Chinese Gardens — Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Architecture in Nature
What Were Classical Chinese Gardens Built for?
Essences of Chinese Garden Design Ideas.
What Are Chinese Gardens?
Classical Chinese gardens are places for nobles and literati to relax and communicate with nature.
Because of the consistent features and brilliant designs, the Chinese garden has become art with significant aesthetic, historical, and architectural values.
What Were Classical Chinese Gardens Built For?
In Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC) dynasties, nobles would enclose a large area of land to hunt for recreational activities, where they cultivated certain types of animals and constructed buildings to relax.
To Seek Immortality
In Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) dynasties, emperors built their imperial gardens modeled on wonderlands in ancient Chinese Mythology, where they could pray and expect to welcome deities.
Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the first emperor of China, built three islands in a big lake, which simulated three mountains in the sea in the east with deities living: Mounts Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou.
Since then, constructing a lake with three islands has been an important layout that most Imperial Palaces and gardens of China applied.
Wonderland Penglai by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552) — Poly Art Museum
Since the middle of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), royals spent more time in their fancy imperial gardens to relax and enjoy nature.
Hence, simulating nature has been a significant rule in constructing classical Chinese gardens.
The fall of the unified Han Dynasty was followed by a chaotic, divided era when many talented literati couldn't realize their political ambitions and tried to find peace and life meanings in nature.
In the Three Kingdoms, Jin Dynasties, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589) period, large numbers of private gardens appeared and flourished.
They blended mountains and lakes into poetic lives and designed artificial buildings into picturesque natural views.
Great Calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 — 361) Watching Geese, by Artist Qian Xuan (about 1239 — 1299) — Metropolitan Museum of Art
To Express and Display
Since the Sui Dynasty (589 — 619), when ancient Chine stepped into another unified, glorious era, the construction of gardens has flourished as well.
Imperial and literati gardens developed extensively as representatives of their owners' authority, wealth, ambition, achievement, aesthetic taste, and philosophical conception.
With the development of the economy and culture since the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), more people constructed beautiful gardens in their living places.
Therefore, more well-designed architecture were added to gardens, and most existing classical gardens belong to this type.
Danbo Jingcheng Dian, the Main Hall Where Emperors Held Meetings and Ceremonies, Photo from Official Site of Chengde Mountain Resort.
Essences of Chinese Garden Design Ideas.
Three Islands in Lake
Since the reign of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), most classical landscape gardens applied the structure to simulate a wonderland of ancient Chinese Mythology, the Three Mountains (Mounts Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou) in the eastern sea.
Imperial gardens would construct a natural lake with three big islands, while private gardens would build a pond with three rockeries to imitate the mythical wonder.
Artificial as Nature
To pursue the harmony of man and nature, one of the most important features of a classical garden in China is to fit artificial designs into the surroundings, as if nature makes them.
One Step One Scenery
The best way to appreciate classical gardens is from mobile viewing positions, especially in southern private gardens, which place elements brilliantly in limited space.
Beauty in Four Seasons
Another important design rule of classical gardens in China is considering views of four distinct seasons to ensure they are beautiful all year round.
Rain, snow, wind, sunshine, water, flowers, fallen leaves, everything would be smartly designed to form a series of picturesque views.
Careful Selection and Utilization of Symbolics
To show the owner's ambition, aesthetics, and literary attainments, every decorative element of one's garden, plants, and couplet poems have special symbolic meanings.
Click to read more about Chinese Flowers and Chinese Symbols
Bamboos of Lingering Garden, Representing Strength, Life, Modesty and Honesty, Photo from Official Site of Lingering Garden.
Layout and Elements.
Unlike Imperial Palaces, traditional Chinese gardens are not symmetrical and tried their best to follow and fit into nature's layout.
Moreover, there are some essential elements that most traditional gardens would use to create those artistic landscapes.
