walled gardens, features often included in a wealthy person's home.

It was in Suzhou that both the Ming garden model and the skilled craftsmen now re-creating it in the Met were found by Wen Fong, the Metropolitan's special consultant for Far Eastern affairs and professor of Chinese art at Princeton. After several years of planning between Metropolitan officials and US and Chinese architectural and curatorial experts, a full-scale prototype of the garden was built in Suzhou. It will remain there as a permanent cultural exhibit.

With each step the visitor takes, the garden is meant to unfold, offering new perspectives. More rocks formations and greenery glimpsed through the latticed windows will suggest spaces beyond the enclosed courtyard and, according to Taoist philosophy, hint of the interrelation of form and void, dark and light.

When the wing is completed, visitors will also be able to view two associated galleries of Chinese paintings flanking the courtyard, including works by the famous 11th-century landscape masters Mi Yuien and Ma Ho-chih, and the great equestrian painter, Han Kan. Another open gallery at the far end of the garden court, actually an extension of the courtyard, will contain rare pieces of Ming furniture. With yet more Tai Hu rocks glimpsed through windows at the rear of this gallery, it will suggest an elegant Ming Dynasty home.

The great standing Tai Hu rocks near the pavilion have been set in place, exactly as in the prototype model; they were then pondered by the craftsmen in charge, and readjusted a hair's breadth, two or three days in a row -- no mean feat, considering their massive weight.

But the ultimate measuring rod is neither the engineering plan nor the workmen's tools, even the antique line-marker delicately carved in the form of a fish, which one man had inherited from his father. Rather, it is the 27 Suzhou craftsmen's combined sense of aesthetic integrity, as the Ming garden court unfolds under their hands.

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