It is with some trepidation that I embark on commentary within a garden tradition so different from my own. But if I can't completely understand the Chinese garden, I can at least record my observations, most particularly as to what strikes me in contrast to the Western garden traditions I do know.
But first, what both traditions have in common, from a 1200 year old account of Yong-zhou (which is quite near Suzhou) recently posted by Plinius at some-landscapes:
Liu Zong-yuan went exploring with two companions and found a beautiful spot near Gu-mu pond. Above a fish-weir, they saw a hill covered with trees and bamboo, and littered with a landscape of rocks that resembled strange animals. The whole site covered no more than an acre and, to his joy, Liu Zong-yuan found that it was available for purchase. Having bought it, the three companions 'went to get tools, scything away the undesirable plants and cutting down the bad trees, which we set fire to and burned. Then the fine trees stood out, the lovely bamboo were exposed, and the unusual rocks were revealed. When we gazed out from upon it, the heights of the mountains, the drifting of clouds, the currents of streams, and the cavorting of birds and beasts all cheerfully demonstrated their art and skill in performance for us below the hill. When we spread out our mats and lay down there, the clear and sharply defined shapes were in rapport with our eyes; the sounds of babbling waters were in rapport with our ears; all those things that went on forever in emptiness were in rapport with our spirits; and what was as deep and still as an abyss was in rapport with our hearts.'
All garden traditions seem to move from encompassing the natural landscape, to altering it, and finally to re-creating it. Had he lived in the Ming Dynasty, Liu Zong-yuan would have returned to his home and spent perhaps the rest of his life (for Chinese garden-making was considered the intellectual pursuit of a lifetime, always being perfected, always unfinished) making a landscape that condensed the beauty of the Gu-mu pond into the teapot of his private garden.The scholar gardens of Suzhou are and always were courtyard gardens, retreats created within an urban setting. There is, to my admittedly incomplete knowledge, no Chinese analogue to the country estate landscapes of Western tradition.
So the first point in experiencing the private Chinese gardens (the "scholar's gardens") is that they are quite heavily enclosed. Not by just a single courtyard wall, as in the Western tradition, but by layers of houses and teahouses, walkways and porches and narrow corridors as well as intervening walls creating mutiple small spaces. You feel as you walk the lifetime of perfecting the garden; that its structures and pathways have been altered and added on to, connected and re-connected many times, becoming progressively more dense. As the built features are assymetrically arranged, traversing a Chinese garden can be a disorienting, maze-like experience, and they are difficult to go round quickly or with any pre-defined plan. Which is perhaps the point.