Impressions of Chinese Gardens

The first thing I want to say is that a garden ought not to be natural! A good garden must be a piece of art. The basic principles of contrast, texture, dimension, proportion are very important to understand. But there must be an idea! If I can create a garden without that, it wouldn’t be a garden.

Roberto Burle Marx, Gardens Illustrated, August 1994

I have traveled to many countries to study their gardens and am fascinated by all the ways traditional gardens reflect the character of their time and place. The one common characteristic is the emphasis on organizing space, so that the garden becomes more than a mere collection of plants. After seeing the beautiful new Classical Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, my wife Irina and I decided to visit China to see some of the surviving authentic examples of the classical garden there.

The Chinese character for “garden” is made from four pictographs (representing mountains or rocks, water, buildings, and plants) that, together, explain their concept of a garden

The Chinese character for “garden” (top) is made from four pictographs representing (from left) a rock or mountains with a tree, a house or pavilion, an enclosure, and a pool of water

The Classical Chinese Garden

The Chinese call their classical gardens “landscape gardens.” Originally built and owned by high court officials as calm retreats from the busy city, Chinese gardens are generally urban gardens surrounded by tall stone walls. The Chinese character for garden is made from four pictographs representing the elements that, together, explain their concept of a garden. The classical garden must have all four elements: mountains or rocks, water, buildings, and plants—the last being the least important. In some gardens, water, in the form of one or more ponds or lakes, occupies more than half the space. Moving water such as fountains and streams are seldom used. Water plants are usually absent, since the reflections of half moon bridges, pavilions, and rocks are considered more important as they greatly contribute to the complexity of the space. The ponds are artificially dug, with the excavated soil used to create the “mountains” in the garden.

In traditional Western gardens, the manor house or castle is usually placed in a central, geometrically logical place as the focus of the garden. In the Chinese garden, there is no separation between the garden and the buildings. Within the tall perimeter walls, there is a virtual maze of buildings, walls, bridges over pools, small hills, eroded rocks, and small courts, with gates and windows giving glimpses of what is beyond. In most of the courts, there are sculptural rocks and a few plants, such as a small contorted tree, a clump of bamboo, or some mounds of mondo grass. The philosophy behind the complexity of the design is to make the garden seem larger than it is by never revealing the whole space in a single glance.

A diamond-shaped door leads to a view of an elaborate pavilion beyond a large pond, with an eroded rock and a single plant of Nandina domestica in the foreground. Author's photographs

A diamond-shaped door leads to a view of an elaborate pavilion beyond a large pond; an eroded rock with a single plant of Nandina domestica fills the foreground. Author’s photographs

As I walked through any one of the six gardens we visited, every space presented a different experience. From a simple entrance court, we walked through a gate to a large, central space with its lake covering half the area, surrounded by a rocky hill with a small open pavilion on top, a couple of zigzag stone bridges, and a larger hall with one side fully open to the garden. From there, we walked through another gate along a covered passageway with windows on one side; all the windows had carved stone screens in different patterns. At the end of the passageway, three steps led down to a smaller court with tall walls on three sides; the fourth side had a series of doors opening into a wooden hall with traditional Chinese furniture. In the middle of the court stood a tall, sculptural rock with a couple of small green shrubs at the base. Past the hall, we turned left and immediately stepped through a gate into another court. This wandering from space to space provided a constantly changing visual experience. No two courts were alike; each had different proportions and was entered through gates of varied shapes (rectangular, arabesque, and moon gates), stepping down, stepping up, making turns.

Many of the courts had an upright, twisted, and perforated rock displayed in the way an Italian Renaissance garden might showcase marble statues, though without the European emphasis on grandeur, symmetry, and open views. The most treasured rocks, Taihu rocks, come from the bottom of Lake Tai near Suzhou, home to the largest number of classical gardens. Some of these rocks have names, are as famous in China as a Michelangelo sculpture in the West, and have centuries-old histories of disputed ownership. Except for a pair of lion sculptures flanking the entrance, these rocks are the sculpture.

In addition to the single rocks, the gardens usually have at least one “mountain” made from the same eroded rocks, with grottos and narrow steps leading to the pavilion on top. The rocks provide a striking contrast to the smooth surface of the lake and the large plain white walls. At times I found the scene to be visually overwhelming, the sheer quantity of such rocks diminishing the impact of the single sculptural stones.

A moon-shaped archway frames a view of water and willows

A moon-shaped archway frames a view of water and willows

The craftsmanship and feel for materials is outstanding; no concrete, rough stucco, or conventional hardware can be seen in these gardens. Buildings and walls are of stone painted white; roofs are marked by elaborate joinery and upswept corners, with dark gray or green glazed tiles and numerous bronze dragons. The interior woodwork and all the furniture are made of dark brown mahogany. Many of the courts are paved in distinct patterns, using small round pebbles in various colors. The artisans of these classical Chinese gardens created a style that results in successful and beautiful gardens, and one that works for small as well as large spaces—even in the middle of cities.

A popular subject of old Chinese paintings is an aged philosopher sitting in splendid isolation in his garden. Visiting the classical gardens today is not a serene experience, for there are usually too many people. Irina and I are artists, and our training has taught us that if we look at everything at the same time, we do not see anything clearly. So we try to focus. By drawing in her sketchbook, Irina has to look at one shape or detail at a time. I do the same through my camera lens: moving around, selecting and framing the view, seeing relationships. Even in the crowded gardens we visited, this approach allowed us to ignore most of the other people and see the views as if we were alone.

