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Rebalancing Act in Vancouver’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Garden

Happiness is equilibrium.
Shift your weight.
Equilibrium is pragmatic.
You have to get everything into proportion.
You compensate, rebalance yourself
so that you maintain your angle to your world.
When the world shifts, you shift.
– Tom Stoppard, 1937-

Vancouver, British Columbia

Tucked away in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown is the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Garden, the first full-scale classical garden constructed outside China, created in 1986. This inner-city sanctuary was modeled after the private gardens of the country’s literati elite during the Ming Dynasty in power from 1368-1644.

The abiding principle of a classical Chinese garden is the Daoist philosophy of yin and yang—light is balanced by dark, rugged and hard are countered by soft and flowing, small by large. I arrived at the Garden in late afternoon, in serious need of some rebalancing myself, after a grueling travel day of “hurry up and wait” that had begun at 3 a.m.

A scholar’s garden is a microcosm of nature and man’s place within nature, and comprised of four elements—plants, buildings, for the site is also his home, rocks, and water.

Plants are selected for symbolic value. Here, willows portray feminine grace; the winter flowering plum depicts renewal; bamboo represents quiet resilience, bending but never breaking; and the pine symbolizes strength because it can grow in treacherous conditions.

The architecture includes hall, pavilions, covered walkways, and terraces. Back in the day, the average scholar’s enclave would house about 200 people—his wives, the number of which designated his status, their children, extended family, and all the servants required to keep this placid world in place.

Entering the complex, I followed a double corridor, like a two-lane road, with views on either side. My guide Richard Sung explained the layout is intended to force you to think about your journey and live in the moment. The passage led to the Jade Water Pavilion, perched atop a green pond, which reflects this and other buildings, as well as rocks and plants. The water is intentionally cloudy, an effect achieved by special clay lining, as it intensified the reflection. Richard pointed out the railing along the Pavilion, which he said all authentic classical gardens have. This was, after all, the era when girls’ feet were bound beginning at age five, and understandably, they needed easy access to get off them.

The scholar’s courtyard and study—strictly his domain alone, where he would compose poetry and music and paint—are set back from the water, believed to embody female energy that might distract him from his lofty work. His terrace featured a tall oblong rock that faced his study, the better to direct the inspirational chi, or life energy flow, in his direction. Limestone rocks, pitted and molded into otherworldly shapes by water and wind, are strategically situated throughout the setting. The stones, like most of the architectural components of this garden, were shipped from China.

Throughout his tour, Richard remarked on the various ways a sense of balance is embedded in the location of the buildings, much of it related to the opposites of male and female energy. A main hall is a “tang,” representing yin, or female; a pavilion is a “ting,” or yang, and male. The ting is the focal point in the garden and sits high on a pile of weathered rocks, emulating a macho mountain.

Playwright Tom Stoppard, quoted today, in many ways embodies the dualities so prized in a classical Chinese garden. A high school drop-out, in 2008 he was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. He is a human rights activist who has worked on behalf of Amnesty International among other such organizations—yet said early in his career “I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness.” He is an intellectual who has worked on Indiana Jones and Star Wars scripts—receiving no screen credit. A British knight, he was born to Jewish parents in Czechoslovakia, escaping persecution from the Nazis when they invaded that country in 1939. His work often addresses the conflict between heart and head that is inherent in the human condition.

That conflict for me only becomes visible when the proverbial waters are murky, like the surface of the Jade Water Pavilion. I have come to realize that whatever discord I perceive in the outside world is usually only a mirror of opposing instincts churning within. Life has an uncanny way of reflecting back to me the lesson-in-the-making that is bubbling below. When the axis of my world shifts, whether taking the form of day-to-day events or relationships issues, it always boils down to my senses of reason and feeling somehow being out of sync.

When I allow my intellect to suppress legitimate feelings that need to surface, it’s akin to holding back the tide—a lot of futile energy expended fighting a powerful force of nature. How often I have negated genuine disappointment by telling myself something didn’t really matter, or swallowed giddy feelings of joy for fear it would hex my luck. Restraining perfectly healthy emotions too tightly has at times kept me on the sidelines with illness, just as the convention of binding girls’ feet affected their mobility.

On the flip side, I can sometimes have a searing visceral reaction to something I see or hear that needs to be tempered with a little practical analysis. If I am not careful I can channel my inner Eeyore all too often, with a gut reaction of gloom and doom, the “Oh, no, we’ll never make it!” refrain ricocheting around my brain like pinball machine. That’s when I need to compensate with pragmatism as Stoppard suggests, and make like the Who’s Tommy, tuning out the buzzers, bells and buttons that are being pushed.

Today, when my world shifts, I am a little bit better about seeing I need to shift with it, like the bamboo reed. And I have learned that when the script I’ve been handed calls for drama, by seeking a little solace and quiet in my internal garden, I can emerge renewed, like the snow plum.
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