Liu Fang Yuan 流芳園, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, is one of the finest classical-style Chinese gardens outside of China. Filled with Chinese plants and framed by exquisite architecture, the landscape is enriched with references to literature and art. Visitors can find both physical relaxation and mental stimulation when exploring the dramatic 15-acre garden.
Liu Fang Yuan is inspired by the gardens of Suzhou, a city located near Shanghai in southeastern China. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), wealthy scholars and merchants there built tasteful private gardens combining architecture, waterworks, rockeries, plants, and calligraphy. Many of the features in Liu Fang Yuan are modeled on specific Suzhou gardens, eight of which are depicted in the woodcarvings in the Love for the Lotus Pavilion (Ai Lian Xie 愛蓮榭).
Principles of landscape design formulated in Suzhou in the 16th and 17th centuries deeply inform Liu Fang Yuan. Most importantly, the garden has been designed to respect its natural locale. The Lake of Reflected Fragrance (Ying Fang Hu 映芳湖) shimmers in the same natural basin where water once collected after seasonal rains. The Court of Assembled Worthies (Ji Xian Yuan 集賢院) is raised above ground level to protect the roots of native California live oaks. Each step through the garden’s pathways and pavilions reveals a new view as if a painted scroll were being unrolled scene by scene.
Suzhou-style gardens are filled with plants of literary or cultural significance. Certain flora represent the seasons (peach blossoms for spring, chrysanthemums for autumn); others stand for human qualities such as purity (lotus) or humility (orchid). Carvings of bamboo, pine, and plum blossoms adorn the ceiling of the Pavilion of the Three Friends (San You Ge 三友閣). These “three friends of the cold season” represent perseverance through difficult times: Pine is evergreen, bamboo never breaks, and plum trees flower in winter when most plants are dormant.
Rocks are an essential feature of Suzhou gardens. The stones found throughout Liu Fang Yuan are a type of limestone traditionally harvested from the bed of Lake Tai near Suzhou; today, they are quarried in various regions of China. For more than 1,200 years, these rocks have been renowned for their strange shapes and many holes. Particularly prized individual specimens, like the towering stone near the teahouse, Patching Up the Sky (Bu Tian 補天), were seen as embodying energy-like ethers, or qi.
Like all Suzhou-style gardens, Liu Fang Yuan is filled with text. Every pavilion and courtyard bears a name in Chinese characters; the entrances to some buildings are also adorned with poetic couplets. These calligraphic inscriptions were written by more than 30 contemporary artists from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The names and couplets that they have inscribed are drawn from classic works of Chinese literature.
The pavilions, paths, and rockeries in Liu Fang Yuan are the product of years of international collaboration. In the early 2000s, a master plan for the garden was developed by designers in Suzhou; American architects ensured that it would be seismically sound and wheelchair accessible. All of the garden’s visible building materials—wood beams, roofing tiles, granite terraces, paving pebbles—were sourced in China and installed by teams of Suzhou artisans. Beneath their fine handwork lie concrete foundations and steel frameworks created by American construction workers.
Suzhou gardens were never static spaces, and neither is Liu Fang Yuan. Soloist musicians offer recitals in the garden each Wednesday. Chinese opera troupes periodically perform excerpts from beloved works of theater. Monthly lectures provide background on East Asian garden history. Exhibitions in the Studio for Lodging the Mind (Yu Yi Zhai 寓意齋) explore Chinese art and garden culture. And an artist-in-residence program ensures that Liu Fang Yuan constantly inspires new works of music, drama, and art. These programs and more are coordinated through The Huntington's Center for East Asian Garden Studies, promoting innovative scholarship on the traditions of garden-making in China, Japan, and Korea.