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Reliving the pages of a 19th-century literary classic

August 10, 2018

The 100-hectare Grand View Garden in suburban Shanghai’s Qingpu District is a novel come to life. It recreates scenes from “A Dream of Red Mansions” (Hong Lou Meng 红楼梦), one of the four great works of Chinese literature.
You do not have to read the mid-19th century novel or see film and TV adaptations to appreciate the setting of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), where author Cao Xueqin set his story.
The atmosphere and design of the garden transport visitors back to a time and place of a wealthy, aristocratic family in Beijing.
The venue is a full-size replicated landscape of the garden built by one of the novel’s main characters, Jia Baoyu, to celebrate the homecoming of an elder sister who is an imperial concubine and favorite of the emperor.
Slow, instrumental music plays wafts in parts of the garden, starting at the entrance. Visitors are greeted by large rockeries that form a passage ending at a pond of jade-colored water. Beyond that is a palace with three halls, where changed from her imperial dress and stopped to rest. And behind the palace, a lotus pool. A marble boat rests by the pool. In the novel, it transported concubine Jia Yuanchun across a water to visit her family in the Grand View Pavilion — a main feature of the park.
The 18-square-meter pool recreates the scenery of surrounding structures that Jia Yuanchun would admire along her journey.
The imperial hall of the Grand View Pavilion is guarded by statues of phoenixes and dragons that symbolize the high status of the family before it fell out of favor with the emperor and its fortunes faded.
The side lanes in the pavilion feature an introduction to characters who performed in a 1987 TV production of “A Dream of Red Mansions.”
Here one can appreciate the complexities of the famous family saga, which features more than 40 main characters and hundreds of lesser roles in an entanglement of relationships and societal strictures.
One of the major features of the garden is Happy Red Court, where Jia Baoyu lived. It is filled with luxury furnishings of the period, including a mahogany bed intricately decorated with patterns of flowers. The walls are decorated with Jia’s poem and paintings. Bamboo and other plants create a peaceful, quiet atmosphere.
A large wooden mirror decorated with traditional carvings stands in the hall of the resting chamber of Jia, who was a scholar of the privileged class.
Other features of the garden include Bamboo Lodge, where Jia’s cousin and true love Lin Daiyu lived. To the west is Alpina Park, where Jia Baoyu’s wife Xue Baochai lived.
Lin dies of lovesickness in the novel because Jia is fated to marry Xue instead of her. A mannequin representing her recreates the scene before her death. The mood of the room is eerie.
Throughout the garden are structures representing the Qing Dynasty culture as it was portrayed in the literary work.
A Buddhist temple altar sits in the Green Lattice Nunnery, where younger cousin Jia Xichun took vows as a nun after the downfall of the clan. It was a shelter where characters attempted to shield themselves from the politics swirling around them.
The Grand View Pavilion has a performing stage. Opera performances commonly appeared in scenes of the novel, including for the celebration of cousin Xue Baochai’s 15th birthday. The family entourage included 12 performers known as the “12 Beauties of Jinling,” with whom Jia Baoyu shared special bonds in his compassionate affinity for women in the story. Musical instruments and calligraphy tools were common furnishings.
“A Dream of Red Mansions” hasn’t lost its resonance over the centuries since it was written.
One scene in the book describing a visit by Granny Liu, a poor, distant relative of the family, yielded what it today a commonly used proverb: Liu Laolao jin daguanyuan (刘姥姥进大观园), or “Granny Liu visits Grand View Garden.” The expression is used in modern Chinese to describe someone, usually an unsophisticated simpleton, who is overwhelmed by new experiences and luxurious surroundings.
Granny Liu is thought to be a bit of a comic relief character in the novel, but many regard her as a foil to the foibles of the nobility and an omen of the eventual downfall of the Jia family.
Visiting the garden makes the classic story come to life with such realism that it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that it wasn’t really fiction at all.
Address: 701 Qingshang Highway
Admission: 60 yuan
How to get there: Take Metro line 2 or 10 to the Hongqiao Railway Station, then transfer to Line 17 to the Shanghai Oriental Land. Get out at Exit 3 to take the Qingshang bus line to the Jinshang Highway Grand View Garden stop. Or take the Hushang Express Line at Yan’an Road M. and Shimen No. 1 Road, which will take you directly to the garden.
More sightseeing while you’re in the area ...
Grand View Garden sits in an area of the Qingpu District famous for ancient bridges in old canal towns like the popular Zhujiajiao.
While in the vicinity, there are other scenic sites worthy of a visit.
Just west of Zhujiajiao is 62-square-kilometer Dianshan Lake, the source of the Huangpu River that bisects downtown Shanghai.
The lake’s name refers to a large hill that once stood in the middle of the lake until receding waters shifted its geography to the east bank.
The lake is a popular day trip for people needing a respite from urban concrete, noise and traffic. Here, visitors can view clear waters and enjoy a fresh sea breeze amid thick forest preserves, wetlands and cultivated farmland.
The lake is known for its crabs, lobsters and shellfish.
Besides Grand View Garden, the lake’s waters feed streams that run past other nearby sites, such as Baoguo temple, the Chen Yun Memorial Hall, the Sun Island Resort and the Oriental Land theme park. Many aquatic sports competitions are held here.
Qingpu Museum
This museum showcases thousands of relics used by Shanghai’s ancestors dating back to more than 6,000 years ago. Many were excavated from the Songze and Fuquanshan archeological sites in Qingpu.
The collection includes an ancient human skull and exhibits about the Songze, Liangzhu and Maqiao cultures. Replicated excavation sites are the backdrop for artefacts from the ancient tribes.
One room takes visitors into an elaborate setup of the earliest trading port of the ancient town of Qinglong during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The museum also displays a gouduo, a percussion instrument from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), unearthed from the bottom of the Dianshan Lake.
Address: 1000 Huaqing Rd S.
Admission: Free
How to get there: Take Metro Line 2 or 10 to the Hongqiao Railway Station, then transfer to Line 17 to Huijin Road. Get out Exit 1 and take Qingpu bus No. 19 to the Huaqing Road S. East Garden stop.
Guanwang and Baoguo temples
On the shores of Dianshan Lake is a temple site dating back to ancient times.
In the central courtyard of the temple is a gingko tree said to be the oldest in Shanghai, dating back more than a thousand years. Almost 20 meters tall, the tree is supported by wooden stilts. Locals speak of its deep spirituality.
To its west, the back-facing Guanwang temple retains the structural characteristics from a Ming Dynasty renovation. Most of its original site was destroyed, leaving a 40 square-meter temple hall and two wells under the care Baoguo Temple.
A statue of the deity Guan Yu gazes across the lake. One of the ancient wells still supplies water through a lever-tap. Two engraved steles record the names of ancient donors and the amount contributed to the temple maintenance.
The Guanwang temple site has been under cultural preservation by the Qingpu District since 1961.
Address: No. 452, Dianfeng Village, by the Huqingping Highway
Admission: Free
How to get there: Take Metro line 2 or 10 to the Hongqiao Railway Station, then transfer to Line 17 to the Shanghai Oriental Land. Get out at Exit 3 and take the Qingshang bus line to the Dianfeng stop on the Huqingping Highway.