Chinese Gardens — Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Architecture in Nature
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 had become art with great aesthetic, historic, and architectural value.
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 for them to hunt as recreational activities, where they also 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 wonderland in ancient Chinese mythology, where they could pray and expect to welcome deities.
Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the first emperor in China, build three islands in a big lake, which simulated three mountains in the sea on the east that has deities living: Mounts Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou.
Since then, constructing a lake with three islands had 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, to simulate 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 meaning of life 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, designed man-made 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, as well as aesthetic taste and philosophical conception.
With the development of economy and culture, since the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), more people constructed beautiful gardens in their living places.
Therefore, more well-designed architectures were added in gardens, which most existing classical Chinese gardens belong to this type.
Essences of Chinese garden design ideas.
Three Islands in Lake
Since the reign of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), most classical Chinese 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 Chinese gardens would construct a real lake has three big islands, when 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 Chinese garden is to fit artificial designs into the surroundings, as if they are made by the nature.
One Step One Scenery
The best way to appreciate classical Chinese gardens is from mobile viewing positions, especially in southern private gardens which placed elements brilliantly in limited space.
Beauty in Four Seasons
Another important design rule of classical Chinese gardens is to take views of four distinct seasons into consideration, to make sure it is 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
As a means that could show the owner's ambition, aesthetics, and literary attainments, every decorative element of one's garden, plants, and couplet poems, all have special symbolic meanings.
Bamboos of Lingering Garden, Representing Strength, Life, Modesty and Honesty, Photo from Official Site of Lingering Garden.
Layout and elements of classical Chinese gardens.
Unlike Imperial Palaces, classical Chinese gardens are not symmetrical and tried their best to follow and fit in the layout of nature.
Moreover, there are some basic elements that most classical Chinese 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.
Based on form, flow, and sound, a garden's water could be designed into a lake, river, spring, pond, or waterfall.
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 aspiration.
Therefore, besides the color, shape, and fragrance of plants, their symbolic meaning is the most important concern.
Literature and Art — Aesthetic and Philosophy
Names of buildings, couplet poems, articles on inscriptions, decorative paintings, are direct expresses 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 Chinese garden usually include different types of functional buildings.
Architectures 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: Residence of the owner, also could be used for the family to hold celebration activities, usually the biggest building complex of 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 has 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, small, exquisite building with 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 to appreciate water view and to rest.
Furong Xie of Humble Administrator’s Garden, Photo from Official Site of Zhuozheng Garden.
Gallery or Lang: Long corridor with 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 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.
Style and famous representatives of Chinese gardens.
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 included real mountains and lakes.
Seventeen Arches Bridge on the Kunming Lake of Summer Palace
Southern Private Garden
Private Gardens were those built by officials and literati.
Their gardens are much smaller and exquisite, and usually use rockeries to simulate mountains, ponds to inmate lakes.
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.
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