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Chinese gardens

Before regular European contact was made with China, European speculation about Chinese gardens was stimulated by the stories of visits to the country by Dutch and Flemish traders. These accounts of Chinese gardens were recorded by William Temple (originator of the English landscape garden movement) in the 1680s.[1]

An early account from direct experience is that of Father Attiret who describes the Emperor’s summer retreat in Ch’ien-lung The Garden of Perfect Brightness.  This description was published in Paris in 1749 (English translation 1752) as one of the first descriptions of a Chinese garden.

The Chinese Garden

We can circumscribe gardens by the  structures they contain and their cultural, social, and economic functions but botanical historian Métailié approaches Chinese gardens through the relation between the owners and their plants rather than detailing garden structures and their cultural, social, and economic functions. It is the academic, wealthy, high-ranking government officials, and merchants – the literati – who wrote the first accounts.

Parallels with Western garden tradition are uncanny and Westerners must be aware of viewing history through Eurocentric eyes. From antiquity to the 17th century come the words yuan (park) and yuan you and yuan ye (enclosed park) and the apparent distinction between princely park and enclosure, orchards, and kitchen gardens. From the Xi Jin dynasty (265-316) comes yuan lin as a pleasure garden of various sizes and distinguished from the above by Métailié through the expression ‘villa garden’.

We only know of these gardens from the historical literature, only one account the Yuan ye (The Figuration of Gardens) by Ji Cheng, written from 1631 to 1634, tells us about the structural features of the great parks of antiquity although this century especially produced other technical texts and personal accounts but few that provide plant inventories.

A poem of the 11th century, Shi jing, refers to a pleasure garden like a game reserve with beautiful birds and animals and a lake. It is a ‘Park of Marvels’ with a ‘Pool of Marvels.’

Chinese gardens

From Japan to Britain

Chinese garden heritage arrived in Britain via Japan.As in the West, Chinese garden traditions emerged under the influence of the powerful, wealthy and scholarly officials of the higher ranks of society. Gardens related to wider philosophical concerns. Confucianism considered mostly human relations (self-actualization), while Daoism was a more expansive world view, relating humans to the world and cosmos (love of nature) having a more relaxed approach to existence than the formal Confucian insistence on rights and rituals.[3] Formal rectilinear houses (fang-zi – suggesting social order, and often occupied by many people) were separate from the gardens (yuan– suggesting spontaneity, creative imagination, and harmony with nature).

Connections with Western traditions of a similar and ancient period are uncanny – perhaps made more similar by Western interpretation. Ancient rulers preserved large areas of land for hunting. Legend tells of the artificial lakes and terraces of Zhou dynasty rulers (c. 1027-256 BCE). Qin Shi Hang unified the disparate Chinese states in 221 BCE and in his Shanglin Park he demonstrated his imperial power by assembling collections of rare animals and plants, many introduced from conquered territories in a tradition continued by Han Emperors from (206 BCE – 220 CE). Poetry and literature of this period extols the virtues of the garden as a universal microcosm, especially the themes of: natural landscape embellished; imperial riches symbolized; and Island of the Immortals recreated. Han Emperor Wudi associated gardens with Chinese Immortals by constructing magical islands considered replicas of their spiritual home. This imperial tradition also included vast palace precincts, orchards, farmland, hunting parks, and lakes. To this was added elaborate entertainments with artificial structures of various kinds. The theme of magnificent gardens passed into other dynasties and included elaborate water features.[4] Even the last dynasty of Manchus, which ruled China for 250 years from the 17th century, expected a magnificent garden as a relaxing reward in a retirement free from public duties.[5]

Records of private gardens before the Han dynasty are scarce but lakes and constructed rockeries with streams are reported in the Han cities along the Yellow River (Huang He). During the Han dynasty Confucianism was strong and substantial gardens were more likely to be constructed as places of peace and self-cultivation by elite bureaucrats of the civil service (entered via demanding examinations on the Chinese classics) than the aristocracy.(K. p. 114)

From the 5th century Buddhism and its monasteries exerted an increasing influence as gardens became more spiritual interpretations of nature, this being associated with movements in poetry and landscape painting epitomised in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) country estate of Buddhist Wang Wei whose scroll painting and poems were admired down the ages. Also in the Tang dynasty the collection and arrangement of rocks reached new heights (smaller rocks and pebbles were later preferred in Japan). By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), regarded as a golden age of gardens and arts in general, rocks were an integral part of every garden, the larger ones opened to the public on festival days.(K. p. 114)

