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China's 'Garden Queen' spreads joy of nature even during lockdown

Cai Wanzi teaches listeners through her podcast and led tours to global gardens

Cai Wanzi has dedicated herself to spreading the garden lifestyle from her Beijing home throughout China with books, exhibitions, an audio course and even world garden tours. (Courtesy of Cai Wanzi)

BEIJING -- The seed of her garden life was planted in Cai Wanzi's childhood. In the 1980s, she grew up in Jiangsu, an eastern province of China bordering the Yellow Sea, in a house with a traditional courtyard and lotus pond. In summer, her grandpa taught her to make lotus tea -- putting tea leaves inside a fresh lotus bud and storing it in a cool place overnight so the tea leaves could fully absorb the lotus' fragrance.

As a little girl, she had fun painting her nails with balsamine, also known in Chinese as the "nail-polish flower." Chop the flower with the mineral alum, place it on your nails and wrap them with luffa leaves. The next morning, your nails will glow orange. "I think it is super fun but today's kids will be surprised to hear that," Cai says.

Over the past two decades, Cai has dedicated herself to spreading the garden lifestyle from her Beijing home throughout China with books, exhibitions, an audio course and even world garden tours. Coronavirus, having confined millions to their homes, where a garden may be their respite, has only served to increase her popularity.

When Cai moved to Beijing in 1993 for university, life was not that poetic in the busy capital. But she started cultivating her garden in the suburb and hosting a horticulture forum on the Sohu internet platform. "We used to exchange seeds and branches via the forum," she says. "With the rise of e-commerce, we can buy any exotic plant online. Now we just want to share our joy of gardens."

First people had gathered on her forum, then switched to blogs, Weibo and WeChat. Now, they have their WeChat chat group and an account that shares gardens cultivated by members, book reviews and all kinds of offline activities for enjoying gardens. In 2003, Cai created a garden club, the first community of its kind in China. There are no membership fees or barriers to entry, as Cai believes gardens should be open to everyone.

Cai's garden in suburban Beijing. (Courtesy of Cai Wanzi)

"Gardens have brought us together for 20 years," Cai says. "Fresh blood also keeps coming." Aged between 25 and 55, these 150 "garden friends" -- as they call each other -- come from diverse areas, including Beijing, Shanghai and the surrounding Yangtze River Delta, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Chengdu and Kunming. Almost all of them have their own garden in a house, villa or flat on the first floor. For those who are not so financially established, where there's a will, there's a way.

"A mother in her early 30s went outside Beijing and rented a villager's house which comes with a piece of land," says Cai. "She started planting vegetables and cultivating an aromatic herb garden. Every weekend, she takes her kids there to harvest fresh produce. Moreover, she distills thyme into toner, which moisturizes skin from the dry weather in Beijing.

"She represents a new generation of garden lovers who finds flexible ways to realize their garden dream."

Throughout the year, the club organizes activities such as afternoon tea in a rose garden or an evening of drinks, desserts and music on a lavender hill. At the end of the year, everyone writes posts to share the highlights of their gardens, which are published on the garden club's WeChat account. There is also a garden auction where they sell anything from a fresh gourd to flower bread, and the proceeds go to support vulnerable children and families in China.

China's economic growth has fueled the members' ambition to see gardens around the world, so Cai has devised tours covering Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and more since 2010. The itineraries include exploring French castle gardens along the Loire Valley, hearing inspiring stories from garden designers, enjoying a campfire in an orchard and falling into sweet dreams in a rose garden hotel.

Top: Chinese garden lovers gather for a tea party for which the theme is blue and white porcelain.Bottom: Cai's garden club organizes tours that take its members to Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and other destinations. (Courtesy of Cai Wanzi)

"Once a garden lover joins a tour, she will always come back for more," she says. She hopes to resume these garden adventures next April -- once post-pandemic travel has started up.

During the pandemic, Cai has observed a growing interest in the garden lifestyle as online sales of plants, soil and gardening tools have risen rapidly on the shopping site Taobao. "Cannot go out? No problem. I can walk to my garden and breathe in nature," Cai says. "Even if you have a house with 500 sq. meters, you may still feel confined by the roof and walls. But with a garden of 50 sq. meters, you feel you are free to stand on the earth and touch the sky."

Her club members have told her that she has a calming "voice from the garden," so in 2019 she rolled out her first audio course called "The Aesthetic Guide to Living a Garden Lifestyle in 365 Days." It proved popular during the coronavirus lockdown, as listener comments show: "This soothing audio feels like a companion in this lonely time," one wrote.

Cai in her element. (Courtesy of Cai Wanzi)

"Our ancestors divided a year into 24 periods. The course is like a clock that reminds people when to plant what and how to enjoy over 100 plants," Cai says, inviting listeners to go with the flow of time. From preparing lemongrass mojitos to making plum wine and wrapping zongzi, a glutinous rice dish, with malan leaves, she encourages over 2,200 listeners to bring the garden to the kitchen table.

This comprehensive course aims to equip listeners with skills such as dyeing with plants and fruits. "The Chinese are very familiar with this medicinal herb called ay tsao (Asiatic wormwood). But how can you use ay tsao to dye a dress and even eggs?" Cai adds pictures and text to help listeners better grasp these skills and surprise their loved ones, like when she dyed a scarf with the Japanese citrus ai yuan for a friend. In 2020, Cai plans to dive deeper into each subject and develop courses for embroidering garden motifs and more.

Since many young Chinese people are anxious in the cities, she hopes her course will help them relax and rediscover a garden lifestyle, drawing on Chinese culture and wisdom. While Chinese people nowadays associate a good life mainly with financial success, their ancestors defined a good life as one with music, chess, calligraphy, painting, poems, wine, tea and gardens.

Top: Eggs dyed with ay tsao, a medicinal herb. Bottom: Wrapping zongzi, a glutenous rice dish, with malan leaves. (Courtesy of Cai Wanzi) 

Cai has drawn on classic literature which reveals the art of living, glimpses into the lives of ancient Chinese people and how they turned ordinary days into aesthetic experiences. "One episode was inspired by the classic 'The Dream of the Red Chamber.' [The character] Miao Yu collected fresh snow from plum blossoming in winter and boiled the snow water for making tea."

While snow and plum trees are still there, many young Chinese have lost such a romantic mood, instead playing with their phones out of boredom. One cause is the pragmatic mindset of a competitive society. Cai says that Chinese parents flock to send children to math tutoring, in hopes of them entering the best schools, but very few care about cultivating "useless" aesthetic knowledge or encouraging children to appreciate small, beautiful experiences in life.

"An aesthetic education starts from childhood," says Cai.

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