In a country where urbanization is taking its toll on the environment, the Wanshi Botanical Garden in Xiamen is a breath of fresh air
I’d spent two weeks surrounded by constructions of glass, steel and concrete, amid spaces brimming with people. When I arrived at Xiamen’s Wanshi Botanical Garden (25 Huyuan Rd, Siming District; +86 592 202 4785) it seemed almost unreal. Its vast green lawn, ringed by lofty trees, felt like an oasis.
It offered space, quiet, privacy and fresh air — four things I could only conjure in a daydream during my trip from the north to south of China, hopping from metropolis to metropolis. This was my eighth visit to the world’s most populous country, and I’m as besotted with it now as ever. I adore cities and have long been fascinated by the massive, teeming conurbations of China, but after 14 days in gargantuan urban hubs home to millions of people — from Beijing to Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Zhengzhou — the call of nature had grown louder than a street full of honking taxis.
Of course, I was only a visitor. For permanent residents of the country’s numerous giant cities, the desire to escape the concrete jungle and revel in the natural environment must be even stronger. Many of the people who live in these metropolises were not raised in an urban setting, having relocated from the Chinese countryside in order to find work. The urge to reconnect with nature, that same feeling that overwhelmed me, is the reason why Chinese parks and botanical gardens are so widely popular. In the green lungs of cities across the nation you will find people representing every age group engaged in relaxation and recreation.
They dance alone or in groups. They play traditional instruments. They daub water calligraphy across the footpaths. They gather to chat or debate. Or they just sit silently and contentedly beneath the trees, by the flowers or on the soft grass.
China is home to some of the most phenomenal and beguiling scenery on the planet. From the verdant plains of Yunnan Province to the terraced fields of Guangxi, the rolling dunes of Qinghai and the alpine paradise of Sichuan, its remarkable natural wonders have for centuries been glorified in Chinese art and literature. The jagged, forested peaks depicted in the paintings which hang inside many city homes provide daily reminders of the beauty that lies beyond the skyscrapers, highways and shopping centers.
When it comes to their environment, Xiamen’s residents are more fortunate than most city dwellers in China. Located on the country’s southern coast, its warm weather and rich soil have helped make it one of the nation’s greenest urban areas. In a nation known for cities dominated by towering, manmade structures, Xiamen — with its comparative lack of pollution and attractive setting by the South China Sea — is a relative anomaly. It should be no surprise, then, that just south of the city center is one of China’s most famous horticultural spaces, Wanshi Botanical Garden, which cascades down Wanshi mountain.
More than 6,000 species of plants, pristine lakes, sprawling lawns and flower-laden plots punctuate this enchanting swathe of nature, along with forests that host myriad bird species. After watching thousands of busy, serious-faced people rush past me on the streets of other Chinese cities, it was a pleasant change to witness the palpable joy and light-heartedness inside Wanshi: from the moment I stepped through its western entrance, I was surrounded by people with a grin on their face and a bounce in their stride.
Old women laughed, young men exercised, children ran and leapt and screamed and tussled. A boy stopped in his tracks and, with an expression of curiosity, pointed at the tall foreigner. I pointed back, the boy chuckled, his parents smiled and everyone carried on having fun. It was a scene straight out of a Sunday night, feel-good Hallmark movie.
Wanshi, built in 1960, has a number of beauty spots with grandiose names like Laughing Rocks of Eternal Peace, Dawn Bell Ringing from Heaven’s Border, A Thousand Sceptres Facing Skywards and Melodious Instrument Cave. Yet it doesn’t seem as though it is these dynamically named attractions that draw the locals here. Instead, much of the delight and fascination provided by the garden is much simpler. On a spacious lawn, in the fading afternoon light, a middle-aged man paused, with one knee lifted high and both arms outstretched. Neither my presence nor the clicking of my camera’s shutter disrupted his concentration as he practiced his martial arts moves.
Beyond him, at the high end of the lawn beneath a bank of pine trees, a young couple were modeling for wedding photos. Beaming and giggling, the loved-up pair was just one of several couples enacting this scene across the park, which is one of the most popular settings for wedding shoots in Xiamen. Nearby, two female students were leaning down to take photos of a flowerbed cloaked in a colorful array of species. Chatting excitedly and admiring each other’s photography skills, they seemed intent on documenting every variety in sight.
That would be quite some feat: Wanshi contains hundreds of tropical and subtropical flowers, ranging from tiny pink lantana to giant water lilies. They’re spread among a dozen separate gardens, many of which are embellished by boulders that are inscribed with phrases culled from ancient Chinese philosophy. Among these distinct areas are a dense bamboo forest, a shrub garden, a rainforest, an indoor flower exhibition, a herb garden, a rose display, and sections dedicated to cacti, plants that thrive in sandy soil (psammophytes) and bear their seeds outside the fruit (gymnosperms), and medicinal plants. This latter area is particularly fascinating given China’s global renown as a pioneer in herbal medicine. For thousands of years, plants have been used in China to improve health and treat illness, and this garden features more than 200 species known to have medicinal uses.
Higher up Wanshi mountain, looking down towards the gorgeous expanses of the botanical garden, lies Heaven’s Border Temple. Built by a monk in the mid-17th century, the ornate structure was dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy and the Immortal Elder. Etched in stone within the temple is a couplet which translates as “Heaven asks the prayers; the Immortal Elder works miracles.” In a country increasingly defined by the products of human endeavor, it’s a fitting poem in a park that celebrates the miraculous feats of nature.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Smile magazine.