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) continued the idea of gardens as spiritual places for the indulgence of literary and artistic interests. These traditions were recorded in the most comprehensive treatise on gardening in China, the Yuan Ye of 1634. From the mid 16th century private gardens, of both scholars and merchants, with their pools and pavilions flourished in the cities. Some remain behind walls in the centre of cities.(K. 115)

The Chinese word for landscape, shanshui, means ‘hills and waters’ and this emphasis on hard landscape is key to the Chinese garden. To these basic elements are added archiecture and only then are trees, shrubs, and flowers introduced. Balance and harmony through feng shui principles and the philosophy of yin and yang are critical elements of garden philosophy.(K. 115) Plants are favoured for their symbolism, architectural impact, scent, and traditional value (often through literary associations) rather than for their variety – like the pine, plum, and bamboo as the ‘Three Friends of Winter’. (K. 116) Favourites include the chrysanthemum (probably the longest cultivated flower in China), lotus, bamboo, peach, orchid, peony and bonsai is popular. Another significant difference from the West is the preference for water over lawns. Chinese gardens of the kind discussed were not academically stifling, they were created for relaxation and the gentle engagement and stimulation of the intellect through a diversity of arts.(K. 116)

Qin period

An imperial park of the Qin was ruined at the beginning of the Han dynasty but was restored and enlarged as 137 BCE under Han emperor Wu (ruled (140-87 BCE). The Xi jing za ji of Ge Hong (283-364) contains a list of its plants including reference to cultivars like the 10 kinds of ‘pears’ that included purple and bronze forms, different-shaped leaves, selections from the Gobi Desert resistant to cold, gifts from other parts of China. Seven kinds of jujube, four chestnuts, and 10 peaches, 15 plums, three apples etc.(p. 448). This garden contains botanical and horticultural rarities including plants brought as tribute suggesting, as in similar Western gardens, the power, influence, economic awareness, and aesthetic sensitivity of the Emperor.

Tang (618-907)

This period saw a variation of the theme of a garden as a microcosm of nature to a greater appreciation of individual plants and animals, especially birds, that occurred in the gardens of the scholar literati as exemplified by the plant and rock garden of Li Deyu (787-850) near Luoyang around 825.
Li Deyu had read the Yuan ting cao mu shu (c. 690-701 – Commentaries on Garden Plants), now lost, using it to develop his own ideas supplemented by further knowledge of plant names gained by studying the poems of the Shi jing His list of ornamental plants and rocks included gifts of ornamental plants as well as a collection of medicinal plants. He gives the provenance, most coming from the lower Yangtzi valley. His collections probably constitutes a ‘miniature imperial park of the ancient sort’,(Schafer 1965, p.108) Li Deyu being more a plant collector than a garden artist his collection also resembled a botanical garden.
Buddhism probably arrived in China in the first century Han dynasty brought by missionaries from India. The monasteries included kitchen gardens, orchards, trees and ornamental plants, the food plants catering for a vegetarian diet. The monks, both those arriving and those returning from overseas, imported new plants. Plants recorded as arriving from the West by this method included: Terminalia chebula, Myrobolan; Shorea robusta, Robust Shorea; and Artocarpus heterophyllus, Jackfruit.(p. 453)


Chinoiserie was a European court fashion. The period of Chinoiserie[2] in the West epitomized by the construction for Princess Augusta of a Chinese 163′ pagoda in Kew Gardens in 1761. It was inspired by engravings of the porcelain tower of Nanking and a Chinese Tea pagoda, was part of a reciprocal interest in Western plants in China.

‘When the dates of particular cultural developments (dogs, cultivated plants, fortification, writing, villages, territorial expansion, domesticated animals, full-scale farming, towns and buildings) are compared between East and West – the process of progressive urbanization – they are not only remarkably similar but they arise in a similar order although displaced back by about 2000 years in the EastMorris p. 130


The Chinese literature on plants comprised books like western encyclopaedias, dictionaries, horticultural monographs, agricultural treatises, and materia medica. Most authoritative among Western commentators on the Chinese garden is Maggie Keswick. Chinese gardening philosophies have arrived in the West largely via Japan.

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