CHIN 402                                                                                     Essay #1                                                                               9 May, 2006


Ray Brownrigg


What is the Chinese Garden?

"In China a garden is more than a place of peace and a projected dream; it is the embodiment of a philosophy of life.  The harmonies and subtle rhythms reflect the mutations of a vaster cosmic scheme", Dorothy Graham, Chinese Gardens: Gardens of the Contemporary Scene, an Account of Their Design and Symbolism, (New York, 1938)


Introduction and Some History


Gardens in China have a long and significant history.  While the title of Dorothy Graham's book, the first book in English on this particular subject, may indicate that the above opening remarks refer to contemporary gardens, the description applies equally well to something in the order of a millennium of history; some would argue more like 11 centuries, see Fung (1999, p217).  Although control of the landscape in China took place as long ago as 1000BC, this early activity tended to be closer to farming than gardening, wherein large enclosures were planted and stocked with game for the hunting pleasures of the monarchy.  As time passed other sections of society followed suit, on a necessarily diminishing scale, as dictated by the availability of resources, both natural and financial – and also sometimes political since nobody was allowed to have a garden that approached the grandeur of the Emperor’s.  During the second half of the first millennium AD, specifically during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), what might be called 'private' gardens flourished in China, resulting in the architecture and design of gardens becoming well established as an art form.  These smaller gardens were most commonly created by acting and retired officials, literati and artists, all of whom possessed the common trait of being well educated, and for this reason these gardens became known as 'Scholar Gardens'[1].


The creation of these Scholar Gardens continued into the late 19th or early 20th century when there occurred a shift in focus, which saw fewer such gardens being created within China, but an increasing number being created outside China.  This may have been for a number of unrelated reasons, such as the stifling of development within China by the growing lack of natural resources in the cities as they steadily became more and more crowded, and the 'discovery' of the art form of Chinese garden design by the West in the late 19th century, followed by the development of a historiography of Chinese gardens in the early 20th century leading to Western publication devoted to this topic.  The Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970's may well have completely snuffed out any further development within the country and but for the interest of the West in Chinese gardens, the art form may well have died away altogether.  In some senses it has, since as John Minford (1998, p24) states:


"The symbolism which was part of every level of traditional Chinese culture, and which permeates Chinese literature from the Book of Changes through to The Story of the Stone, is all but dead today.  That is why it is so strange to walk round one of the marvellous gardens of Suzhou.  In order to be there at all, one has to reassemble the entire universe of which it was once a part, and which has been so thoroughly dismantled, ...  An entire system of symbols and spiritual values has gone."


Thus, although a 'genuine Chinese garden' may still be created nowadays and indeed some of those created earlier are still extant, their full value is no longer accessible in today's world.


The Purpose of a Scholar Garden


To the Western mind, steeped as it is in a culture of materialism and individualism, the sole purpose of a garden is to provide pleasure, primarily to oneself, although not necessarily to the exclusion of all others.  This pleasure may take many forms, ranging from the mere pleasure of the act of 'gardening' - the creation and maintenance of a garden - through the secondary enjoyment of creating or achieving something aesthetically pleasing, to the delayed pleasure of being able to enjoy the fruits of one's hard labour by being able to relax in pleasant surroundings.


The Chinese garden may well have served similar purposes in part, although these would have been to a much lesser extent, and certainly not to the exclusion of other purposes.  The scholar would use his garden primarily as a place to escape the stresses and intrigues of officialdom by 'communing with nature' in a protective enclave where he was safe from the pressures of his position.  Further, if the garden had been correctly designed to strict feng-shui principles, it would protect him spiritually also.  The scholar in general was very much aware of the philosophical ideals which were necessarily borne in mind when the garden was designed, created and, just as importantly, maintained.  While the philosophy, be it Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist, to which Chinese scholars have leaned may have changed over the centuries, the design of the garden has been malleable enough to be able to conform to the ethics of any such philosophical influence.  Johnston (1991, p43) says:


"Scholars who provided the ideas and motifs for garden design were steeped in the traditional values of society and motivated by the many schools of philosophy. Ideologically the cult of the garden could be made to fit within the context of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist ethics, all of which gave scope for the interplay of positive and negative, the straight line and the curve, and for combining the works of mind and works of nature."


