Chinese Gardens
For centuries, Chinese gardens have displayed a delicate balance between the forces of nature and man's creations. These luxurious gardens provide a spiritual haven from worldly worries.

What is a Chinese garden?
More than a collection of plants, a classical Chinese garden features distinctive architecture, water and rocks. The rock and water provide contrast and balance in the garden, symbolizing yin and yang, the vital natural forces of the earth, while the architectural elements provide venues for a variety of cultural activities and events as well as vantage points for viewing the garden and the borrowed views beyond. Full-scale gardens always include one or more large formal halls surrounding a pond near the entrance gate.

Since ancient time, the Chinese have viewed the garden as a microcosm of the universe. This unique garden form melds China's history, art and architecture, philosophy, literature, and horticulture into one comprehensive work of art.

Sichuan gardens serve as settings for exuberant civic celebrations and quiet contemplation. They feature streams, ponds and falls flowing through valleys and rock formations in designs reflective of the natural landscape; plants are grouped in symbolic associations celebrated in traditional Chinese painting and poetry.

From ancient times Chinese city planning has been characterized by symmetry and control. Chinese gardens, meanwhile, appear natural and unregulated. Whereas cities were Confucian, gardens were liberated and Daoist: one promoted social order and hierarchy, while the other encouraged personal fulfillment.

The garden was understood as a microcosm, a miniature but complete universe where all the forces of nature were present. The principles of yin and yang played out in complex arrangements of water, rock, plants and architecture. Since gardens often were small they achieved an impression of size and complexity by means of suggestion and surprise: the waterfall springing from a secret source, the winding path leading into a hidden courtyard.

Each Chinese garden is really many gardens and many experiences—whether urban or rural, the garden conveys a sense of the infinite. The Chinese garden ideal is to provide its visitor with access to philosophical wisdom, spiritual insight, emotional balance and physical health.
http://www.seattle-chinese http://seattlechinesegarden .org/index.php?p=Garden_Design &s=13

Classical Chinese gardens are a special aspect in traditional Chinese culture and art. A garden is purported to meet man's demand for relaxation and lodging. A Chinese garden mixes man-made landscape with natural scenery, architecture, painting, literature, calligraphy, and horticulture.

The classical Chinese garden originated in the Shang and Zhou dynasties, when monarchs began to build parks for their own leisure and pleasure. The construction of gardens became something of a fashion during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, and by the Qin and Han dynasties the Chinese had already learned how to imitate nature in their gardens, and private gardens had appeared. During the Wei, Jin, and South and North dynasties, private gardens came in vogue as the rich and powerful sought to express their sentiment in landscaping.

During the Tang and Song dynasties, a poetic touch was added to the layout and scenes of a garden, and became a general feature of the classic Chinese art of garden construction. Chinese garden culture matured as a comprehensive school of its own during the Qing Dynasty, after the practice of many preceding dynastic periods, and rose to become one of three garden construction schools along with those of Western Asia and Europe. Classical Chinese gardens include imperial gardens and private gardens /gardens/gar_dal.htm


How do these descriptions of classical Chinese gardens differ from what you think of as a garden? Give several examples.


What are the main elements of a Chinese Garden?

Water is considered to be the central component of a Chinese garden. It serves as a balance for the other elements in the garden. The best sites in Chinese gardens are on the edges of lakes with views of the mountains.

Chinese scholars used rocks as art on their desks. Garden rocks that are often large and porous are considered to be among the most valuable in a Chinese garden. These ageless objects symbolize the dwellings of Taoist immortals.

Certain plants were favored for Chinese gardens because of their association with overcoming the limitations of ordinary life. The pine, cypress, plum and bamboo are favorites because of their ability to grow in harsh weather conditions and rough terrain.

The arrangement of buildings divides a Chinese garden into smaller sections that contain one or more scenic views. The buildings in a garden are designed to accent the garden with windows and doorways that frame scenic views in their courtyards and beyond.

