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The Traditional Chinese Garden – A Miniature of Nature, in Harmony With Man

Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: February 19, 2022
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The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, created by a poet on the former site of Duhua Temple, displays an exquisite balance of the design elements typical of traditional Chinese Gardens. (Image: scadam526 via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The traditional Chinese Garden has a recorded history of over three thousand years. Still treasured today, the enduring garden style includes specific design traits and meaningful features. Large or small, the garden focuses on conveying harmony between man and nature, thus creating a space ideal for contemplation and meditation.

Traditionally, there were three types of gardens, designated by the Chinese characters: pu, you and yuan. Pu were, much like the gardens we know today, focused on plants. You were more like zoos, or safaris featuring animals and birds for the pleasure of the imperial palace. Yuan 園, which eventually became the generally used character for all gardens, began as a pictograph of a small enclosed space with garden features and people inside.

Philosophy

Following the principles taught by Confucius and the Tao, the traditional Chinese garden offers a place to reflect and enlighten through observing the unity of man and nature, and the harmony achieved by combining opposing forces. The ancient Chinese viewed the garden as an artistic expression of nature, balanced and in harmony, created to invoke inward contemplation. 

All traditional Chinese gardens feature four key elements: architecture, plants, stones and water; which are skillfully combined to create a harmoniously “natural” landscape.

Architecture, in the form of fencing or structures, introduces the human component into the balancing act of man and nature, while offering quiet spaces for reflection. Pavilions, temples, courtyards, covered walkways, and circular shaped openings all serve to enhance the natural scenery and provide different vantage points for viewing.

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At Blue Wave Pavilion in Suzhou, a covered walkway frames a corner of the pond, built up with a stepped terrace of rocks underneath a low balustrade. (Image: G41rn8 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Plants, rich with life and color, are responsible for the ever-changing beauty of the garden, inspiring awe, faith and resilience. A variety of trees and perennials are carefully selected for their shape, color, texture and fragrance, which enhances the atmosphere. Leaves that will rustle in the wind or catch falling water are often chosen for sound effect. Fruit trees, peonies, irises, lilacs and roses are commonly used for their fragrant and attractive flowers.

Stones, symbolizing strength and stability, give one a grounded sense of place. Stones can range from large and fantastic, mimicking the dramatic mountains symbolizing virtue quintessential to Chinese paintings; to small and rounded, placed in delicate mosaics that serve as walkways, and at the same time offer reflexology to the barefoot visitor.

Water, especially moving water, personifies life, and stimulates the mind. Believed to symbolize communication and dreams, water has a central place in the garden, usually in the form of a pond. Often populated with koi or goldfish and lotus flowers, the body of water complements the stone element, and links the other features which are arranged around it.

A fifth element, essential to the garden but lying outside it, is called borrowed scenery. Distant mountains or other attractions are purposely framed for unexpected views from within the enclosed garden. A careful and harmonious combination of all these features is capable of evoking deep thought and inner peace.

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The Yuyuan Garden of the Ming Dynasty is a five acre masterpiece featuring remarkable rockery, carvings, and garden art. (Image: MojoBaron via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Creating an air of mystery and magic

The Chinese garden is reminiscent of the legendary Isle of Immortals. Offering infinite wisdom and boundless beauty, walking through the garden is like experiencing another world, rich with opportunity for self-discovery.

Mystery is achieved through carefully obstructed views, winding paths, asymmetry and multiple focus points. Nothing is so dazzling that it captures the attention entirely, and thus the eyes and mind are free to wander, pondering and reflecting ceaselessly.

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One of the largest gardens in Suzhou, Lingering Garden is fine and delicate, featuring beautifully landscaped gardens, pavements, pools and pavilions for each season. (Image: zhanyoun via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Feng Shui is applied to enhance the power and energy of the natural forces. Each aspect of human life is represented by different elements, and placed in a specified area of the garden. 

Health is addressed at the garden’s center, with a body of water and symbolic island or mountain. Work and livelihood are featured on the north side, through stones and water, using black and blue hues. Love, symbolized by red in either flowers, lanterns or other decoration, is established on the south side. The intellectual tendencies are found in the east, with a complex arrangement of various plants. In the west, there is friendship, seen in white and embellished with metallic ornamentation. 

Although the traditional Chinese garden design is carefully planned to the finest detail, it is implemented to appear natural, with an absence of human intervention. Such seeming immersion in nature is meant to bring peace to the soul.

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Yuyuan Garden, in Huangpu District in Shanghai, was used as a private garden by a government officer during the Ming Dynasty. The carved peacock art demonstrates the fine detail of the architecture present in the garden. (Image: via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

History

With its not-so-humble beginnings during the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties as the emperor’s hunting ground, the Chinese garden has evolved through the dynasties to be a finely-tuned poetic expression of nature. A garden-park extension of the emperor’s villa developed during the Qin and Han Dynasties to include a pond-and-island, featuring a wide variety of plants. 

Later, as China’s economy flourished during the Wei and Southern and Northern Dynasties, officials would make excursions for the sole purpose of experiencing natural beauty. These aesthetics were incorporated into the garden-park in the form of rivers and mountains. Later, during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the intellectuals sought refinement and brought the culture of literature and art to the garden, through symbolism. Large rocks and boulders began to be used to represent mountains during the Song and Yuan Dynasties.

The Ming and Qing Dynasties brought the “golden era” of Chinese garden design, with the construction of the Royal Gardens in Beijing. Garden designers enhanced the natural beauty with various forms of architecture, making the garden more of a lived experience than a detached view.

 

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Lion Grove, in Suzhou, is known for its array of ancient weathered rocks, thought to resemble lions. It is the only Chinese garden remaining from the Yuan Dynasty. (Image: Liuxingy via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Famous Chinese gardens

Some of the most lovely gardens in China are found in Suzhou, including The Humble Administrator’s Garden, Blue Wave Pavilion, and The Lingering Garden, and Lion Grove.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou’s largest and arguably most beautiful garden, is a classic from the Ming Dynasty. Created by a retired official and poet Wang Xiacheng, the name reflects his wish to withdraw from politics. Traditional Chinese painting and poetry influenced the design, which features a central pond with bridges, streams, and a bamboo island. 

Suzhou’s Canglang, or Blue Wave Pavilion, was constructed in the Song Dynasty as a royal garden for a prince. Poet and scholar Su Shunyin created optical illusions with the interior and exterior scenery, which feature small pavilions, brooks, greenery and topography. In 2000 it was recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Monument by UNESCO.

Yuyuan Garden, known as the “Garden of Happiness” in Shanghai is lauded for its fine architecture, impressive rock specimens, and exquisite art. Constructed by the Pan family during the Ming Dynasty, it features six distinct areas, separated by “dragon walls” which each terminate in a sculpted dragon head. The gardens were damaged numerous times during various occupations, but have been repaired and are now considered a national monument. Located near City God Temple, it is a popular tourist site.