Classical Chinese garden design, which seeks to recreate natural landscapes in miniature, is one of the 2 main garden arts genres in the world.
The ancient Chinese garden originated in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600 – 771 BC), when rulers began to build gardens for their own leisure and pleasure. During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period (770 – 256 BC), it was a fashion to build gardens. Distinctive gardens continued to appear throughout the subsequent dynesties, but it was during the Ming (1368-1644) and (1644-1911) that the art of private classical garden was at its prosperous time.
These gardens are usually built in urban areas, neighbored with residences. Since land is expensive in cities, private gardens are generally small and simple but delicate and look tasteful and play multiple functions. Most famous private gardens are situated in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Yangzhou.
The lower reaches of the Yangtze River Delta, especially Suzhou and Hangzhou area, has been named Land of Fish and Rice, Hometown of Silk and Tea since ancient times. It is abundant with a variety of natural resources. It is also a remarkable place producing outstanding people, such as scholars, painters, calligraphers, poets, artists and craftsmen. You may wonder why the private classical gardens are mainly built in Suzhou and Hangzhou area. Many government officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties were born in Suzhou, and retired there after their government service. When scholars retreated from the chaos of society, they sought for inner peace and spiritual harmony. So after retirement, most of them considered Suzhou or Hangzhou as their ideal place to spend the rest of their lives. Moreover, the major construction materials, such as granite, timber, brick and Lake Tai Rock, can be easily found in this region.
Private classical Chinese garden is a combination of structures and man-mande landscape with natural scenery. Mr. Ji Cheng, a famous 15th century garden designer once said, “The garden is created by human hand, but should appear as if created by heaven. “
Many ancient classical gardens scattered in the Yangtze River Delta are the representative of Chinese Garden Arts, and among them, the 9 gardens in the historic city of Suzhou listed in the UNESCO World Heritage are regarded as the finest embodiments of Chinese “Mountain and Water” gardens. Their names are: the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden, the Master-of-Nets Garden, the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, the Canglang Pavilion, the Lion Forest Garden (or translated as Lion Grove Garden), the Garden of Cultivation, the Couple’s Garden Retreat, and the Retreat & Reflection Garden (except the last one which is in Tongli, a small town near Suzhou, other 8 gardens are in the ancient Suzhou city proper.) They are generally acknowledged to be masterpieces of the genre and listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site. Dating from the 11th-19th century, the above 9 gardens reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture in their meticulous design - Valued by UNESCO World Heritage Website.
The arts of the classical gardens of Suzhou is the main school of the garden arts in China. So beyond Suzhou area, this garden arts can be found anywhere in China, especially in the Yangtze River Delta area near Suzhou. The Yuyuan Garden, Qiuxia Garden (Autumn Sunglow Garden) and Zuibai Garden (Drunken Bai Garden) in Shanghai, Jichang Garden in Wuxi, “The Autumn Moon over the Clam Lake” and “Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake” in Hangzhou, Geyuan Garden in Yangzhou… are all the famous works of the arts of the classical gardens of Suzhou.
The earliest garden of Suzhou, which was on Lingyan Hill by the side of ancient Suzhou city and belonged to the King of Wu State, can betraced far back to the Spring and Autumn period in the 6th century B.C. The Pijiang Garden was recorded as the earliest private garden-house dating from the 4th century Eastern Jin Dynasties. More gardens were built in the centuries that followed. The prosperous Ming and Qing Dynasties, from the 16th to the 18th century is in particular. Suzhou saw a booming economy during this period. Consequently, the number of gardens in the city of Suzhou and its environs increased a great deal, mounting to 200 odd. Dozens of them have survived to the present and are kept in a good state of preservation. With their numerical superiority and artistic perfection, the classical gardens of Suzhou has had a very good reputation in China from ancient time, popularly known as "the earthly paradise".
