Zhang’s Garden: The New Wonder of Old Dali, China

Text & Photos by Dr Stephen Utick, additional photos by Jenny Donohoe & Charles Lee

Author’s note: This article is based on travel notes, promotional material provided by Dali Zhang’s Garden, general background research and observations.  Due to translation difficulties, there may be some inaccuracies.

Introduction: A Garden Masterpiece

In Yunnan province of far south-western China, on the shores of beautiful Lake Erhai, lies the city of Dali, currently having a population of over 520,000, with 40,000 in the old town.  It has a fabulous history, being situated at the junction of the Southern Silk Road (into India) and the northern Tea Road (into Tibet).  Dali’s natural beauty and its outstanding crafts, including lacquer work, jewellery, tiling, calligraphy, sculpture and stonework, were written about by Marco Polo over 600 years ago.  In February 2012, as part of an International Camellia Society Congress tour, visitors were privileged to visit one of the most remarkable gardens in China – Dali Zhang’s Garden.  It is a garden architectural masterpiece.

The fabled Liuhetongchun

Liuhetongchun "Deer & Crane Sharing Spring"

Liuhetongchun “Deer & Crane Sharing Spring”

To explain why, requires a little understanding of some very old Asian history and cultural tradition.  In the seventh and eight centuries AD in this part of Asia, there arose a Buddhist Kingdom called the Kingdom of Nanzhou.  For centuries, this kingdom became the pawn in a power play between Tibet and a China, then ruled by the Tang Dynasty. It eventually became the Kingdom of Dali (937-1253) before being conquered by the Mongal Empire which subsequently led to this region being incorporated into China. The most significant local ethnic grouping, the Bai, developed a highly aesthetic religious culture, underpinned by a farming civilisation originating over 4000 years previously, before the foundation of the Nanzhou Kingdom.  The highest cultural point of the Nanzhou kings was the construction of a garden pavilion complex known as the Liuhetongchun (translated as ‘deer and crane sharing spring’) and, during much of the twentieth century, wealthy merchants in the region financed the construction of buildings that might recreate some of this splendour.

The dream of recreating the fabled Liuhetongchun was finally realised at the beginning of the twenty-first century when, in around 2006 after a ten-year construction period, the garden complex was completed, covering an area of 4700 square metres.  It incorporates 289 rooms showcasing Bai cultural and artistic treasures.  If you can imagine garden lattices decorated with jade and flowers surrounded by precious lacquer work, polished Dali marble, the finest ceramics and stone urns, then you might begin to picture the wonder that is Dali Zhang’s Garden.  It is named after the noble family clan Zhang, the generations of which can be traced back to the time of the Nanzhou Kingdom.

A Bai Cultural Museum

Greeting - Ceremonial Dancers

Greeting – Ceremonial Dancers

Further, the Garden embodies Bai cultural mentality, moral values and aesthetic senses.

For example the pavilion designs incorporate the family spiritual values including symbols of clan, and of being a sanctuary of the body and soul of family members.  It is actually staffed by Bai youth (girls and boys) in traditional costumes.  On our arrival at Dali Zhang’s Garden, visitors were greeted by stunningly beautiful girls performing dance and chant.  It is located on Gantongshan Mountain in Dili and is adjacent to Guanyintang Buddhist Monastery (which extends a Buddhist blessing to the site).  It also appears to be privately owned, reflecting the new wealth of what was previously an austere China.

Six Compounds and Other Main Features

The entrance compound Liuhetongchun

The entrance compound Liuhetongchun

This marvellous re-creation was the work of local architect Zhang Jianchun who incorporated the garden elements into six compounds, originally symbolising the coming together of six smaller kingdoms to found the Kingdom of Nangzou.  These included the entrance compound Liuhetongchun, Ruijiesanfang, Sihehuifeng, Calyunnan, Haitangchunyuan (a dance stage on a fish pond garden), and Xiyanghong (or Occidental Red, and which reflects Silk Road themes).  There is also a more distinct Yiqiuyuan Garden (otherwise known as a ‘mirror garden’) and Jixuelou Pavilion, surrounded by ponds.

