CHIN 402                                                                                     Essay #2                                                                      25 August, 2006


Ray Brownrigg


The Appreciation of a Chinese Garden


There is much more to a Chinese garden than meets the eye. Applying this age-old expression to a much older artistic medium may sound somewhat anachronous, but nevertheless it remains rather apt.  The Chinese garden exists at a number of diverse levels, each incorporating a number of different elements.  Many of these elements are somewhat intangible and hence only accessible to someone who knows what to look for.  Further, the Chinese garden may be appreciated at an even larger number of different levels, each incorporating a variety of elements of appreciation.  Many of these elements of appreciation in turn are only able to be appreciated by someone who is in tune with the concepts; someone who recognises the artistry, the beauty, the craftsmanship or the spirituality of what is in view.


Physical Existence

The physical existence of a Chinese garden is underpinned by the geology and geography of the physical area in which the garden is situated.  This encompasses the elements of slope and contours of the land, the presence or not of natural watercourses and the soil type, which in turn can have some effect on the vegetation.  The geographic location also predetermines the presence or otherwise of nearby hills and mountains which can be an important element of the Chinese garden.  In addition to the basic geology, the overall climate, which also is determined by geographic location, can have a major influence on the appearance of a Chinese garden.


On top of these fixed natural physical attributes there may be overlain a variety of cosmetic ‘natural’ additions and alterations, such as ponds, hills, rocky outcrops, terraces and serpentine streams.  Some of these may be natural occurrences, but in many cases, they are man-made.  To a large extent, this distinction is not important.  All this natural structure then provides a platform for the more obviously man-made additions in the form of buildings, walls, corridors and paths.  The final element of this physical existence is the quasi-natural layer of flowers, plants and trees, each occupying its own special position in order to contribute to the overall effect of the garden.  These three additive layers incorporate the elements of artistry, craftsmanship, geomancy and literacy.  The artistry and geomancy elements are incorporated into the design, which is important within each of the three additive layers.  The craftsmanship is most evident within the man-made structures but can also affect the other layers.  Finally, the literacy element is evident in the somewhat mandatory naming and labelling of the components of the garden.


Temporal Existence

A Chinese garden is a living thing and as such it is born, it grows, it reaches maturity, it decays, then it dies, as any living thing does.  Further, as generally encompassed by Eastern religions, a living thing can be reborn.  This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is one aspect of the temporal existence of a Chinese garden.  Somewhat independently of the garden as a whole, individual components can have their own cycles of birth and death, different components exhibiting this on different time scales.   For example on a seasonal or annual time scale, grasses, perennial flowers and bulbs will flourish, flower, wither and seem to die, only to flourish again as the season dictates.  On a different time scale the garden as a whole may be created, flourish, die and then be created again as the fortunes of the owner and his family, on a human generation time scale, or as the wider area is affected by politics or economy, on the dynastic time scale.  Thus the physical existence of any particular Chinese garden at a particular time in history does not presuppose its existence in the same state at any other time.


Descriptive Existence

This ephemeral nature of the physical existence of a Chinese garden is somewhat alleviated by the descriptive existence, which attempts to preserve a temporal snapshot of the physical existence.  This snapshot can be achieved in one or more of a variety of different ways, including poetry, prose, drawings, painting and photography.  For all but a few lucky individuals, who happened to have been at the right place at the right time, the description is the only possible way of ‘viewing’ any particular Chinese garden.  This places the descriptive ‘viewer’ at a distinct disadvantage compared with the ‘on-site’ viewer, mainly because the written word and the 2-dimensional pictorial representation, even when viewed together, are rarely adequately able to substitute for a physical presence.  Another drawback of the descriptive existence is the size of its potential audience.  This audience size is limited to those who are able to interpret the description in its original form, which in general is the Classical Chinese language.  Of course drawings and paintings may be viewed by anybody who can see, but in general a pictorial representation of a Chinese garden in isolation is insufficient to provide a good description except for in the most rudimentary manner because there are so many elements that make up a Chinese garden.  Nevertheless a pictorial representation is invaluable when viewed in conjunction with a textual description since it can easily confirm many elements which may otherwise remain ambiguous in the textual description.


Interpretive Existence

The final, and perhaps most important, level of existence of a Chinese garden is the interpretive existence.  This encompasses the intangible elements of the perceptions, emotions and spirituality of the beholder of the Chinese garden, in whichever form it is present.  In many cases, this existence can be several iterations of interpretation removed from the original physical existence, each interpretation imposing the author’s state of existence upon the viewed existence.  When the owner of a garden describes his garden in prose or poetry, that owner’s perceptions, motives, discriminations, idiosyncrasies, philosophy, religious beliefs and literacy all flavour the resultant description.  When a translator then renders this description into another language, the translation is flavoured by the translator’s motives, literacy, preconceptions and historical knowledge.  Finally, when a translation, or even a description, is read by somebody else, then that person’s motives, literacy, preconceptions and historical knowledge are imposed upon the reading.  Thus the descriptive existence described earlier, except in the extremely dull case of an objective inventory, will always be flavoured by one or more subjective elements.