A garden design is considered to be an art form in China. Other Chinese art includes: calligraphy, painting, poetry, dance, flower arranging and viewing stones. /Gardens/collections/ClassicalC hineseGarden_Intro.html

Four Elements
Interacting in harmony

Chinese gardens reflect peace and balance and they reconcile forces of yin and yang through the symbolic use of water, plants, architecture and stone.

Water represents the life blood of the earth — serene and reflective, rushing and dynamic. In its reflection and movement, we contemplate our beginnings and imagine our future.

Stone symbolizes the body of the earth. Stonework and rock represent strength and stability, as well as active stores of creative potential inside the universe—and inside each of us.

Plants represent growth and vitality, diversity and endurance. Plants are tenacious and beautiful, delicate and adaptive. They seek fertile ground for growth and teach us about community, about working together, about nurturing the space where we live.

Architecture represents people. Buildings create places to share, celebrate and reflect, blending into a garden's natural setting to demonstrate human cooperation with nature. A multi-storied building reveals a sweeping panoramic view, symbolizing elevated consciousness and enlightenment.
http://seattlechinesegarden .org/index.php?p=Four_Elements &s=14

Plants in Chinese gardens

If rocks provide a Chinese garden's structure, and water its life blood, then plants give it meaning and mystery. Plants play multiple roles in Chinese gardens:

Plants symbolize human emotions and aspirations. Bamboo bends beneath rain and wind with the pliant grace that characterizes a person facing adversity. Flowering plum trees show hope blooming in the cold gray of winter, and peonies symbolize opulence and riches.

Planting arrangements convey the ornamental qualities of natural landscapes. In Sichuan-style gardens, conifers, oaks and magnolias tumble across misty hillsides, tropical groundcovers plunge down the banks of streams, and bamboo forests edge ponds and lakes.

Plants celebrate the cycle of life. All phases of the year are represented in the garden planting design—from the buds of spring to the brilliant leaves of autumn.
http://seattlechinesegarden .org/index.php?p=Horticulture &s=15


Why are these the main elements of a Chinese Garden? Again, how does this differ from a garden as you think of it?

The Borrowed View

Suzhou gardens, enclosed within the city walls, often had to be constructed in a limited amount of space. It was therefore necessary to devise ways to make the garden appear larger than it really was. This might be accomplished in several ways: including curved walkways and zigzag bridges which require guests to take more steps to go from one end to the other, dividing the overall area into smaller gardens within gardens, and by the technique of "borrowing views."

Scenery is borrowed both from outside and from inside the garden. Outer walls block sight of surrounding streets and nearby low buildings, while a bit of neighboring roof tile or the top of an adjacent tree adds to the picturesque views within. A garden is also situated to take advantage of a distant hill or nearby pagoda and, if these can't be seen over the walls, a tower or hill might be built to bring them within view.

Walls enclose space, doorways and windows open it again--borrowing a little from what's beyond. Large wall openings, called "picture windows," are meant to frame a particular view. Through such windows, shadows cast on white walls resemble the black and white ink paintings admired by Chinese scholars. Other windows, filled with decorative patterns, are known as "leak windows" since they leak a little of the view, and some of the light, through from the other side.

The sky is also borrowed and brought into the garden by it's reflection in the central pond--a view into another world.

With these techniques, and many more, Suzhou garden designers make the small seem large, bring in from outside, and add to our own borrowed views of a distant time and place.
http://www.portlandchinesegarde /C7/

Five Elements

China has three basic styles of garden: expansive imperial gardens, those in or near temples situated to take advantage of the natural scenery surrounding them, and private gardens. Suzhou, Portland's Sister City, is called the "Garden City of China" and is famous for its private gardens.

In the west we speak of planting a garden, the Chinese think of building one. Rather than imitate nature, the Chinese gardener tries to recreate an ideal landscape in miniature with mountains, lakes, trees, and their qi, or energy, and to incorporate man's place within nature.

The Chinese word for landscape, shan shui, means literally "mountains and water" and a common phrase for making a garden, again translated literally, is "digging ponds and piling mountains." Water and stone are therefore important elements in the creation of a garden.


