Gardens of the World: Chinese and Japanese Gardens
With Nature, Not Without
Once I was walking along a winding trail within a park that was surrounded by blossoming trees. As I strolled along the trail, I could hear chirping birds, rustling leaves, and a calm breeze. Suddenly I turned a corner and a small pond at the base of a mountain came into view. A fog sat upon the still pond and had two Black Swans swimming about. In the distance, I could see a small, red pavilion hidden along the pond’s shore. At the same moment, the soft sounds of a Guzheng filled the air. To me, this memorable moment was at Fragrant Hills Park or Xiangshan in Beijing, China (Image below).
Unlike Renaissance gardens that harnessed art to tame nature, China and Japan were strikingly different. Chinese and Japanese gardens strived to imitate nature rather than tame nature. Although the Gardens of the World series has focused on gardening styles seen in Ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and Europe, we cannot discuss gardens of the world without highlighting the significant aesthetic and design contributions from China and Japan.
Chinese and Japanese Gardens
Although Chinese and Japanese gardening styles have been around for millennia, their prominence and influence grew throughout Asia and Europe with trade along the Silk Road. Nonetheless, it is important to state that Chinese and Japanese gardens are not the same. They do have some similar characteristics but individually contribute significant gardening influences.
Records of Chinese gardens date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC) along the Yellow River. Traditional gardens during this period primarily served as hunting grounds or areas to grow food as part of the Emperor’s palace. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) gardens became more leisurely. Ultimately the gardens desired to simulate nature.
Chinese gardens blended natural and architectural elements. Almost every garden contained architectural elements that sat within natural or recreated natural elements. Many gardens were for emperors and were vast. Unlike the large views of French and Italian gardens, Chinese gardens included intimate and small scenes throughout the landscape. Other important elements include natural water features, moon gates, stones, and flowering plant material.
The most notable examples of traditional Chinese gardens include the Gardens of Suzhou, which is outside Shanghai, China. This collection dating from the eleventh to nineteenth centuries is classified as a World Heritage Sites. A few examples from the Gardens of Suzhou include the Lingering Garden, Tiger Hill, Lion Grove Gardens. These gardens still attract thousands of visitors a year because of their influence on modern design. Other notable gardens include Fragrant Hills and the Summer Palace in Beijing.
Lingering Gardens is a large walled garden that is comprised of four major quadrants: east, central, south, and west. The garden is surrounded by beautiful architecture and interconnected by a large water feature. Visitors stroll through the garden along walkways, boardwalks, and under pavilions. Featured throughout the garden is Taihu stones, which is an irregular-shaped stone used for as an ornamental feature. Additionally, other features include Moongates, which are notable Chinese garden features. These circular openings in walls serve as entrances/exits for visitors to walk through. Moongates offer good-fortune to those who passed through.
Lion Grove Garden
Similar to Lingering Garden’s design, Lion Grove garden’s whimsical Taihu stone maze creates interest for visitors. This Garden intrigues all its guests, but its also known for its large stone boat that sits within the water feature.
There are many Japanese gardening styles, but their origins are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese practices. During the Heian Period (794-1185), Chinese influences diminished and Japan began forming its own traditions, including gardens heavily influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. Zen Buddhism gardens emerged during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1192 – 1573). Differing from traditional Japanese gardens, the Zen Buddhism gardens utilized minimal area and served as places for meditation. In later periods we see the emergence of Tea, Strolling, and Tsuboniwa gardens.
Although Japanese gardens continually changed and evolved through different periods, the concepts of imitating or creating harmony with nature persisted. Additionally, the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” which is the recognizing beauty in imperfection, persisted throughout the periods because of its relationship to Buddhist philosophy. Some of the notable Japanese gardens through time include Ryoanji Temple and Kenroku-en.
Ryoanji is a classic Japanese Zen garden. Visitors view the rock garden from the Hojo building. Placed in patterns of three, the larger stones represent land. These larger stones represent land while the small, pea stones represent water.
Kenroku-en garden construction began around 1676. Throughout the garden, visitors will find tea houses, winding walkways, stone lanterns, bridges, streams, and hills. Although it shows Chinese influences, Kenroku-en is characteristic of Japanese gardens by including tea houses, stone lanterns, borrowed views. This garden is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful landscape gardens.
Traditional Japanese and Chinese gardens influenced gardens throughout the world. Their long history of gardening persisted in connecting people with nature rather than through domination, as seen in Renaissance gardens. Flashing forward to modern gardens, we can find many characteristics of these traditional garden design concepts around the world.