Other minor purposes of a garden may have included the use as a venue for entertainment of friends and colleagues, as a cultivable area for provisioning a large family or as a pure status symbol.


Chinese Garden Structure


The Chinese garden has a lot more to it than meets the (particularly unreceptive Western) eye.  One of the overriding concepts of garden architecture may be summarised as 'invisible design'.  This is much more than what might be described as 'being natural'.  It includes elements which touch on all the physical senses, as well as embodying symbolism and spirituality.  These ideas, and in particular the historical Western view of them, are discussed in some depth in Clunas (1997).  Perhaps the best way to illustrate the breadth of design embodied in the Chinese garden is to consider some of the various aspects of the structure of a garden that are taken into consideration during the design and construction.



The Chinese garden provides not only a view, but a complete environment, and not only in the physical sense, but spiritually as well.  This environment is then what helps the busy official relax, or what provides inspiration for the poet to compose, or for the artist to paint.



The Chinese garden affects not only the sense of sight, but all the other senses as well - the smell of the fragrant herbs or the lush spring grass after rain, the touch of gnarled bark or smooth rock, the sound of the birds in the trees or the raindrops on broad leaves, and even the taste of edible flowers or medicinal herbs.  Johnston (1991, p1) says:


"Chinese gardens are the very poetry of architecture, making a direct appeal to the emotions and devoted exclusively to serving all the senses: visually unfolding a succession of pleasing surprises; introducing textures which seek to be touched; mingling the perfumes of blossoms and bark; capturing whispers of moving leaves and water; exploiting the ever changing character of the trees whose varying beauties enhance each season."


Movement and Flow

The Chinese garden provides two types of movement or flow.  Firstly there is the flow of ideas and sensual stimuli as the recipient (one can hardly call such a person a 'viewer') moves around the garden.  More importantly, there is movement which indicates the passage of time, such as the flow of a stream or the fluttering of leaves in the breeze.  This brings into play the fourth dimension of time, which can flow on two or more scales.  Not only does time flow instantaneously as indicated by the rippling of the waters or the fluttering of the leaves, but also time flows at the seasonal scale as indicated by the sprouting of buds and the shedding of leaves, and time flows even at the cosmic scale as trees grow and die of old age, and vistas change.  This 4-dimensional aspect of the Chinese garden highlights the necessity of 'being there' in order to appreciate fully what it has to offer.  A photograph can provide merely two of these dimensions, and even a moving film is really nothing more than a succession of still photographs, and so at best provides perhaps two and a half dimensions, and certainly not the seasonal or cosmic time scales.



In order to be as close to natural as possible, the Chinese garden embodies the idea of 'designed non-regularity' or 'structured spontaneity'.  Components of the garden should look as if they had been there forever, placed there by natural forces.  This in general means the appearance of randomness, and certainly rules out such things as regular spacing and straight lines (which are ruled out for other reasons also).  Thus the well-designed and constructed garden mirrors life and nature, but in such a way that the mirror itself (the design) is invisible.



The 'recipient' of the garden is guided around the experience by the design, the various paths, corridors, steps, bridges and doorways providing a natural progression of experiences.  There may well be alternate physical options at various points, but a good garden design will always present an obvious next step, even masking the existence of the alternate choice.  Siren (1949, p4, as quoted by Pajin, 1997) says:


"The Chinese garden can never... be completely surveyed from a certain point. It consists of more or less isolated sections which... must... be discovered gradually and enjoyed as the beholder continues his stroll:  he must follow the...paths... wander through tunnels... ponder the water... reach... a pavilion... from which a fascinating view unfolds...  He is led on... into a composition that is never completely revealed..."


Surprise and Mystery

As a result of this guidance, and alluded to in the Siren quote above, the Chinese garden will often provide elements of surprise.  This is readily achieved by the common use of curved pathways, hidden entrances, and dense foliage which can confuse one's sense of location and hide views until a sudden revealing.  Associated with surprise is a sense of mystery which can be enhanced by the providing of tantalising glimpses of as yet unseen vistas, and the use of labyrinthine crossing pathways which can further confuse one's sense of direction.



