Chinese gardens feature moss-covered dirt paths that never seem to follow a straight line, rocks that have special significance and a layout plan that harmonizes with the natural surroundings that sometimes includes natural features many kilometers from the garden. There are few flowers. The principal elements are rocks and water. Chinese gardens often feature "mountain" scenes and complicated architectural tricks such as dead ends and unexpected destinations. The aim often is to create an illusion of natural scenes or miniature worlds.
Gardening is not as big in China as it is in Japan, but is still quite popular among some people and in some places. Many principals and concepts of Japanese gardening originated in China. Some of the most beautiful gardens in China are found in Suzhou near Shanghai and Fuzhou in Fujian Province. Tai Lake near Fuzhou is the source of China's most sought after garden stones. They are often used to symbolize mountains.
Chinese gardens are designed to respond to all the seasons and be a microcosm of nature. "Mountains, oceans, islands, and waterfalls are all there in a small horizontal compass," wrote Boorstin. "Rocks, a prominent foil to the fragility of growing trees and shrubs and mosses, affirm the unchanging. They are not the architects's effort to defy the forces of time and nature, but another way of acquiescing. The...garden renews what dies or goes dormant, and reveres what survives." [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Creators"]
Chinese bonsai (called "pending") are larger than their Japanese counterparts. The art form dates back to A.D. 200 and was deeply influenced by the form of Chinese Buddhism that begat Zen Buddhism.
Books: Leidy, Denise, et al. Chinese Decorative Arts. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997; Murck, Alfreda, and Wen Fong. A Chinese Garden Court: The Astor Court at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985; Rawson, Jessica, et al. The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: British Museum Press, 1992; Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.\^/
Types of Chinese Gardens
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “According to historical records of the Zhou dynasty, the earliest gardens in China were vast parks built by the aristocracy for pleasure and hunting. Han-dynasty texts mention a greater interest in the ownership of rare plants and animals, as well as an association between fantastic rocks and the mythical mountain paradises of immortals. Elaborate gardens continued to be built by members of the upper classes throughout China's history. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
“A smaller, more intimate type of garden is associated with scholar-gentlemen, or literati, and have been celebrated in Chinese literature since the fourth century A.D. Paintings, poems, and historical books described famous gardens of the literati, which were often considered a reflection of their owners' cultivation and aesthetic taste. The number of private gardens, especially in the region around Suzhou in southern China, grew steadily after the twelfth century. The temperate climate and the great agricultural and commercial wealth of the region encouraged members of the upper class to lavish their resources on the cultivation of gardens. During the period of the Mongol conquest in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, many literati in this region found official employment either disagreeable or hard to obtain and therefore devoted themselves to self-cultivation and the arts. The garden became the focus of an alternative lifestyle that celebrated quiet contemplation and literary pursuits, often in the company of like-minded friends.\^/
Elements of Chinese Gardens
Suzhou canals According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Traditional Chinese gardens were meant to evoke a feeling of being in the larger natural world, so that the occupant could capture the sensations of wandering through the landscape. Compositions of garden rocks were viewed as mountain ranges and towering peaks; miniature trees and bushes suggested ancient trees and forests; and small ponds or springs represented mighty rivers and oceans. In other words, the garden presented the larger world of nature in microcosm. Masses of colorful cultivated blossoms, flowerbeds of regular geometric shape, and singular vistas (such as the formal gardens at Versailles) were all avoided, in keeping with the goal of re-creating actual landscapes. Instead, the many aspects of a Chinese garden are revealed one at a time. A garden's scenery is constantly altered by the shifting effects of light and the seasons, which form an important part of one's experience of a garden and help engage all the senses, not just sight. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
One of the most important considerations in garden design is the harmonious arrangement of elements expressing different aspects of yin and yang. The juxtaposition and blending of opposites can be seen in the placement of irregularly shaped rocks next to smooth, rectangular clay tiles; soft moss growing on rough rocks; flowing water contained by a craggy grotto; and a dark forecourt that precedes entry into a sun-drenched central courtyard.\^/
Rocks in Chinese Gardens
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Rocks have long been admired in China as an essential feature in gardens. By the early Song dynasty, small ornamental rocks were also collected as accoutrements of the scholar's study, and the portrayal of individual rocks, often joined with an old tree or bamboo, became a favorite and enduring pictorial genre. By the fourteenth century, depictions of gardens almost always included representations of a fantastic rock or "artificial mountain" and scholars' rocks often supplanted actual scenery as sources of inspiration for images of landscapes. metmuseum.org \^/]
“Sculptural garden rocks, with distinctive shapes, textures, and colors, have always been treasured as focal points of Chinese gardens. By the Tang dynasty, three principal aesthetic criteria had been identified for judging both garden stones and the smaller "scholars' rocks" displayed in literati studios: leanness (shou), perforations (tou), and surface texture (zhou). These criteria led to a preference for stones that were vertically oriented, often with a top-heavy shape; riddled with cavities and holes; and richly textured with furrows, dimples, or striations.”\^/
Gardens were laid during the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties and restored after the Cultural Revolution when they were destroyed because flowers were deemed reactionary and gardeners were considered capitalist tools. Some of Suzhou's gardens have a reputation for being poorly maintained and full of weeds and Chinese package-tour groups. Some people feel this reputation is undeserved.