Laid out within a limited area by the house, a classical garden of Suzhou is a microcosm of the world made of the basic elements of water, stones, plants and different kinds of buildings with literary allusions. Like a freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese painting, it is the creation of "urban scenery" or an amicable environment that brings man into harmony with nature. Built in a period when privately-owned gardens were most flourishing, the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Lingering Garden, the Master-of-Nets Garden and the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, noted for their beautiful scenes, elegant buildings and literary connotations, best represent the concentrated essence of wisdom of the Chinese and the finest specimens of all classical gardens of Suzhou among all fine gardens. Like shining pearls, they are a brilliant part of Chinese cultural heritage. Their characteristics are as follows:
Firstly, they set fine examples of how garden spaces are ingeniously handled.
Interwoven with Taoist metaphysics of Laozi and Zhangzi, the classical gardens of Suzhou were laid out in imitation of natural scenery to meet the intellectual and emotional needs of the Chinese. The terrestrial contours of the site is always made good use of. Methods and techniques are numerous, including borrowed views, barred views, opposite views, framed views, the decorative and functional alteration, and the abstract and concrete alteration. The stress is put on meandering through a labyrinth of complexity and continuous surprises. Within limits the garden spaces are so ingeniously handled that the effect of infinitude is produced. In the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Lingering Garden, the Master-of-Nets Garden and the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, there are many instances in illustration of traditional Chinese aesthetics.
Borrowing the view of Beisi Pagoda which is around 1km to the west of Humble Administrator’s Garden into the garden.
Borrowing the view of Longguang Pagoda which is outside of Jichang Gardeninto the garden.
Barred Views in Yuyuan Garden: the arched opening on the whitewashed wall bars the view of stream under it, make this short stream felt very long.
Opposite View between the Tower of Reflection and the Good for Both Gardens Pavilion in Humble Administrator's Garden
Framed views: View the Little Rainbow Bridge inside the Doorframe from the Little Wave House in Humble Administrator's Garden
Eight Musical Category Tones Gully in Jichang Garden in Wuxi, the water in the stream in the gully can produce lovely sound.
Borrowed Views: These are among the most important elements in the design of a private classical Chinese garden. Borrowed Views extend space beyond the border of the garden. They can incorporate distant vistas and nearby scenes which change by the hour and by the season.
Secondly, they are the re-creation of the splendors of natural scenery through the processes of the decoration of land by planting trees, shrubs and flowers, and designing and materializing mountains and watercourses.
The classical gardens of Suzhou were designed and built by great masters of different dynasties, emplying extraordinary methods and techniques. As a result, they are unnaturally natural. Noted for their wonderful landscapes and waterscapes, the Humble Administrator's garden, the Lingering Garden, the Master-of-Nets Garden and the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty are the vivid representation of natural scenery easy to be found locally. The Grand Rockery in Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai built by Zhang Nanyang, one of the most famous landscape architects in ancient China, in the middle of 16th century, miniature mountains made of yellow stones in the Master-of-Nets Garden or from earth with stones sticking out of them in the Humble Administrator's Garden and the Lingering Garden look so natural and spontaneous that they seem to be rendered without human aid. A number of fine lime stones hauled from Lake Tai to the Lingering Garden, some of which are believed to be left behind by the imperial collector from the Song court around 1000 years ago, have the qualities of being slender, wrinkled, pierced with holes, yet capable of draining by themselves. The best limestone mountain designed and piled up by the great master Gu Yuliang in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) is to be found in the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty. Great attention is paid to sequential loveliness. An abundant variety of flowers and trees are grown in the gardens.
Water is considered to be the central component of a Chinese garden. It serves as a balance for the other elements in the garden. Water is also the principal of life in the garden, both literally and figuratively. In many private classical Chinese gardens, small ponds are in the shape of the real natural lakes with streams in and out of the lake, and bridges on the streams where they join the “lake”. This kind of views are very common in the southern China water villages region. The recirculation of water in these ponds represents the flow and rejuvenation of life.
