The Yu Garden or Yù Yuán is a pleasant, well-contained classical Chinese garden, in the center of urban Shanghai.
While the garden may not be the complete oasis it was originally meant to be with the hordes of tourists coming in daily, it still is an interesting stop given that it also the most complete classical garden within Shanghai’s confines.
Built between 1559 and 1577 by local official Pan Yunduan as the private estate for his father, Yù Yuán, meaning Garden of Peace and Comfort, it is a maze of Míng Dynasty pavilions, elaborate rock gardens, arched bridges, and goldfish ponds. All these are encircled by an undulating dragon wall over an expanse of 2 hectares.
The layout of Yù Yuán, which contains gardens-within-gardens, can make strolling here a bit confusing. If you stick, however, to a general clockwise path from the main entrance, you should get around most of the estate and arrive eventually at the Inner Garden (Nèi Yuán) and final exit. The major sites from the northern entrance clockwise to the east and south are as follows:
Sansuì Táng (Three Ears of Corn Hall)
The first and largest of the garden’s grand pavilions, it was built in 1760 after Yù Yuán had been sold to a group of merchants. The main features here are the fine window and wood beam carvings of rice, millet, wheat, fruit, and other emblems of a plentiful harvest. The building was formerly used as a meeting place for local officials and for proclaiming Imperial announcements.
Yángshan Táng (Hall for Viewing the Grand Rockery)
Located north of the Three Ears of Corn Hall, this graceful two-story tower with upturned eaves serves as the entrance to the marvelous rock garden behind. Its upper floor, known as Juanyu Lóu (Chamber for Gathering Rain), provides a very beautiful view of the Grand Rockery.
Aà Jia Shan (The Grand Rockery)
A pond separates the viewing hall from the Grand Rockery, which consists of 2,000 tons of rare yellow stones fused together with rice glue and designed by a famous garden artist of the Míng, Zhang Nányáng. The twisted mountainlike sculpture, intended to evoke peaks, ravines, caves, and ridges, stands 14 meters (46 ft.) high and was the highest point in the city during the garden’s construction.
Jiàn Rù Jia Jìng (The Corridor for Approaching the Best Scenery)
Beautiful vase-shaped doorframes line the corridor. Off the corridor to the east you’ll find the small Yúlè Xiè (Pavilion for Viewing Frolicking Fish) with schools of colorful carp and goldfish swimming in a stream that appears much longer than it actually is (less than 50m/164 ft.).
Northeast of the rockery is the Cuì Xiù Táng (Hall of Gathering Grace); to the east is Wànhua Lóu (Pavilion of Ten Thousand Flowers), where a 4-century-old gingko tree stakes out the front courtyard.
Dian Chun Táng (Hall of Heralding Spring)
There are two halls in the northeast section of Yù Yuán: the northern Cángbao Lóu (Treasury Hall), and the most famous historical building in the garden, Dian Chun Táng (Hall of Heralding Spring). It was here in 1853 that the secret Small Sword Society (Xiaodao Huì) assembled and plotted to join the peasant-led Tàipíng Rebellion based in Nánjing that aimed to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
The uprising was a bloody one in Shànghai, forcing countless Chinese to flee into the British Concession. Rebels ruled the Chinese city for a year before being put down by a combination of Chinese and Western soldiers. Today there is a small collection of uprising artifacts in this hall, including weapons and coins minted by the rebels.
Héxù Táng (Hall of Harmony)
South of the rebels’ old headquarters, past the Kuài Lóu (Tower of Joy) perched atop a pile of rocks, is the glass-enclosed Hall of Harmony, worth stepping inside to examine its display of old Qing Dynasty furniture, crafted by hand from banyan tree roots.
Just to the west of this hall is a wonderful dragon wall with a lifelike clay carving of a dragon’s head perched at the end and gray tiles along the top representing the dragon’s body. Such walls are used throughout to divide the garden into different sections. A detour west of this wall leads to a bamboo grove and eventually to the airy Jiushi Xuan (Nine Lion Study).
Yù Huá Táng (Hall of Jade Magnificence) — This hall opens into a southern courtyard with the most celebrated stone sculpture in the garden, Yù Líng Lóng (Exquisite Jade Rock). This honeycomb slab was reportedly originally procured by the Huìzong emperor of the Northern Sòng (reigned 1100-26) from the waters of Tài Hú (Lake Tài) where many of the bizarre rocks and rocks found in classical Chinese gardens were submerged to be naturally carved by the currents.
Nèi Yuán (Inner Garden)
South of Exquisite Jade Rock is the entrance to the Inner Garden, which was constructed in 1709 and made a part of Yù Yuán only in 1956. This is often the quietest section of the garden, particularly in the morning. Its Hall of Serenity (Jìngguan Táng) at the north entrance and Tower for Watching Waves (Guantao Lóu) are magnificent, as is the ornately carved
Acting and Singing Stage (Gu Xìtái) to the south. Local artists and calligraphers sometimes use these and other pavilions to mount art exhibitions to display and hopefully, sell their work. The exit from Yù Yuán is located next to the Inner Garden entrance; it puts you on Yùyuán Lù, which leads back to the Old Town pond and the Húxin Tíng Teahouse.