Tiger Hill: Former Monastery, Burial Site and Bonsai Garden

Tiger Hill, one of the most important historical sights in Jiangsu, is a place richly imbued with historical, religious, literary and artistic associations. Only a serious scholar of Chinese history is likely to appreciate these fully, but even the casual visitor can gain some appreciation of the cultural importance of the ┬ásite. Consisting of an artificial hill and the gardens and buildings that adorn it, Tiger Hill is simultaneously a classical garden, a religious site and a former residence of the Suzhou ruling elite. Therefore, there is no simple answer to the question, “What kind of attraction is Tiger Hill?” It has served many different functions over the centuries, so it is perhaps best to consider it from several different vantage points.

It is easy to overlook the fact today, but for most of its history Tiger Hill was a Buddhist monastery. Today, the towering 6000-tonne brick pagoda on the summit is the most obvious reminder of this Buddhist heritage. Built between 959 and 961, during the early Sung Dynasty, the Cloud Rock Pagoda is a 47.7 metre brick imitation of a traditional wooden pagoda. If you look at the upper edge of each storey, for example, you will see brick impressions of wooden brackets. While it may seem like a lone pagoda today, the Cloud Rock Pagoda would once have been part of a Buddhist monastery which covered the entire hill. This religious aspect of Tiger Hill has been emphasized by archaeological findings at the site. A 1956 dig turned up a box of Buddhist scriptures and bronze figurines of Buddha. As late as the Ming era, Tiger Hill was the scene of almost continual religious processions and festivities. Yuang Hongdao, a local magistrate, described scenes of the hill during this period.

The hill is lacking in precipitous cliffs and deep ravines, but simply because of its proximity to the city, not a day goes by without flutes, drums and fancy boats clustering there. On any moonlit night, flowery morning or snowy evening, visitors come and go like the threads of some great tapestry, and the day of the mid-Autumn festival is the most popular time of all.

But there is more to Tiger Hill than just a pagoda. It has legendary associations with Emperor He Lu, who is said to have founded the city of Suzhou some 2500 years ago. HIs burial site is said to be one of Tiger Hill’s more intriguing attractions: Sword Pond. It is remarkable to think that the entire “mountain” of Tiger Hill is a manmade creation. The astonishing engineering skills entailed in this are nowhere more in evidence than at Sword Pond. Here we find an artificial gorge, with walls of stone descending vertically to the placid surface of the pond. According to local tradition, the waters of Sword Pond contain many swords from the collection of He Lu, a noteworthy swordsman and warrior.

The third face of Tiger Hill is that of the peaceful garden or mountain retreat. This facet of the site is most pronounced at Wanjing Villa, a magnificent “mountain style” villa located amongst the groves of Tiger Hill. Wanjing Villa sits at the centre of a 1700-square metre bonsai garden, which is much praised by classical garden fanciers. Here we find old wooden pavilions that look out on elegant courtyards. Banana palms, miniature pines and clumps of bamboo cast their shadows against whitewashed walls- a scene familiar from the celebrated formal gardens of Suzhou city. You will also find a collection of the pitted, limestone “scholar’s rocks” for which the region is well-known. You will also find nature in less sculpted and posed attitudes. Wild flowers grow out of the cracks between rocks and yellow-breasted birds flutter between the trees.

The varied history of Tiger Hill is apparent in the unusual mix of attractions on display. The Cloud Rock Pagoda survives as a memory of an ancient Buddhist monastery, Sword Pond commemorates the military feats of a semi-legendary king and Wanjing Villa offers a tranquil, natural respite from bustling Suzhou- a city of some four million people. In addition, there are numerous literary and artistic associations for Sinophiles to savour. Tiger Hill is clearly one of Jiangsu’s most compelling cultural attractions, making the 60 yuan entrance fee well worth it in this case.

Cloud Rock Pagoda, symbol of Suzhou

Cloud Rock Pagoda, symbol of Suzhou