During our first visit to Ningbo, in the Summer of 2010, we went off wandering one day and happened upon a lovely, little park, just a kilometre or so from the centre of the downtown area. We had no idea about the great age of the park, but its appeal was apparent even without an appreciation of its history. After a few minutes’ wandering about, we started to recognize elements of the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze ) garden design which we had first encountered in Suzhou– a Jiangsu city much fancied for its classical gardens. For instance, we noticed the weathered rocks, known as scholar’s rocks, which had graced all the important gardens of Suzhou. There were also the pavilions, covered walkways and artfully placed shrubberies that we had come to associate with that Grand Canal metropole.
Yet on further reflection, there were also vistas that we associated with the West Lake in Hangzhou. Whereas the private gardens of Suzhou had boasted diminutive lily ponds, this park was designed around an entire lake. Though this little, crescent-shaped body of water was nothing like as big as Hangzhou’s famed waterway, West Lake, it certainly couldn’t have been contained in the private gardens found in Suzhou. This was more of a ‘cultural landscape’ in the vein of Hangzhou’s centrepiece. The hanging fronds of the willows and the stone arched bridges also suggested Hangzhou on a small scale. Perhaps the complex had absorbed something of the garden design of Suzhou as well as something of the ‘whole landscape’ design of the West Lake area.
Yet ambling about and reading the signs, we soon learned, to our astonishment, that the complex- known as Moon Lake, or Yue Hu- dated back further than either West Lake or any of the formal gardens in Suzhou; it had been a celebrated site since the early Tang Dynasty, some fourteen centuries before. Therefore, in its original incarnation, it must have been something different from what it had become; evidently, the stone arched bridges and scholar’s rocks had not been part of its original conception. The Moon Lake site had changed its style over the centuries, evolving from a Tang Dynasty complex into a modern recreation.
But its great age was not the only surprise. In addition, Moon Lake gardens had some intriguing literary associations. It turned out that city had a long and notable literary history and that several classic poets from the Tang and Sung Dynasties had visited Moon Lake, notably Sima Guang and Wang Anshi. In the seventeenth century, a famous poet’s society called the Moon Club had met here on full-moon nights and shared verses. This was to be our first introduction to the literary importance of Ningbo, but it was not to be our last.
We spent an hour or so there, watching the midday life in the park. There were workers eating their lunch on benches and even people sitting under trees on the grass. The more strenuously inclined were out on the paddle boats on the lake itself. In many respects, it was much like a city park anywhere, with people using it as a getaway from the crowded city on all sides. Yet it did retain a few hints of its ancient past. While there was certainly nothing surviving from its earliest centuries, there were a few attractive old stone buildings from the Qing Dynasty, and, as already stated, the garden design owed a lot to the fashions of centuries past. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, the main attraction of the lake was a sense of tranquility or, to use a word from a Wang Anshi poem, a sense of ‘quietude’. Perhaps it is fitting then to include one of the reformer-cum-poet’s verses before saying goodbye to Moon Lake.
This garden of hundred acres is half covered in moss.
A white stream meanders before the gate.
But who can come here and enjoy this quietude?
In covered walkways through the small courtyard spring is silent, silent,
just mountain peach blossoms, a few apricot trees by the stream.
For whom do they drop petals, for whom do they bloom?