Women in traditional China: Lingering Garden, Humble Administrator’s Garden

While visiting Su Zhou, we were able to tour several gardens. Particularly, we toured the Lingering Garden and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, two of sixty-nine preserved gardens in Su Zhou .

One of these gardens historically functioned as a home for a Chinese scholars, the other for a government official. These ‘houses’ are more accurately described as sprawling mansions. Unlike a western-style mansion in which all of the rooms connect to form the house as a whole, the rooms in these mansions are separated into several different buildings. Though structured very differently, they included greeting rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, sitting rooms, and so on –all of the types of rooms one would expect to find in the home of a wealthy family. Each of the rooms are separated by zigzagging walkways, rock formations, pagodas, and ponds. Ultimately, these parts come together to create breathtaking gardens that are now publicly accessible.

An interesting aspect of these gardens were the differences in the spaces meant for men from those of the spaces reserved for women. The Lingering Garden featured a specific room (see below) in which, while the garden still functioned as a house, girls were kept secluded and separated from guests. The traditional seclusion of girls from outsiders speaks to a patriarchy in which daughters were to be kept apart from society. This is both an important and an interesting aspect of traditional Chinese culture, one that can be seen many years later while touring the Lingering Garden.

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In the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the separation of men and women can be seen in the receiving room of the mansion. This is a room that, according our the tour guide, functioned as a room for socializing with guests and friends. Within this room-building, a partition screen separates the men’s visitation area from the women’s visitation area. The men’s area is at the front part of the building and features square, bulky furniture such as the desk seen below. The women’s area sits at the back of the building with more rounded, generally smaller tables and chairs. The women’s area occupies less space than that of the men’s and the flooring tiles are also smaller. Moving from the front men’s area to the women’s area in the back, you can feel a distinct shift in decor as well as space size. From the furniture, the the flooring, the women’s area was clearly designed to be smaller, more fine-boned and feminine. While the men sat in the front area socializing, the women could sit one thin wall away listening to the conversation and maybe chatting among themselves.

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Traditional to Modern Martial Arts: Tai Ji Jian

Taijiquan can be shortened to Taiji, often known in the west as “TaiChi”. While Taiji was traditionally practiced as a martial art, it is most commonly used today as a form of exercise. This martial art revolves around slow, controlled movements, balance and concentration. Taijiquan, especially among the elderly, is practiced as a type of morning exercise. Here in Shanghai, one can see droves of elderly Chinese practicing Taiji on any given day in public parks and squares.

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Taijijian describes the sword used as a part of the practice of Taijiquan. Taijijian translates into Taiji sword, very straightforward seeing as it is the sword used in the practice of Taiji. The sword is double edged, and practitioners historically trained with the Taiji sword in preparation for combat. However, like Taijiquan, Taijijian has also become a form of exercise in the modern world. The modern Taijijian swords are often thinner and more decorative than those from the days of combat in order to add theatrical effect.

While traveling in Beijing, we were fortunate enough to have some free time in a large public park. There were many elderly there making use of the exercise equipment or playing cards and other board games. Here (see video) you can see an elderly woman practicing Taijijian. If you look at the handle of the sword, you will see the ornamental tassel. She moves slowly and precisely. The sword acts as an extension of her arm while the rest of her body goes through the Taijiquan movements.

 

For this particular woman, she is practicing at mid-morning in a group of other Taijijian practitioners, though I caught this video while the others in her group took a break. The practice of Taijijian in groups, as well as other groups in the park, held a fierce sense of community. These people knew each other and gathered together to not only practice Taijijian, but to spend time in this public forum enjoying each other’s company. It seemed as though the health aspect of practicing Taijijian was fused with the social aspect. Though there are undoubtedly practitioners who do so purely for individual training, my own experience while in China suggests that Taijijian has become a social event for many Chinese.

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