Chinese designers frame views within their gardens in many ways: a sculptural rock and a clump of bamboo against a white wall, framed by a window; a view of the lake, rocks, and a small building seen through a moon gate; alluring glimpses through carved stone screens on windows. The entire experience of walking through one court after another results in a continuously changing sense of space; gates in many shapes invite the visitor to keep moving and to explore each changing scene.

The Landscape of the New China

We went to China to see the relics of its ancient culture, the temples and the gardens, but our tour leaders spoke with great excitement about the “new” China. They spoke with enormous pride about the achievements since the change in 1980 from a state controlled economy to free enterprise. During a cruise through the gorges on the Yangtze River, we were told a dozen times about the almost complete Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, now about to flood 250 miles of the river’s valley. (We also heard local citizens question whether the benefits would outweigh the loss of their ancestral homes in the hundreds of old towns and villages that have been demolished before being submerged by the rising waters behind the dam.)

More than any other place, Shanghai expresses this excitement for the new. A city of twelve million people, it has been building huge new complexes of tall apartment blocks, new high-rise hotels, and other commercial buildings. These buildings were in shapes and colors more fantastic than anything we had seen before, often with large sculptural shapes on top: one with a huge basket, another in green glass with tall wedges protruding from each side. From the eighty-sixth-floor restaurant of the futuristic new Hyatt Hotel, we had a great nighttime view of modern Shanghai. The Hyatt, designed as a stylized Chinese pagoda, is all white with thousands of perforated stainless steel strips covering the surface and shimmering like a giant crystal ice palace in the bright floodlights.

A small portion of one of the new parks in Shanghai, filled with lush plantings

A small portion of one of the new parks in Shanghai, filled with lush plantings; bracing still supports the recently planted trees, all of which have been pollarded

Nevertheless, in this rapid development toward a modern, commercial city, the government has shown a remarkable concern for the living environment of the citizens who are now experiencing the not-surprising problems of smog, freeways, and traffic that are resulting from the fast-growing private ownership of automobiles. The goal of the city government is to keep ten percent of Shanghai as parkland—small green oases throughout the city. These green spaces may be as simple as a strip of grass along a busy sidewalk edged with a serpentine wall, behind which is planted a small forest. Or they may be as expansive as a promenade along the river downtown, raised about fifteen feet above street level and separated from the street by mini-parks of trees, round shrubs with purple and pink new leaves, mondo grass, and winding pebble-paved pathways.

Our last impression of Shanghai was along the new freeway to the new airport. We saw fifteen to twenty miles of plantings in the twenty-foot wide median strip and in the thirty-foot wide “English border” along each side of the highway. The borders were planted with parallel rows of progressively taller shrubs and trees, using (as best we could determine at sixty miles an hour) various bamboos, tall junipers, boxwood clipped into balls, oleander (Nerium oleander), flowering cherry and plum (Prunus), plane trees (Platanus), Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), Dracaena, sheared balls of Photinia with red new leaves, and clumps of Oxalis. Every quarter-mile, the combination of three or four plants would be changed; it was clearly a planting pattern designed to be seen from a moving car, constantly changing, but slowly enough for the driver to perceive—truly a freeway garden.

Topped by an elaborate tile roof and pierced by windows allowing views into the garden from the passageway beyond, white stuccoed walls surround most gardens and allow for the play of shadows and silhouettes of plants such as these carefully thinned bamboos

Topped by an elaborate tile roof and pierced by windows allowing views into the garden from the passageway beyond, white stuccoed walls surround most gardens and allow for the play of shadows and silhouettes of plants such as these carefully thinned bamboos

Lessons for Our Own Gardens

There are important lessons to take away from our visits to China’s classical gardens. First are ideas about how to control space for intimacy and seclusion, how to screen out unwanted visual intrusions from street and neighbors, and how even the smallest corners of the garden can be attractive discoveries. A second lesson is the richness and complexity that come from attention to details. Everything you see matters; even the abundant flowers on a rose in our own gardens cannot mask the unattractive sight of the mulch of rotting clippings under the bushes, or the roughness of bark chips on the path. In the Chinese garden, this attention to details could be seen in the texture of the pebble pavements, the isolated view of a specimen tree with wildly twisting branches, and the framing of views through windows and gates. By giving focus, the designers prevent the visitor from seeing all the plants as one green blur. By working with contrasts, such as rough, pitted rocks against smooth, white walls, they attract attention to each element in the garden.

Modern American gardens have been influenced by the great garden cultures of the world: Italian Renaissance gardens, formal French gardens, English landscape and cottage gardens, and Japanese temple gardens. Despite the importance of China as the source of many of our garden plants, Chinese gardens have had little influence on the design of Western gardens—except for occasional pagodas and moon bridges. This is surprising since the Chinese garden dates back more than 2,500 years, with its classical period during the Ming Dynasty (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries).

Recently, however, a number of Chinese gardens have been constructed in North America: the Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the Staten Island Botanical Garden in New York; the Classical Chinese Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon; and new gardens under construction in Seattle and at the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Los Angeles. With greater exposure, erhaps some of the ideas expressed in these gardens will find their way into American gardens.

Mosaic pavements of small, hand-placed pebbles demonstrate the craftsmanship and attention to detail so characteristic of the classical Chinese garden

Mosaic pavements of small, hand-placed pebbles demonstrate the craftsmanship and attention to detail so characteristic of the classical Chinese garden