The Garden Screen WallImage 7

While influenced by Han-Tang architectural styles, the Bai developed their own unique designs in gates, beams, windows and doors of their dwellings.  However, the most striking feature in the Garden is the garden screen wallThis kind of screen wall (somewhat different to other such Chinese garden architecture) serves as both a reflector of national lighting into the garden courtyards as well as a show wall of architectural design.  It is shaped like the Chinese character for mountain and is usually capped by magnificent arched tiled corbels that give the impression of birds’ wings.  The centrepiece feature of the screen wall can include polished Dili marble (which can be taken at a distance as a painting) or breathtakingly tiled fresco-like panels.  Two most striking of the latter are a giant wall in the court of Calyunnan which features the phoenix (a symbol of the kings of Nanzhou) and the multi-coloured screen wall of Xiyanghong which features figures of envoys of 16 countries arriving in Dali.  Around such structures can be found precious horticultural plants of cultural significance to Dili, and tamed live peacocks.

 Camellias at Dali Zhang’s Garden

Bali-style garden screen wall protecting camellia garden in Ruijiesanfang Compound

Bali-style garden screen wall protecting camellia garden in Ruijiesanfang Compound

At the time of our arrival at Dali Zhang’s Garden, specimens of Camellia reticulata were the most prominent horticultural gems on display and were flowering prolifically.  Certain varieties of C. reticulata are famously associated with Dali, and particularly with Buddhism; these flowers became a mandala to the Buddha.  The displays also included a number of C. japonica (Chinese and Western cultivars), hybrids and species including C. nitidissima and at least one bonsai C. azalea.

Majestic 'phoenix' garden screen wall, Calyunnan compound

Majestic ‘phoenix’ garden screen wall, Calyunnan compound

Some stunning potted specimens could be seen around the archway of Liuhetongchun, although a most impressive display could also be found in permanent gardens in the court of Sihehuifeng.  A stone urn in this latter compound featured an outstanding collection of blooms including some of the ‘eight famous reticulatas’.  The Garden’s promotional material makes much comment on the ‘eight famous reticulatas of Dali’ which have featured in Chinese literature.  Thanks to subsequent confirmation by Professor Wang Zhonglang of the Kunming Botanical Institute, I have now been able to assemble a complete list with translated English names:

'Foreign Envoy' garden screen wall, Xiyanghong compound

‘Foreign Envoy’ garden screen wall, Xiyanghong compound

‘Dalicha’ (Dali Camellia), ‘Damanao’ (Large Cornelian), ‘Zhusha Zipou’ (Cinnabar Purple Gown), ‘Shizitou’ (Lionhead), ‘Tongzimian’ (Baby Face), ‘Hentiangao’ (Jealous of Height of the Sky), ‘Zipao’ (Purple Gown), and ‘Yudai Zipao’ (Jade Stripe Purple Gown).


C.reticulate 'Damanao', Liuhetongchun compound

C.reticulate ‘Damanao’, Liuhetongchun compound

Examples of Chinese peony (varieties of Paeonia lactiflora) were also on display.  The fact that all these specimens were overwhelmingly featured in pots suggests that the Garden may bring in a wider range of plants at other times.  February to March would seem to be the time to view C. reticulata specimens in bloom, which feature there in both courtyard and corridor.

C.reticulata 'Zhusha Zipau', Liuhetongchun compound

C.reticulata ‘Zhusha Zipau’, Liuhetongchun compound





Dali Zhang’s Garden is almost certain to be included on the itinerary of the 2016 International Camellia Congress scheduled to be held in Dali itself.

Image 12On our arrival there back in February 2012, the owner made a public vow that he would make Dali Zhang’s the most stunning garden in China.  A return there in 2016 would reveal how far he has progressed in reaching this ambitious goal.

Camellia garden in court of Sihehulfeng compound

Camellia garden in court of Sihehulfeng compound

This article was also published in Camellia News No. 193 – Spring/Summer 2013


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