As the Yuan court's grip on the empire was waning, between 1357 and 1369 Suzhou was headquarters of a rebel salt merchant Zhang Shicheng, leader of the Red Turbans and a contestant in the battle for the throne. A different Zhang, Yuanzhang, eventually ousted him out and started the Ming Dynasty. As a penalty, Suzhou "was saddled with a punitively high grain tax from the early Ming period on." [Linda Cooke Johnson, Cities of Jiangnan in Late Imperial China] The tax was ten times higher than elsewhere in the empire, making the income from rice paddies negligible compared with silk production or orchards. Jiangnan was a highly urbanized and industrialized region, and so "members of Jiangnan elite preferred to invest in almost any form of productive capacity rather than the fields producing staple grains." "Land was respectable, but profits on trade, money-lending or commercial production of sugar, fruit or timber were all much higher..."
Since the fifteenth century elite participated in "a little genteel horticulture ... directed towards edible crops, and in cognate activities like wood-gathering and fishing". In the highly fertile Jiangnan, "retired grandee could boast of living comfortably on twenty mu". A garden within the city walls did not give immediate returns, but had huge productive capacity and was a prefect retirement investment.
1. Lotus and mandarin ducks in the pond
Now, the otters.
Gardens were not always built to make money, but everything inside them had economic potential. Elms were quick to grow and offered high returns. Young elm sprouts and pine kernels were edible. Pine resin was used for the making of aromatics, pine ash was used to make ink. Cypress and juniper branches were cut for flower arrangements.
Shallow ponds were perfect for the breeding of fish. Islands in the middle of the ponds encouraged fish to exercise. Lotuses around the edges of the lakes kept away predatory otters. Once in a while the ponds were emptied and the fish easily harvested.
Peaches, plums and crab-apples were edible fruit, naturally. When other relishes were introduced to China (hot peppers and peanuts, for instance), pickled plum was no longer necessary to 'help the rice go down'. It stayed in history as the poetic blossom – to the point of later writers claiming the plum was inedible. "Salted flowering plums became unthinkable on the way to becoming uneatable."
3. Blossoming plum
The peaches of Luxiangyuan [Dew Fragrance Garden in Ming Shanghai] are becoming more and more tangible; I can almost feel their fragrance (and their price).
"...The decay and flourishing of a garden is allied to that of its owner. If the person is remembered, then though the garden decays it will rise again. If the person is not commemorated, then even though the garden flourishes it will eventually decay." [Qian Yong, 19th century]
4. Searching for plums in the snow
[Illustrations from Vernacular Housing Wood Carvings]