Large Bonsai tree in pot. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The Chinese garden is an expression of nature in a prescribed framework. Gardens are considered venues for spiritual and artistic endeavors, sites for celebrations, and works of art. The history of Chinese gardens is complex and divergent, and it is important to understand not only the design principles but also the spiritual basis of their construction.
Two main garden traditions in China have evolved over time: the vast imperial gardens, symbolic of the power and wealth of the empire, and the scholar, or literati, gardens, built as retreats from the stuffy world of officialdom. The earliest references to gardens in China are found in Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) records describing vast tracts of land reserved for hunting parks for kings and princes. Success in the hunt was a metaphor for a successful reign. Later, in the Chu ci (Songs of Chu), a fourth-century BCE text, a shaman singer attempts to entice the soul of a dying king back to life with a description of the beauties of a garden with winding streams, lotus lakes, and distant views of the mountains. In the Shanglin park of China’s first emperor Zheng (Shi Huang Di, 259–210 BCE), were countless animals, birds, and exotic plants gathered as tribute from vassal states, thus creating a living replica of his entire domain. Poets such as the famed Tao Yuanming (365–427) recorded in verse the pleasures of strolling though one’s garden. Both the Sui (581–618 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties saw the further development of imperial and individual gardens. Wang Wei (699–759 CE) created his Wangchuan villa in Lantian County, Shaanxi, a rustic retreat immortalized in poetry and paintings for centuries as the epitome of the scholar’s retreat.
The Song dynasty (960–1279) gave rise to the proliferation of urban literati gardens. At Kaifeng, Song Huizong (1082–1135) erected the Gen Yue mountain, an artificial construct approximately 77 meters tall that contained many famous garden rocks. Khubilai Khan (1214–1294) of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) built at Beijing an extravagant city complete with lakes and hunting parks. The subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644) revised and embellished the Forbidden City with many courtyards and gardens and developed the Park of the Sea Palaces, a vast complex of gardens and retreats for the imperial family. The most famous of the gardens of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was the imperial Yuan Ming Yuan, commissioned by the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799), within which precincts were countless watercourses, pavilions, libraries, farms, training fields for his soldiers, and European-style fountains and buildings.
Cosmology of the Chinese Garden
The unique character of the Chinese garden has its roots in Chinese philosophy, most notably in Daoism. A garden was seen as a mirror of the natural world. Everything in the universe was created from and a conduit for qi, vital energy, or life force. The universe was understood to be a combination of yin (female) and yang (male) elements in a state of constant fluidity. A balance of opposites in the construction of buildings, natural features, and plantings was a goal of the garden designer. Re-creating the natural world in a garden was thought to replicate the benefits of immersing oneself in nature, a similar belief to that of the benefits of landscape painting. Scholars whose official duties prevented them from visiting the mountains could enjoy the benefits of nature in their own gardens. The ancient practice of feng shui (literally, wind and water, often translated as geomancy) consisted of properly situating homes, buildings, graves, and gardens in a landscape to promote health, happiness, and prosperity.
Elements of the Chinese Garden
The two main elements of a Chinese garden are rocks and water, symbolizing the yang and yin. Traditional Chinese gardens are constructed in a series of walled outdoor courtyards joined by walkways or doorways. Use of garden rocks (yang) at strategic locations within a garden brings to mind the mountain ranges and peaks of nature. Incorporation of a watercourse, pool, lake, or cascade adds the water (yin) and all its changeable forms. Plants are included for literary and cultural references, for seasonal suitability, and for aesthetic reasons, such as the beauty of their shadows against the light garden walls, or the harmony of the sound of wind and rain in their foliage. Structures such as ting (pavilions with open sides), xie (gazebos), tang (formal halls), and covered walkways make accessible the featured sites in the gardens and the effects of the changing hours of the days and seasons.
Garden structures are named with references to classical literature, and the addition of calligraphy adds another layer of appreciation to the garden. Potted plants are often placed in courtyards at the peak of their blooming seasons, and pools and lakes house water lilies, lotus, and fish. Gardens also include rockeries constructed of aggregates of bizarrely shaped rocks made into miniature mountains or roofs for artificial caves, both symbolic of the entrance to the realms of immortals and useful as an escape from the heat of summer.
Yuan Ye (The Craft of Gardens, datable to l631–1634), written during the late Ming dynasty by Ji Cheng (late sixteenth-early seventeenth century) is considered the classic text on garden design. Encompassing both practical and aesthetic advice, the manual advises the garden designer to be sensitive to the proper use of contrasts and juxtapositions of elements and to seek the essence lying behind the forms. Details concerning window lattice patterns, doors, wall openings, brickwork for paths, and suitable alignment of the garden with existing landscape features are included.
Chinese Gardens Today
Beihai Park in Beijing in the Forbidden City, which was first built in the tenth century as a hunting lodge, currently encompasses approximately 67 hectares (about 165 acres) of lakes and artificial islands. There an example of a prerevolutionary walled garden, Jing Qing Zhou (Limpid Mirror Studio), once housed the Qing dynasty princes. The West Lake in Yangzhou had its origins in the Sui and Tang dynasties. Suzhou’s gardens include the Shizi Lin (Stone Lion Grove), built around 1336 for the Buddhist monk Tian Ru, and the Wang Shi Yuan (Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets), first constructed in 1440.
Suzhou also contains the Zhouzheng Yuan (Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician). The Zhouzheng Yuan dates to the Tang dynasty. It has been variously a Confucian scholar’s home, a garden, a Buddhist monastery, and a warlord’s headquarters. It has changed hands many times and once was sold to pay gambling debts. It is most renowned for its association with the Ming artist Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), who lived there for a time and recorded it in paintings. Wen Zhengming, a Wu School artist and one of the so-called four masters of the Ming, was an unsuccessful politician who, after many failed attempts at success in the imperial examination system, finally secured a minor post but quickly relinquished it to devote himself to artistic pursuits and teaching.
Chinese garden design has spread around the world. Many new Chinese gardens have been built in recent years in America, notably the Astor Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Chinese scholar’s garden a
t the Staten Island New York Botanical Garden.
Cheng, J. (1988). The craft of gardens. (A. Hardie, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Clunas, C. (1996). Fruitful sites: Ming dynasty gardens. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Keswick, M., Jencks, C., & Hardie, A. (2003). The Chinese garden: History, art & architecture. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Lou Qingxi, Zhang Lei, & Yu Hong. (2003). Chinese gardens. Beijing: China International Press.
Source: O’Connor, Noelle. (2009). Gardens. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 890–892. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
People working amid the flowers at the Hangzhou Gardens. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Gardens (Yuánlín ??)|Yuánlín ?? (Gardens)