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Home History and Culture Classical Chinese Garden Art

Classical Chinese Garden Art Introduction


suzhou lingering garden
Private Garden: Lingering Garden
shanghai yuyuan garden
Private Garden: Yuyuan Garden

The History of Classical Chinese Garden Art

Gardening in China began during the Shang and Zhou dynasties as a royal pastime as rulers built parks for their own use. Gardening became fashionable among the upper classes after the Han dynasty and the first private gardens began to appear. During the Song dynasty, scholars embraced garden planning, writing guidebooks on the construction and aesthetics of gardens. People began to collect unusual rocks, plants, and trees, and grew miniature gardens in trays. Chinese gardening reached its height during the Ming dynasty. There are still many examples of Chinese classical gardens in existence today.

There were four kinds of Chinese gardens: imperial, private, monastic, and gardens in scenic resorts. Most gardens were naturalistic and designed as a continuation or reflection of nature and for beauty and year round enjoyment. A garden designer tried to insert elements of randomness and disorder to mirror not only nature, but life itself.

The larger garden was comprised of multiple smaller gardens which served as rooms for various activities. A garden was an extension of the house, rather than apart from it. Within the garden, guests were entertained or the family would gather to relax. The garden was frequented by the ladies of the household since it was enclosed and private. The garden was a retreat for contemplation, and an inspiration for poets and artists.

There were four important components of a Chinese garden, each interacting with the others and creating a balance. Layout was based on the principles of fengshui and the arrangement of the elements was more important than were the elements themselves. Designs promoted the harmonious relationships between nature, the elements of the garden, and the observer.

Water was the central element of the garden. The first step in the planning of a garden was to determine the source of water, and the direction of its flow. Because the other garden elements, as well as the sky, were reflected in the surface of the water, it provided a balance and continuity within the garden, creating a mood which changed with the seasons and weather. Water also provided movement within the garden. The sounds of water were important as well, as they engaged another of the senses.

Rocks were used individually and in groups, much like sculpture is used in western gardens. Very large rocks symbolized mountains which were sacred to the Chinese. Often rocks were built up to form a mountainous structure. Rocks could also be arranged to appear to be cave entrances and were used to edge water elements to make them appear more natural. Rocks possessed yang characteristics, strong and male. Rocks with eroded holes in them were prized as a yin element, female and yielding, within the yang.

Plants and flowers were chosen not only for their beauty but for their symbolic meanings and literary associations. Popular trees included pine, cypress, plum and bamboo. The peony, orchid, chrysanthemum could be found in many gardens.

The Book of Songs, written during the Zhou dynasty, discussed plant symbolism and gives us an example of the Chinese meanings.

Because pines were tough and rugged, they were considered symbols of the virtuous scholar who weathered the political ups and downs of official life; the cypress, twisted and withered, was a symbol of longevity. Bamboo was considered the emblem of the perfect Confucian gentleman, who kept his virtue pure and his emotions in check; like a bamboo stalk, he kept his inner self empty and untroubled, and could bend in the wind without breaking. The plantain, shown at left, has large leaves like that of a banana tree. It was associated with poor scholars, since the leaves were wide enough to write on when paper or silk was scarce. It was also valued for the somewhat melancholic sound raindrops made when hitting its broad leaves.

Private gardens were typically surrounded by buildings which were an integral part of the garden, enclosing it and creating intimacy. Within the enclosure, the rooms which faced onto the garden would contain a window placed to frame a specific view, like a still picture. Depending on where one stood the garden could appear very different. The garden itself was traversed by crooked walkways which hid their ends from view, or were blocked by other structures or natural features, inviting the visitor to explore. Gardens usually included one or more secluded or hidden places meant for solitary contemplation.

suzhou classical garden art
The Art of Gardening in Suzhou

Other architectural elements were important as well, each with its own purpose. The lobby was a large space arranged to accommodate guests. It was entered by an ornamental gate and its walls were either open or contained windows and doors which looked out on pleasing views. The parlor was for family gatherings and usually bore a name descriptive of one of the virtues.

Corridors served as a link between the buildings and as a division of space. The walls of the corridor were often highly decorated with painted pictures. Other walls of various designs were placed around the garden. Some of these contained windows and most were richly ornamented.

Kiosks of many shapes and sizes were placed all around the garden giving the walker a place to sit and rest or contemplate. Kiosks were often built on the edge of the water feature and extended out over this. Bridges not only eased passage through the garden served as visual and emotional connectors to the various parts of the garden. The familiar curved bridge represented the moon.

Another common structure was a building with more than two stories which was used as an extra bedroom or a reading room, or just as a place to view the garden from a height. In some gardens, a Buddhist pagoda became the centerpiece.

The designer of a classical garden had to learn fengshui for setting the garden, architecture, water management, botany, landscape design, and often made a study of historical gardens. A garden was always evolving. It was never considered to be complete. It was an intellectual pursuit that could become a life's work.

beijing summer palace
Imperial Garden: Summer Palace
chengde summer resort
Imperial Garden: Summer Resort

The Design of Classical Chinese Garden

Garden design was an art in China. One of the most common ways to make a Chinese home more elegant was to develop one or more compounds into a garden with plants, rocks, and garden buildings. Gardens were especially appreciated for their great beauty and naturalness. In time, garden design came to be regarded as a refined activity for the well-heeled and well-educated.

It may be useful to note that what we are calling a garden in China is somewhat different from its counterpart in Western Europe or the United States. It is not an expanse of green with incidental buildings, but rather an area in which buildings surround arrangements of rocks, plants and water; without these buildings, the Chinese garden is not a garden. The architectural elements themselves are decorative and structure how one views the scenery. Good views are many and intimate in scale, in contrast with the sweeping vistas and mathematically ordered plantings of European gardens of the same period. The enclosure of the entire compound by walls or other natural barriers marks this area off as a special precinct for private enjoyment.

Gardens were an important part of the homes of the elite long before Ming times, but reached their fullest development in the late Ming in the Jiangnan area, which comprised the southeastern part of China south of the Yangtze River, including the densely-populated cultural centers of Yangzhou, Hangzhou, and Suzhou. These gardens served multiple purposes for their owners. They were extensions and developments of a family's property; they added cultural value by providing a pleasurable environment for private relaxation and entertaining friends and colleagues. In some cases they also contained a productive agricultural portion in the form of orchards or fields for cash crops that could support the needs of a large extended family. But most gardens were luxury items that demonstrated and enhanced the status of their owners.

The movement of wealthy families of elite status to the Jiangnan region, which began during the Song dynasty and continued into the Ming, had an impact on the popularity of private gardens. Jiangnan was an area where things grew easily, aided by mild winters with plenty of rainfall. As these wealthy families shifted to urban areas, they established urban estates as their primary residences. Members of the literati and merchant classes who had the means and ambition to do so created intimate urban gardens within their household compounds as microcosmic replicas of nature. The gardens of Yangzhou and Suzhou in particular became famous. Tradesmen in turn responded to the demand, and these cities became centers for garden design, construction, and the distribution of the basic materials required to build a garden, such as flowering plants and shrubs and garden rocks.

Building a garden gave a person the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge and cultivated taste. Even the most experienced and talented carpenter was not presumed to understand the philosophical principles needed to create a coherent design.

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Editor: Julius from Mildchina
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