The gardens have been built and rebuilt many times and altered to such an extent so they are no longer Yuan or Ming gardens any more. Many are meandering and asymmetrical. The classic gardens all contain pavilions and houses that open to courtyards, ponds, orchards, "mountain" scenes and evil-spirit-tricking features such as dead ends and unexpected destinations.
Flowering plants and trees include osmanthus, canna lilies, salvias, lotus, and peonies. They each bloom in their own season. Peonies, for example, bloom in April. There are also lots of pruned and carefully maintained bamboo, banana and gingko trees. The gardens are famous for their stones, which have been placed in rivers to be sculpted naturally by flowing water and time.
Suzhou gardens include Lingering Garden (1525), the home of a perfectly placed stone called Cloud-Capped peak; Blue Waves Pavilion (12th century), on the banks of a canal; Western Garden, more of a temple than a garden; and the Garden of Pleasure, built in the late 1800s.
The gardens in Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About 15 gardens, most of them located within the roughly one-square mile old city, are open to the public. Admission is about $2. The gardens are open from 9:00am to 5:00pm. From 6:00am to 8:00am they are open for free for exercise. Web Sites: China.org China.org Suzhou government Suzhou UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site Book : “The Chinese Garden” by Maggie Keswick (St. Martin's Press).
Garden of the Humble Administrator
Garden of the Humble Administrator (Zhou Zheng Yuan) is one of the four most famous gardens in China. Built in 1522 A.D., it covers an area of about four hectares, three fifths of which is water. All of the major buildings are placed on the shores of ponds or streams. What makes this garden interesting are the fantastically shaped stones that are placed harmoniously among the gardens temples and plants.
The artist-poet Chen-Ming immortalized the garden in his poems and paintings and may have helped designed it. "Peak Above the Clouds" is reported to be the largest single piece of rock ever hauled from a lake. Nanmu Hall is known for its spaciousness and the garden as a whole provides "a changing scene at every turn."
The oldest and most interesting part of the garden is on the west side. Here there are many pavilions, where you can relax and enjoy a picnic. Susan Rowland wrote in the New York Times, "Among the architectural tricks in this sprawling garden are a covered walkway where one wall is flat and the other zigzags, rooftops that resemble a mountain range and an ancient tunnel that leads to a show of flower arrangements if you turn left or to a ledge over a pond if you walk straight.
"There is large pond , filled with lotus, their leaves constantly moving like prairie grass: a hill of tree peonies...a covered bridge; an art gallery; a music room; and in the east section, the only lawn I ever saw in China."
Master of Nets garden
Master of Nets and Couples Gardens
Master of Nets Garden (the Wang Shi Yuan) is the oldest and smallest garden in Suzhou and in the eyes of many its most charming. Originally built in 1140, it is the home of the splendid Cold Spring Pavilion, which has been replicated in Astor Court in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The garden covers less than an acre but is filled with cleverly arranged secret ceramic pot gardens and courtyards. In the main courtyard are bamboo groves, a pond and replicas of mountains. The garden was saved from the marauding Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, it is said, by orders from Premier Zhou Enlai.
Lion Forest Grove is a garden once owned by the family of the architect I.M. Pei and repurchased by the Peis in the 1980s. It features a roofed walkway, eroded stones from Tai Lake, chosen for their resemblance to lions, a ridge and a stone boats. Originally designed by the 14th-century painter Ni Tsan it now looks like a jumbled English garden with some Chinese touches. Pei credits Suzhou as influencing his style.
Couple's Garden (Old Yuan Garden) is one of the most pleasant gardens in Suzhou. Begun in the early Qing Dynasty in the 17th century and not restored since the 19th century, it features wonderful old buildings and galleries, a small canal that leads to the Grand Canal and natural slightly unkempt gardens. This gardens is not on most group itineraries and is often empty.
Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2, 9) Palace Museum, Taipei; 3, 10) CNTO; 4, 5) Kyoto Museum ; 6) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 7, 8) Kent State University
Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2016