Their creation -- the Garden of Flowing Fragrance -- is springing up like some fantasy film set at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. But it is authentic in all respects. Its design re-creates botanical havens built by scholars who were the social elite during the Ming Dynasty, when the art of classical gardens reached its zenith in the city of Suzhou. When the new garden opens in February, visitors will find handmade bricks, tiles and wood structures, all with elaborate decorative details, all crafted by artisans brought here by the Huntington because their skills are as ancient and rare as the garden design itself. Like its predecessors, the garden sits within undulating white walls, its 1 1/2 -acre lake dotted with hand-carved stone bridges, swooping-roofed pavilions and pebbled paths.
Stonemasons who specialize in calligraphy etch ancient characters into the spongy, hole-riddled limestone rock, 850 tons of which were imported from the Suzhou area. Not calligraphers themselves, these men are experts at transferring the masterful inscriptions of artists from paper onto stone. Each carving will tell visitors the name of the pavilion in which they're standing or will describe the poetry of the view.
The lake is encircled by massive chunks of rock, positioned there by specialists from Suzhou. These men also placed the 8-to-14-foot rocks that serve as sculptures, the kind of natural specimens valued in China since the Ming era for the grace and beauty of their shapes.
Woodwork specialists install the burnished panels of ginkgo and fir, carved or etched with patterns and classical themes passed down through centuries.
In the double-roofed, hexagonal Three Friends Pavilion, the ginkgo ceiling bears images of the three friends of winter -- pine, bamboo and plum blossom -- all of which remain hearty through the cold months. Wood carved into a traditional lattice-like pattern called "broken ice" is set like a delicate frozen curtain.
Tile specialists put finishing touches on pavilion roofs made exactly as they were 500 years ago. Clay is hand-fitted into molds and then fired with rice straw in brick kilns for at least 40 days. The resulting roof tiles are then placed -- sideways instead of flat, and tightly overlapping -- according to custom that has survived the ages. Every tile has been imprinted by hand with a chrysanthemum.
The workmen speak no English but say through an interpreter that they enjoy the Monterey Park area, where they have been housed in a motel and where buses pick them up in the morning and bring them back at night.
They seem less interested in talking about their craft, however, than in practicing it. Indeed, every element of the garden they are creating radiates reverence for art and nature.
THOSE who know little about the Ming era (1368-1644) or about Chinese gardens in general may wonder at the relevance of a 16th century garden in modern Southern California. But that's exactly why an institution like the Huntington exists, says Laurie Sowd, project manager of the garden. The goal is to preserve the enduring works of those on whose shoulders our world is built.
China, experts agree, has the oldest continuous tradition of garden design on the planet. China is also the origin of many flowers, plants and trees that grow in Southern California today, Sowd says. Camellias, chrysanthemums, wisteria, azalea, hibiscus, bamboo, pines, juniper, willow, some of our roses, many of our flowering trees -- they all were staples of Chinese gardens long before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock.
But this new garden is as much about architecture as it is about horticulture. Eight pavilions, nine bridges, covered walkways and paths that zig and zag are all artfully named to allude to their site as well as to an ancient poem or essay.
The Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts, for example, is a secluded thatched-roof structure set deep in a canyon, from which gentle sounds of flowing water and rustling trees can be heard.
The Terrace That Invites the Mountain is placed for a glorious view of the San Gabriels; the Love for the Lotus pavilion overlooks the lotus-filled Pond of Reflected Greenery.
Gardens in the Ming era were looked on as three-dimensional paintings, Sowd says. Each pavilion was positioned with gracefully shaped openings framing a carefully planned view. Precise positioning of flowers, trees, sculptural rocks (which represented mountains) and ponds or lakes (which represented oceans) was critical to achieve the most beautiful work of art possible.
June Li, the garden's curator and the Huntington's resident expert on all things Ming, explains that names were significant in the complex and layered garden culture of Suzhou, where gentlemen scholars built walled landscapes to get away from the hurly-burly of the outside world and to integrate their love of the natural universe with an appreciation of art and literature.
Each name was thought to lend deeper meaning to each garden. Often, famous scholars or poets were asked to contribute to the naming process. The Huntington has followed suit. A panel of three experts on Chinese culture met with Li in what she calls "convivial conversations" for more than a year before selecting the names of the garden as a whole and the views from structures within. The advisors -- Wan-go H.C. Weng, a New Hampshire-based collector, scholar and poet; Richard Strassberg, professor of Chinese language and culture at UCLA; and Yang Ye, professor of comparative literature at UC Riverside -- all conferred on the garden's formal name, which was announced in June: Liu Fang Yuan, or Garden of Flowing Fragrance.
"It's a name I cherish," Weng says. "It refers to the beautiful scents that will flow through the garden, and to an excellent prose poem by Cao Zhi (192-232) called 'Rhapsody on the Luo River Goddess.' "