The Art of Yangzhou

A tour of the highlights of the art, architecture, formal gardens and poetry of the ancient city of Yangzhou.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Gao Fenghan, The Ancient Pine of Dongmou, a fan painting (1727/1727)British Museum

The ancient city of Yangzhou, on the Yangtze River upstream from Shanghai, is a gem of Chinese culture. The city began as a thriving trade town. Its wealth attracted the best Chinese artists, poets, and scholars. 

Swallows, Willows and Peach Blossoms (2007) by Zhang XiufangChina Paper Cutting Museum

Wealthy families created beautiful sanctuaries that displayed the best of Chinese gardening, architecture, art, and poetry. Today, Yangzhou’s many museums and public gardens offer visitors a glimpse at the peak of Chinese civilization from many centuries and dynasties.

The Tomb of the Han Guangling King

The Han dynasty ruled China for 400 years, from 206 BC to 220 AD. It oversaw one of the earliest golden ages of Chinese culture.

Later dynasties built over Han ruins, but some artifacts remain. One of the most remarkable is the tomb of Liu Xu, a regional prince. He and his wife were buried with many works of art and everyday objects, and remarkably, their wooden tomb survived for over 2,000 years.

The tomb consists of inner and outer coffins contained within chambers. This system of boxes within boxes was reserve for emperors, kings, and princes such as Liu Xu. The dimensions of each chamber were strictly controlled.

The outer chamber of the Mausoleum of Han Guanglin King (B.C.117 ~ B.C.64)Museum of the Tomb of Han Guangling King

The tomb is built from sweet-smelling, rot-resistant cypress. The center, or heartwood, of Chinese cypress has a distinctive yellow color. Some chambers were built with short log pieces stacked like bricks, to emphasize the color and grain of the wood.

Many structures in the tomb are held together by interlocking wood shapes, with no nails or glue. Models show the different types of joints used to hold the structure together.

The tomb included a full bathing area, with a wide bath basin (left), a water jug (right) and even a set of sandals or slippers (front center). Wealthy Han officials upheld advanced standards of sanitation and cleanliness.

Paper Cutting Museum

Chinese papercuts are considered both a folk art and a high art. Paper was first invented in China nearly 1,800 years ago, and its low cost helped cut-outs become a common, easy-to-make decoration.  

Today it can hold up to 140 guests. Those guests have included kings and queens, presidents and generals, sports icons and movie stars.

While inexpensive cut-outs are still found in gift shops around the world, some craftspeople have made papercutting into a delicate art form. The museum exhibits historic and contemporary examples.

Paper cut-outs often show religious figures, Chinese characters, or certain seasonal plants and flowers to mark specific holidays. They often decorate windows, where light can shine through the delicate coloured paper and cut-out spaces.

Cranes Flying Around Clouds (2007) by Zhang XiufangChina Paper Cutting Museum

Today’s artists design, draw, and cut out original patterns. They must figure out how to place their cuts to show shape, shadow, and texture using just paper and a background color, all while keeping the single sheet intact.

Most cut-outs are inexpensive, but some are extensive works of art. This scroll-style cut-out mimics Chinese landscape painting, one of China’s most respected art forms. The entire highly detailed scroll is cut from a single sheet of paper.

The Paper Cutting Museum shows the work of contemporary artists, and occasionally hosts live demonstrations. Artists produce their extremely delicate, detailed works in front of an audience.

Ge Garden Bamboo

In the early 1800s, during the Qing Dynasty, a wealthy salt merchant in Yangzhou wanted to build a refuge from his high-stress business.  He built a fabulous garden with plants, waterways, stones, and beautiful buildings for himself and his family.

The garden is a masterpiece of Chinese garden design, with its living landscape paintings that balance plants, water, stone, and architecture. Today, the garden is preserved as an international tourist destination.

Bamboo has long been admired in China. Its straight, unbroken stem, fast growth, and plentiful shady leaves make it valuable as a decorative plant and a building and craft material. The Ten Thousand Bamboo Grove contains over 60 different species.

Garden owner Huang Zhiyun especially loved bamboo for its modest, straightforward shape. Plus, the plant’s elegantly arranged leaves often resemble the Chinese character 个, or “Ge,” giving the garden its name.

The gardens include many buildings, most designed to be in harmony with the natural surroundings. Carefully placed windows, carvings, and semi-outdoor spaces such as pavilions and walkways create a feeling of moving seamlessly between indoors and out.

Ge Garden Seasonal Rockery

Rockeries, or rock gardens, are an essential part of Chinese garden design.  Interestingly shaped rocks are chosen, placed, and often stacked to create designs reminiscent of mountains, animals, or other objects.

Ge Garden is famous for four rockeries, each one meant to evoke one of the four seasons. Rock and plant shapes and colours all suggest spring, summer, fall, or winter throughout the year.

Ge Garden uses many rocks with holes or “windows.” The holes draw in light and suggest the moon or the sun. Round windows are also common in the architecture.

Rocks are carefully arranged to form pleasing pathways, ponds, and places to rest. This rockery is a transition between the summer and fall rockeries, and is meant to evoke a gentle change.

The flowers in these fine ceramic pots are lotus. Lotus, with its large leaves, showy flowers, and edible roots, has great symbolic importance in many Asian countries. The Buddha is often shown sitting on a lotus flower.

Many buildings in the garden are decorated with poems. One poem expresses the owner’s wish to live in his peaceful garden, away from the stresses of daily life.

Ho Family Garden

The Ho Family Garden is slightly more recent than the Ge Garden but equally regarded as one of the finest gardens in Yangzhou.

Like the Ho garden, it was built as a private retreat for a wealthy family involved in the business of the city, mainly customs and shipping. The garden took over 13 years to complete, and includes many distinctive buildings, pavilions, and pagodas.

This ‘moon gate’ is one of many unusually shaped windows and doors. ‘Flower windows’ cut in the shape of tulips, lotus, and other blossoms make beautifully framed views of gardens on the far sides of buildings or walls.

For centuries, China’s art, engineering, and trade goods far outmatched the rest of the world’s. By the late 1800s when Ho Garden was built, Europe was catching up. Many buildings include imported details such as shutters and iron window screens.

The Ho Garden includes traditional rockeries, with sculptural stacks of stones. But it also has beautiful paving-stone mosaics covering many of its pathways. Designers paid attention to the beauty and harmony of every surface.

Many corridors with carved eaves and railings run through Ho Garden. An elevated, covered walkway allows visitors to look down on the ponds and gardens from above as they walk from building to building in any weather.

For centuries, China’s art, engineering, and trade goods far outmatched the rest of the world’s. By the late 1800s when Ho Garden was built, Europe was catching up. Many buildings include imported details such as shutters and iron window screens.

The Ho Garden includes traditional rockeries, with sculptural stacks of stones. But it also has beautiful paving-stone mosaics covering many of its pathways. Designers paid attention to the beauty and harmony of every surface.

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