Qianlong’s Garden, The Forbidden City, China

The river of stone

Words & Pictures: Tania Compton

Without Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon superpowers no mortal prisoner nor reluctant concubine was going to escape the confines of the Forbidden City.  This city within a city is laid out as a maze of bull’s blood red walls and golden glazed tile roofs.  Yet nestled somewhere within the square kilometre of palaces and pavilions is a ribbon shaped water channel that has haunted me since I first read an account of it 25 years ago.

Carved through 27 metres of stone, this ‘river’ was commissioned by the 18th century Emperor Qianlong, in order to bring to life a fourth century Chinese poem in which a group of scholars play a riverside drinking game.  If the floating cup stopped beside one of them they had to either write a poem or drink the contents of the cup.  Fun for poets with writers block, less if the muse was with you.

Finally, I found it surrounded by screens of bamboo carved from smooth marble.   How the once omnipotent Emperor must have entertained himself with this game that seems part Pooh Sticks part teenage tequila slammers.  The outcome, I now understood depended on how fast the water was pouring from the reservoir behind the screen - and I bet Qianlong kept a beady eye on that when it was his turn to play……

Every rock, tree and plant in the garden is invested with supernatural powers or allegorical meaning.  Even the paths are laid out in auspicious patterns of cracked ice, (strength in adversity), Ruyi fungus (fertility) and magic bats (more good fortune).

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon suddenly doesn’t seem so far fetched.

Not to be missed

Stone is the chief ornament of any classical Chinese garden and Qianlong’s Garden with all its rockeries and grottos is the perfect place to begin your education into their deeper symbolism.

So determined was the Emperor to have the best that the state coffers were emptied as his eunuchs hauled the most highly prized (ie the most gnarled and fissured) rocks from the bottom of Tai Hu Lake.


It isn’t great that scraps of paper now clog up the dry-as-a-bone outflow pipe - though on the plus side it allows visitors to play Emperor by being able to reach the top of the rock formations.  In Tao belief the higher you climbed rock, the closer you were to invoking the power of the gods.

Other gardens nearby

The Imperial Garden, just north of Qianlong’s:  Look for the Dragon’s Claw pruning technique used on Sophora japonica ‘Pendula’ and the seasonal pot displays.  Exquisitely trained and exuberantly blooming double and single plum cultivars were laid out in a grid when we were there in March.

The Temple of Heaven, just across the road: Geometry and symmetry underpin the constantly shifting perspective.

You can stand on the spot where the Emperor would perform the annual sacrificial harvest ceremony in alignment with the beams of the rising winter solstice sun.  Wander through the forest of sacred cypresses for magnificent ancient trees peppered by silent scores of tai chi practitioners.  Magnificent braziers.  Best jasmine tea was had in the kiosk next to the Echo wall.  In season don’t miss the sweetest mandarin oranges from the barrows outside both entrance and exit.

The Summer palace:  We had a pampering lunch in the Aman summer palace and wandered around their garden with bamboo courtyards, winter jasmine cascading into pools and beds of peony buds emerging out of sandy grey earth.

How to get there

Finding your way around the Forbidden City is like living inside Temple Run – all cul-de-sacs and ending up back where you started.  To find the rill head for The Pavilion of Bestowing Wine or Xi Shang Ting (confusingly, also known as the Pavilion of the Floating Cups, Liu Bei Ting) in area marked 33 on the Northeast map.