One of the main purposes of the garden is to protect and enrich the owner.  This end it will serve well by providing one or more secluded, perhaps even hidden, spots where the owner may revitalise himself safe in the knowledge that he will not be disturbed.  Thus a good garden would provide such locations which would not be on the 'guided path', and hence would be unlikely to be visited by unwelcome guests.



Buildings are always an important part of the Chinese garden.  They serve the dual purpose of providing functionality and providing a means of guiding the visitor.  The shape, location and aspect of buildings, including corridors or covered walkways, are controlled by feng-shui principles.  Further, buildings provide a mechanism by which especially shaped windows and doors can enhance the environment of the garden, both physically by framing particular views, and spiritually via the feng-shui principles.


Borrowing scenery

One aspect which is common in later, Qing dynasty, gardens is the idea of borrowing, which can occur both internally and externally.  This is the idea of using scenery from another part of the garden, or even from outside the garden, to enhance a particular view.  Often this would be guided by the framing of a particular view in a shaped window or doorway, or even through the use of a mirror, to present a composite view.






As already mentioned, buildings provided functionality.  These were not limited to those structures that provided guidance around the garden, but included libraries for teaching and studying, studios for writing or painting, entertainment halls and even living quarters for guests or family members.  Thus the garden was not solely for communing with nature, but provided an environment in which other activities could take place.


Names and couplets

The naming of various parts of a garden was a very important part of the creation of the garden.  In some cases, the design was moulded around an intended name, although it seems that in general the name was fixed after the completion, based on the emotions invoked by the environment.  To a large extent, the names and the environment enhanced each other, and the name became an integral part of the garden itself.  The names and scrolls often indicated the scholar status of the owner, reflecting as much as possible a familiarity with published literature and well known earlier gardens.  The final name was chosen to encompass aspects of imagery, design intention, literary tradition and philosophy.


Garden Symbolism


In addition to the above structural aspects of a garden, a very important issue considered during the design and construction of the Chinese garden was the symbolism embodied in the various components and their juxtaposition.  Not only did the inorganic features of rocks, streams, paths, caves, bridges and buildings have their symbolism, but all the different trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers growing in the garden possessed their own symbolism as well.  To the receptive eye, this symbolism provided a large part of the spiritual experience of being in the garden and its loss (or decay at least) is sadly lamented by Minford (1998, p24) as quoted earlier.




Given the wide variety of structural aspects that are embodied in the design and construction of a Chinese garden and given that many of these aspects are based on spiritual and philosophical foundations, it is quite clear that the Chinese garden in general is far more than a mere eye-pleasing object.  The garden provides a physical experience which goes way beyond the visual, and in addition provides a spiritual environment in which one can immerse oneself to whatever depth is provided by one's spirituality, which includes, but is not limited to, one's philosophy and learning.  Unfortunately for most Westerners, this depth of spirituality is somewhat lacking, and so the full experience of the Chinese garden is not available to most of us.



Chunyang, An (Ed), Suzhou: A garden city, (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984)

Clunas, Craig, “Nature and Ideology in Western Descriptions of the Chinese Garden”, In Nature and Ideology: Nature and Garden Design in the Twentieth Century, Wolschke-Bulmahn, Joachim (Ed), (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1997) pp. 21-33

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (Ed), A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, (accessed May 2006)

Johnston, R. Stewart, Scholar Gardens of China, (Cambridge: University Press, 1991)

Fung, Stanislaus, "Longing and Belonging in Chinese Garden History" In Perspectives on Garden Histories, Conan, Michael (Ed), (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1999) pp. 207-221.

Minford, John, "The Chinese garden: death of a symbol", Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes (Autumn 1998), 18, 3: 257-268

Siren, Oswald, Gardens of China (New York: The Ronald Press, 1949)

Pajin, Dusan, Environmental Aesthetics and Chinese Gardens, (accessed May 2006)

[1] Of course a pre-requisite for having a garden in China was having the means to build it, and non-imperial wealth was most commonly preceded by education, so the label tended to distinguish the private gardens from the others as much as anything, although Johnston (1991) applies the label to those gardens belonging to “scholar officials” in particular.