After two days in Fujian, we flew from Xiamen to Yangzhou, a city in China’s Jiangsu province that straddles the Grand Canal north of the Yangtze River. Once a major stop for the salt trade, it’s now known for its ancient shrines and traditional gardens. Again, we drove in darkness until finally we reached Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat. By night, the property’s mazelike gridded structure, which was inspired by the courtyard typology of vernacular architecture, was all dramatic shadow-cast geometrical angles, darkened to abstraction. It was spectacular, as was the sunken, rectangular reception room, where glass walls looked out on one of many shallow Tetris-shaped reflection pools.
They began with several existing structures, then expanded, using over 1.2 million reclaimed gray bricks they collected from Yangzhou and surrounding areas. “Every brick has a story,” said the concierge as he walked me through the retreat the next morning, pointing out centuries-old markings on some of the bricks—Chinese characters meaning “long life” or “be happy.” Neri & Hu designed the structure to interact with the changing daylight. Squares of light appear on the walls like framed pictures. Shadows stretch, contract, and move upward and downward as the hours progress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the locals haven’t all embraced such an ambitious undertaking. Or as the concierge put it: “They think it looks unfinished.”
To get a better feel not only for the region but for the aesthetic traditions that inform the retreat, we went the next day to the oldest part of town, the 600-year-old Dingjiawan residential district. Like Tsingpu Yangzhou, the area has a mazelike, geometric quality. Light moves through openings and across walls. We stopped at Little Pangu Garden, a privately-owned traditional walled garden and walked down its zigzagging pathways lined with a great variety of palms, orchids, and bamboo, around ornate pavilions and ponds set with craggy rockery pulled from the sea, all hemmed in by walls built to replicate the spine of a dragon.
I watched pilgrims burn fistfuls of incense, bowing and wielding it over their heads, praying at the feet of statues depicting Buddha and his disciples. It was a Saturday, so the temple was thronged with visitors, among them several Japanese tour groups, who shuffled back and forth under the shade of a blossoming osmanthus tree, which filled the courtyard with its distinctive sweet-wine aroma. It was undeniable that the place had a spiritual aura, a sublime calm cultivated over millennia.
We returned to the retreat for a dinner of braised eel with pumpkin and garlic, hollowed-out dragon fruit filled with seared beef, mushroom, and peppers, and “flowers” made from jellyfish, carrot, and cucumber. As I ate, it was as if I could actually taste the landscape. Like Fujian food, Jiangsu cuisine is mild, favoring sour and sweet to salt and spice. But the food at Yangzhou was even more refined than what we had at Tulou, which might have less to do with regional differences and more with the man in charge, Changzhu Gao, a third-generation Yangzhou chef whose grandfather cooked for Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China. After dinner, the retreat hosted a concert by a master of the guqin, a plucked seven-string instrument of the zither family said to date back more than 5,000 years. The master called each of us on stage to learn a few bars of a popular Cantonese song called “Laughing on the Blue Sea.” I slid my fingers across the strings and heard the melody take shape.
The next morning—my last in Yangzhou—I took a walk down the long bank of the nearby Slender West Lake, savoring these last solitary moments in nature. Weeping willows swayed in the wind, their pendulous branches grazing the surface of the water like fingers on silk. The guqin still played in my head, and the sun cast a pale glow, doubling a pagoda onto the water’s surface. I felt somehow part of it, but also separate, and I was suddenly reminded of the Xin Qiji poem Mr. Wang had quoted to me back in Beijing.
At the time, I’d found it hard to get my head around. But that morning in Yangzhou, it made perfect sense.
The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 edition of Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movements underway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect the way we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spaces both physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime.