A Chinese Garden – The Rhythm of Nature Refreshing the Heart


No culture in the world, eastern or western, has produced a longer continuous tradition of garden design than that of China. As with many other cultures China’s civilisation started with the advent of agricultural activity. The early Chinese paid homage to the soil in what has been called ‘a religion of agrarian fertility’.

The mother goddess was the earth, Shung Ti, the god of vegetation and humankind who was not exalted as essentially different from all other created things. The harmonious co-operation between man and nature meant that man acted as the agent through which the abundant potential of nature could be fully realized.

Chinese PavilionsThe first reference to a garden in Chinese literature suggests it consisted solely of useful trees planted with the walls around a homestead. A garden containing willows, hardwoods and mulberries is mentioned in the Shih Ching, a book of songs collected four centuries before the Christ event. This was when poets described pretty pavilions, winding waterways and wonderful vistas of mountains.

In a Chinese garden a strong belief in a sense of unity with nature as a benign wilderness, source of awe, magic and sustenance is required. What vibrates through and around the various elements of its composition was designed to ‘bring out the rhythm of nature’. It purposefully blends together many different elements to create a remarkably integrated concept.

In China in a garden is where all the arts come together. It is the place where it is assumed that the visitor views it with an educated mind and eye. We could say that a Chinese garden is a microcosm of the macrocosm, a small complete expression of the vastness of nature. For the west, grasping the complex traditions of both Chinese and Japanese gardens has proved difficult, for much of what is most essential in both can elude formal analysis.

Important myths idealize the first five emperors of China from whom, so the legend goes, its peoples learned about fire, animal husbandry, agriculture, irrigation and flood control. With such divine instruction and knowledge they were able to create a natural awe-inspiring landscape one that reflected a yet greater impersonal order of the universe. Into this man, however successful and prosperous he might be, was obliged to fit.

Walls around a Chinese garden were designed to block out the surrounding patterns of human activity so that on the inside at least man would turn back to nature.  If you stepped through a circular doorway to enter the garden it was symbolic of the universe and, you were intellectually at least, entering one of the gates of heaven via the pathway that led you there.

In 1260 the Mongol Kublai Khan, who was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire – 1260 to 1294 and founder of the Yuan Dynasty 1271 – 1368 in East Asia created the ‘pool of heavenly water’ in an extraordinary garden Venetian traveller and trader Marco Polo described in great detail. He especially remarked on the intensity of the colour green. The Chinese garden was not meant to embrace nature but rather to project an image of a nature one that conformed to suit its purpose, providing a natural setting in which life, private or public would take place.

Plants were not essential to the integrity of a Chinese garden. Rocks and water came first, followed by architecture, plants, trees and flowers.

To the Chinese their accumulated symbolic and ritual associations were far more important than looks. The modest lotus represented a transformation, emerging as it does from the murky bottom of the pond to penetrate the surface of the water where it gradually reveals its face to the sun from which it draws strength and beauty.

This is similar to the Christian idea, one shared by most cultures and religions, for that of moving through the murky darkness of sin to emerge triumphant in a glorified light.

It is the earthly garden ultimately expressing the redeemed glory of heaven. I am sure you have heard the quote ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’.

The very popular black bamboo, or Phyllostachys nigra

The very popular black bamboo, or Phyllostachys nigra

Bamboo has similar associations. It bends in the wind and does not break – suggesting an honourable man.

The orchid on the other hand represents the true gentleman because its scent is so subtle it only invades the senses when you leave.

The peach promises fecundity and immortality, while that most ravishing of all flowers the peony reflects great wealth and elegance.

Of all flowers the chrysanthemum is recognised by many as the oldest cultivated flower in China and it symbolizes autumn.

The Chinese approach plants from a religious, spiritual and symbolical prospective rather than from an interest in botanical specimens.

The famous three friends of winter often depicted on art forms such as porcelain are the pine, the plum and the bamboo.

They form a trilogy that has classical associations for the Chinese.

The pine represents longevity, the plum wealth and prosperity while the bamboo is about integrity and perseverance. They were so popular they were also painted onto porcelain vases for centuries such as a superb Yu Hu Chun vase painted in underglaze red from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Plants in a Chinese Garden were meant to be studied and their habits and tempers known…plum trees were prized and cultivated for their blooms, rather than for their fruit. The painter’s pleasure in the life of a plum blossom is interchangeable with the gardener’s pleasure in the rhythms of growth and death.

The significance attached to particular plants is symptomatic of the resonances with which the components of a Chinese garden are charged.  The garden is not only a place to ‘refresh the heart’ by communing with nature. It also has to engage the intellect and express a profound and serious view of the world as well as man’s place within it.

Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries who lived and worked in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries introduced into the west many plants of extraordinary cultural merit. When you read Latin plant names using the word Chinensis, you are reading about plants originating in China.

The Chinese garden required a painter to design and appreciate it, a poet to immortalize it and, a calligrapher to record its most appealing qualities.

Irregularity of design was the key to the success. It was judged on its ability to continually challenge and stimulate the educated mind to discover the subtlety of its references.

Just as all other art forms in the Chinese culture have been affected by its two main indigenous philosophies, Confucianism or Daoism so has the Chinese garden. This is reflected in the importance placed on its siting, determined by the ancient art of “Feng Sui’ (Air and Water).

The basic principle holds that according to the topography of its land a stream of currents run through the earth.

They consist of vital spirits, or a cosmic breath that forcefully influences the course of individuals and their descendants. All of this is dependent upon the siting of houses, gardens and graves as well as their relationship to the landscape in which they live.

From five centuries before Christ these philosophies ran conjointly, complementing each other. The impetus of Confucianism concentrated on man’s relationship to man while Daoism sought to discover how man could best fit into the great universe in which he lived.

Bowl with Scene of Daoist Immortals, 17th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911) Cloisonné enamel on copper; H. 5 3/8 in. (13.7 cm); Diam. 22 1/2 in. (57.2 cm); Diam. of foot: 16 in. (40.6 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Edward G. Kennedy, 1929

Bowl with Scene of Daoist Immortals, 17th century, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Cloisonné enamel on copper; H. 5 3/8 in. (13.7 cm); Diam. 22 1/2 in. (57.2 cm); Diam. of foot: 16 in. (40.6 cm) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Edward G. Kennedy, 1929

It was from the romantic readings of Daoist philosophers that both the art of gardening and that of landscape painting in China would draw its influence.

The root meaning of Dao is often debated. In its early phase it meant a road, or way, however these took on a higher meaning and Dao is suggested as now meaning the ‘totality of all things’ – past and future – that which is in a constant and dynamic state of transformation.

The Chinese attempted to recreate nature’s poetic wonders and create a garden that would be an outward expression of a man’s inner strength. It is highly contradictory because to be at one with the ebb and flow of the natural order of things everything is in constant flux and contradiction.

So to go forward, you must step back, to gain you have to let go, and to win you must lose. Its an introspective philosophy, one that had a ‘belief in, and reliance on, human intuition’.

Chinese Garden Sydney 3This tentative approach to practical gardening can also be found in an eleventh century manuscript by Kuo Hsi (fl. 1060-75) when he expressed Daoist advice on the composition attached to a landscape.

Too much emphasis on slopes and banks makes the work crude; too much emphasis on calm and quiet is trite’ too much emphasis on humanity makes the work commonplace; too much emphasis on houses and arbours makes it confused; too much emphasis on stones makes it bony; while too much emphasis on soil makes it fleshy’.

This is an expression of Ying and Yang, the two opposing forces at the heart of Chinese philosophy, where the rough and masculine yang is balanced by the soft and feminine, ying.

The other world dimension integral of most Chinese gardens from the late middle ages onward has come been part of a mythological exploration of immortality.

The Chinese Immortals were enchanted Gods of Chinese folklore who divided their time between mountaintop palaces and islands located in the so-called Eastern Seas. They commuted between their retreats on the backs of storks, and if mortals approached they would dissolve into the mist.

Detail Chinese LandscapeTheir mountain tops were expressed in the use of rock formations with water and trees essential accompaniments, both with their own deep philosophical meanings.

Rivers were considered ‘life arteries’ of the earth and water’s use in gardens, an expression of universal life. It was not only a powerful force able to erode and shape the natural landscape over time but also a subtle reminder of nature’s awesome ability to mould even the strongest and hardest of materials. By nature water was restless or calm, rising up into the air or dashing down onto rocks delighting by its playfulness, overawing with its majesty…a living, searching thing.

One treatise advised a designer to conceal the end of waterways so they may appear to disappear into infinity, an idea English eighteenth century gardener Capability Brown often used in his own great painterly style landscapes. The dramatic topography of the Chinese landscape with its great mountains, misty river valleys, trees. lakes and waterfalls inspired Chinese poets, landscape painters and garden makers for countless centuries.

Royal gardens are mentioned in Chinese poems from the eleventh century when ‘every Emperor and Ruler must, upon returning from his official duties and audience, have a garden in which to stroll, look around and find rest in his heart.’

There is a distinct link between the Chinese stroll garden and the eighteenth century circuit walk garden laid out at Stourhead in Wiltshire in England. Designed for banker Henry Hoare, even before work on it was completed it was described by eighteenth century English literary giant Horace Walpole as an exquisite piece of landscape poetry, a pictorial evocation of a painter’s vision of the classical world.

However while its many vistas and surprise vignettes have elements that come out of Roman tradition but the ideas behind them may have come through China, as we know that traders introduced the Romans to wearing silk during the first century it is not unreasonable to assume that there were other influences as well.

A Chinese stroll garden also unfolds along winding paths and even though there is a homogenous composition, isolated scenes confront the visitor as he strolls past elements that represent mountains, lakes creating mystery and surprise.

Dry stones were also often laid to represent river beds that had dried up. The Chinese also, as the ancient Greeks had done, consulted the ‘genius of the place’. They required a special practitioner to analyze a garden site before the garden itself was designed.

Tree TrunksTrees in the natural landscape of China were admired for their form, shape and colour…it was the colour of their green, the luxuriance of their foliage, the formation of their crown, the thickness and height of their trunks that was most important in any selection process and where they were placed on the north or south or the top of a slope or hill, or in a valley… you could also be part of its change from a sapling to a mature tree, and from strength to age.

For the Daoist gardener an aged and gnarled pine tree was one of the most desired of all elements, at least aesthetically. The garden was meant to be some distance from the house and surrounded with a curving wall or be dispersed like a ‘great cloud’.

If there was rising ground a pavilion could be placed to overlook the ‘prospect’ so the viewer could observe the many changes of nature through the four seasons and paths. These showed the way through the garden’s painterly scenes that were made to last for a thousand years.

While the emperors were recreating miniature mountains and islands, the poet was building an intimate small garden with its roses and no doubt some chrysanthemums. Its restraint was underlined by a pervasive patience we can scarcely comprehend, one that endured from generation to generation.

Chinese Garden of Friendship Darling Harbour SydneyAs in western gardens, water was the first and essential element. It was more than often still and static to reflect the architecture, rocks, trees and other important elements that surrounded it, rather than flowing water. Rocks were especially revered for their form and shape, particularly those of bizarre or fantastic formation.

Seats were placed so that visitors to a garden would be able to contemplate each rock and how it was placed. Trees and shrubs were often only evergreen but deliberately trained into unusual forms and shapes for their aesthetic appeal.

To quote Dao Yuan, a fifth century Chinese Poet.. ‘I had rescued from wilderness a patch of the southern moor, and still rustic, came back to field and garden…long I lived checked by the bars of the cage; now I have returned again to nature and freedom’

Carolyn McDowall © The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2012

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