The iterative nature of this interpretation then comes about by the process of reproduction, which includes paintings and drawings, commentaries and translations, each of these imposing a further layer of interpretation flavoured by subjective elements unique to the particular individual generating the particular ‘reproduction’.  In whichever case, these unique subjective elements are not necessarily the same as those influencing the original author, or predecessor translators or commenters, but they nevertheless can impart significant influence upon the product.  The interpretations are not restricted to commentary or translation, since it is quite possible for a garden description, rather than the garden itself, to be used as the basis for a drawing or painting.


Levels of Appreciation

Each of the above levels of existence of a Chinese garden may have different elements of appreciation associated with it.  These elements of appreciation are partly dictated by the particular level of existence and partly by circumstances relating to the beholder, the person appreciating the garden.


Appreciating the physical

For the physical existence of a Chinese garden the elements of appreciation can be categorised into what might be termed active appreciation and passive appreciation.  Active appreciation includes such elements as recognising the artistry of the design or the craftsmanship of the construction of the garden, taking pleasure in listening to the sounds of the birds or the wind in the leaves and taking delight in the visual scenery provided by being there.  Passive appreciation is more spiritual such as a general feel of well-being, a sense of escape and relaxation, or a heightening of creativity provided by the garden environment.  Both active and passive appreciation can very much depend on the person appreciating, as well as other external influences.  Some items which can influence the appreciation are the motives of the beholder in being at the garden, the receptiveness of this person to physical stimuli, the background knowledge of this person and even the time of year and time of day.


Appreciating the Temporal

The temporal existence of a Chinese garden as described above provides the unique appreciative element of appreciating change, as flowers bloom, as trees grow or as winter turns to spring and new life bursts forth.  This then leads to the appreciation of the power of nature as displayed by these changes in the garden with time.  The appreciation of this temporal existence presupposes in general that the beholder has been able to visit the physical garden frequently enough and at the right times to notice such changes. In rare cases, such as with Yuan Mei’s account of his Garden of Accommodation, the temporal existence is preserved by a sequence of descriptions of the same garden over a period of more than two decades.


Appreciating the Descriptive

The descriptive existence of a Chinese garden engenders a variety of elements of appreciation depending on the form of the description.  While all descriptions of a garden can arouse active appreciation in the form of admiration of the artistry, craftsmanship and literacy, they in general cannot arouse the more passive elements of appreciation mentioned earlier, such as general well-being or heightened creativity.  A possible exception to this generalisation is the case of a painting, which can engender feelings of well-being or inner calm when viewed in the right circumstances.  Descriptions can however engender their own unique elements of appreciation, these generally being related to the descriptive process itself.  Thus poetry and prose give rise to the appreciation of the language employed in the descriptive process, which can exhibit its own artistry and craftsmanship, such as in the use of imagery and metaphor.  Similarly, drawings and paintings can be appreciated for their own sake, in addition to the engendered elements of appreciation for the garden that they describe.  A rare element of appreciating the description of a Chinese garden is that of the appreciation of how well the description, in whatever form, ‘captures the essence’ of the physical garden.  This is rare because it is only available to someone who has visited the garden in the same physical state as that which is described.  The availability of this element of appreciation linking the physical existence of a Chinese garden to its descriptive existence allows for the reinforcement of the descriptive existence as something worthy of preservation.  It is to be hoped that those descriptions still available today are more likely to have been preserved for this reason.


Interpretive Appreciation

The appreciation of an interpretive existence of a Chinese garden encompasses all the elements of appreciation associated with the descriptive existence.  In addition further elements are admitted which arise from the interpretive process.  These additional elements tend to be active elements of appreciation, although as mentioned earlier, an interpretive painting may still engender some passive feelings.  The additional elements are related more to the interpretation than to the description itself, the most obvious example being the appreciation of the interpretive process, such as the admiration of the quality of a translation.  However, since the interpretive description can be so far removed from the physical garden, the garden itself can take little credit in providing the appreciation that such descriptions engender.


The Virtual Garden

Given that most Chinese gardens today exist in either the descriptive or interpretive form, and are appreciated in those forms, there is no reason to dismiss virtual existence as a valid form of existence of a Chinese garden. The virtual Chinese garden exists at all levels previously described except the most rare physical existence, and thus is able to be appreciated at all those levels by the largest audience.  Perhaps the most well known example of what may well be a virtual Chinese garden is the Prospect Garden described in Cao Xueqin’s “Hong Lou Meng”.  There are several contenders for which physical garden this is describing, but the lack of a definitive physical existence does not reduce in any way the appreciation of the descriptive and interpretive existences in the novel, its commentaries and its translations.  In an interesting twist, the description of “Prospect Garden” in the novel has become the model for the Grand View Garden which was constructed in Southwest Beijing in the mid-1980’s.  Thus although Grand View Garden in Beijing has a physical existence in its own right, in terms of the original Prospect Garden in the novel, this physical existence is merely an interpretive existence – the description in the novel has been interpreted to create the physical garden.


We have seen that there are many different forms of existence of a Chinese garden, some more common than others.  Each of these forms gives rise to different ways of being able to appreciate or enjoy the garden.  This variety of different ways of being able to appreciate a Chinese garden can only help to widen the audience of such appreciation.  This in turn augers well for the preservation and expansion of the available translations of the remarkable artistry that is the Chinese garden.



Cao, Xueqin, “The Story of the Stone, trans. David Hawkes, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973)

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

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)

Yuan, Mei, “My Garden of Accommodation: Six Records “, trans. Duncan Campbell & Stephen McDowall, (Victoria University of Wellington)