Mountain — Simulation of Nature
To simulate mythical mountains in Chinese Mythology, artificial hills (by imperials) and rockeries (by scholars) are the most important element of a Chinese garden.
Water — The Highest Good
According to Yin Yang Theory, the mountain is Yang, and the water is Yin.
A garden's water could be designed into a lake, river, spring, pond, or waterfall based on form, flow, and sound.
Mountains and Lakes of Imperial Chengde Mountain Resort, Photo from Official Site of Chengde.
Plant — Combination of Beauty and Symbolic Meaning
Choosing flowers and trees has been an excellent and obvious way to display the owner's character and aspirations.
Therefore, besides floras' color, shape, and fragrance, their symbolic meaning is an essential concern.
Chinese Art and Literature — Aesthetic and Philosophy
Designs and names of buildings, couplet poems, articles on inscriptions, and decorative paintings, are the direct expressions of the owners' literary attainments and achievements, as well as their social status and reputation.
Couplet Poems on Pavilion of Surging Waves or Canglang Pavilion in Suzhou.
Architectures — Artificial Arts in Nature
Enclosed by walls, a classical garden usually includes different functional buildings.
Architectural Buildings of Chinese Gardens.
Hall or Ting: To hold meetings or banquets, usually spacious, bright, and well-decorated.
Luxurious Nanmu Hall or Wufeng Xianguan of Lingering Garden, Photo by 97Lang.
Main House or Tang: The owner's residence; it also could be used for the family to hold celebration activities, usually the biggest building complex in the garden.
Lou: Multilayer buildings, usually used as bedrooms or studies.
Jianshan Lou of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo by Yin Qimin.
Ge: Multilayer buildings with smaller rooms and windows in four directions; usually used as a library, study, or place to enshrine religious deities.
Foxiang Ge of Summer Palace
Pavilion or Ting: To rest and appreciate the view, it is a small, exquisite building with a roof and pillars.
Singing Pavilion or Shuxiao Ting of Lingering Garden, Photo by Baiqiangxiade Huayuan.
Xie: A building next to or on the water, usually with railings, the place for people visiting the garden to appreciate the water view and to rest.
Furong Xie (Also Called Lotus Pavilion) of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo from Official Site of Zhuozheng Garden.
Gallery or Lang: Long corridor with a roof to connect buildings of the garden, with both functional and ornamental value.
They are beautiful structural elements and shelter people from rain, snow, wind, and sunshine.
Long Corridor of Lingering Garden Decorated with Calligraphy Inscriptions, Photo by Ying Zhigang.
Fang: Ship-shaped building on the water for people to have banquets and appreciate water views.
Shi Fang or Marble Boat of Summer Palace, Photo from Official Website of Yihe Yuan.
Styles and Famous Gardens in China.
Northern Imperial Garden
Capital cities of unified dynasties of ancient history are in the north, which formed one of the most important Chinese garden styles, the imperial gardens.
The Northern Imperial Gardens are grand and magnificent and usually include real mountains and lakes.
Famous existing examples are Summer Palace and Chengde Mountain Resort.
Seventeen Arches Bridge on the Kunming Lake of Summer Palace
Southern Private Garden
Private Gardens were those built by officials and literati.
These style gardens are much smaller and exquisite and usually use rockeries to simulate mountains and ponds inmate lakes.
The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are the best representatives of the existing private gardens, such as the Humble Administrator's Garden and Lingering Garden.
Crystal Clear Hall or Mingse Lou of Lingering Garden, Photo by Tao Laoshi.
Unlike Imperial Garden and Private Garden, Temple Garden has been open to the public. Rich or poor, noble or humble, everyone is welcome.
Some religious temples are located in the city, while others are in magnificent mountains. Therefore, their scales and layouts can be quite different.
Ancient Ginkgo Tree of Guanyin Temple in Xi'an City, Believed was Planted by Emperor Taizong of Tang (599 — 649), Photo from Xinhuanet.
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