Stone is the hard skeletal structure of the world. It's used in a garden in two important ways: as sculpture and as building material. What most often intrigues the first-time visitor to a Chinese garden are the strangely shaped standing stones--the most prized of all are Taihu stones. Formed of limestone brought up from the bed of Lake Tai, only thirty kilometers west of Suzhou, they demonstrate, over the course of many years, the soft force of water as it wears away hard stone. They line the edges of garden ponds, are piled into false mountains, and are set up as monolithic abstract sculpture.

Granite is used at the base of each wooden column, in bridgework, walkways, and courtyards. This light-colored stone is recognizable by the lines on it's surface--marks of the hammers and chisels of stonemasons who hand cut these stones for use in the garden. Another form of stone are the tall slender "shoot stones," so called because of their resemblance to bamboo shoots, and, for this reason, are often planted near bamboo. Riddled with holes, their origin is the subject of endless scholarly debate among garden guides. Lastly, waterworn pebbles, in combination with bits of quarried stone, broken pottery, and roof tiles set on edge, are used extensively in walkways and paved courtyards in a wide variety of patterns.


When opposites are in balance there is rejuvenating qi energy, and so the solidity of stone should be balanced by the softness of water. Water, as the circulatory system of the earth, also brings vital energy to the garden and to its visitors.

Like a mirror, the ever-changing effects of sun and clouds enter the garden a second time through their reflection in the lake. A body of water has practical use in fighting fires, as a source of water for irrigation, and as a source for fresh fish. It also helps regulate humidity, and both purifies and cools the air around it.


Western visitors are often amazed and confused by the number of buildings found in Chinese gardens. In fact, since gardens were part of the extended living space for the adjacent family home, the siting of the principal buildings was the most important element in the layout of gardens. And, since garden buildings were less restricted by traditional regulations concerning architecture, they could come in many forms--for variety, no two would be the same. Some garden structures include:

  • Fáng - a boat-shaped pavilion, also called a dry-land boat
  • Lang - a covered corridor or roofed walkway
  • Lóu - a two-storied building, occasionally used as living quarters by young, unmarried female members of the family
  • Qiáo - bridges
  • Shuixie - a waterside pavilion, half extended out over the lake
  • Táng - the main hall
  • Tíng - a pavilion, or literally 'stopping' place in which to rest
  • Xuan - a studio for painting or calligraphy, enclosed in a small quiet courtyard

Literature and the Arts

The owners of such gardens were scholars, among the best-educated in China--poetry writing and familiarity with the classics were two of the requirements for early Chinese civil service examinations. Guests they brought to their gardens were also among the elite of society at that time, and poetry added another level of intellectual pleasure to their experience of the garden. Today we might be tempted to call writing on walls or stones graffiti, but for the Chinese scholar they were decorative "conversation pieces" meant to spark discussion among their guests.

The garden was a place for many other activities as well--enjoying chess or other games, listening to or playing musical instruments, watching theatrical performances, creating paintings in ink on paper, or tending miniature potted trees.


Many plants are chosen as much for their fragrance as for their color. In a western garden flowers often play a primary role--and so what we see is very important. In a Chinese garden what we don't see is equally important, as everything contains hidden symbolism, including the plants. Flowers represent the four seasons, the lotus signifies purity, the pine antiquity, the bamboo uprightness, and so on. Plants serve other purposes as well, some are edible or have medicinal properties, and the hardy banana is planted under the eaves in order to take advantage of the sound of rain dripping from the roof and falling on their large leaves. Trees are said to give the age of a garden.


"By combining the five elements of stone, water, architecture, literature and the arts, and plants, we can experience within the garden the essential balance between humanity and nature."

Explain what this quotation means to you. Do you think a garden can accomplish that? How has your view or understanding of gardens changed?

1 Entry Courtyard 2 Courtyard of Tranquility 3 Hall of Brocade Clouds 4 Knowing the Fish Pavilion 5 Reflections in Clear Ripples
6 Fragrance Courtyard 7 Scholar's Courtyard 8 Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance 9 Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain
10 Moon Locking Pavilion 11 Tower of Cosmic Reflections 12 Painted Boat in Misty Rain