Rocks have played a significant part in Chinese poetry and landscape painting. Described in literature as “bones of the earth,” rocks find endless forms of expression, from large monolithic pieces to paving stones, to pebbles, to artificial hills called rockeries. Lake Tai Rock is limestone quarried from the floor of Taihu Lake near Suzhou. It is used in the Gardens as monolithic sculpture or to compose a rockery. Stalagmite and Huanshi, a kind of yellow and brown granite, are also used in the construction of rockeries.
Valued highly for their several hundred years of age are the ginkoes in the Lingering garden, the wistaria in the Humble Administrator's Garden and the sabina chinensis in the Master-of-Nets garden.
Unlike Western gardens in which plants are "collected" and massed together, in private classical Chinese garden, trees, shrubs and flowers are selected for their shape, seasonal character and symbolic meaning. For example, because pines are tough and rugged, they are considered symbols of the virtuous scholar who has weathered the political ups and downs of official life; the cypress, twisted and withered, is a symbol of longevity. Bamboo is considered the emblem of the perfect Confucian gentleman, who keeps his virtue pure and his emotions in check. the lotus is "a thoroughgoing gentleman who emerges from the muc and is yet unsoiled".
Thirdly, they are an epitome of exquisite and multifarious buildings of old times in the south of the Lower Yangtze .
The classical gardens of Suzhou have many varieties of little pavilions and large constructions with their basic beam-framing systems to satisfy the needs of reading, writing, painting, resting, viewing, meditating, playing chess, performing on a musical instrument, sipping tea, holding banquets and so forth. With traditional Chinese furnishings, these buildings richly ornamented with exquisitely carved door frames, windows, hangings, balustrades and screens inside and many kinds of lattic-windows, pavements and moon gates outside, have harmonized impeccably with functional, structural and aesthetical considerations.
Bridge: Bridges frequently zigzag in order to enlarge the limited space of the garden and provide visitors ever-changing vantages to experience the garden. Some are built only inches above the water to give the visitor the illusion of walking on water. The bridge is not only a means of transportation but also serves to beautify the environment and incorporate the surrounding scenery into the picture.
Pavilion: The open-air pavilions are intended to function as vantage points or resting places within the garden, rather than separate structures. Emphasizing the belief that people should live in harmony with nature, private classical Chinese gardens typically feature pavilions and open-style buildings.
Walkways: Walkways are designed in a variety of shapes. They bend and twist, prolonging the walking and enjoying scenery time, offering different views from each new angle. Many of the walkways are roofed, which provide opportunity for artistic expression and protection from snow and rain. The walkways are designed in a zigzag way also for the purpose of keeping away the evil spirits. As legends said evil spirits can only walk in straight way.
Fourthly, they are rich in literary connotations, carrying a tremendous amount of information about Chinese culture.
Intertwined with ancient Chinese philosophy, ideology and aesthetics, the classical gardens of Suzhou are noteworthy places with unique architectural forms carrying poetic names in plateaux and parallel couplets in excellent calligraphy with literary allusion which help to enhance the beauty of the whole property. Also, there are numerous inscribed stelae of great antiquity celebrated for their delicate workmanship and literary connotations. Indeed the classical gardens of Suzhou are the invaluable reservoir from which we can draw cultural substances.
Painting and Calligraphy: Painting, calligraphy, and other art collections are also important parts of the interior decoration of architecture. They are representatives of the garden owner’s knowledge and taste of literature and art. Poetic words in form of phrases, couplets and plaques can highlight the scenes and create the literary mood as well as increase the artistic dimensions of the garden.
As the extensions of dwellings, the private classical Chinese gardens are generally small in size, but look elegant and tasteful, and they perform multiple functions such as lodging, get-togethers, study, theatrical performance, and sightseeing. With the limited space of a garden, the beauty of natural landscape is reproduced in the form of artificial mountains and lakes, and harmony is achieved between man and nature.
The classical gardens of Suzhou in the course of over two millennia have experienced many ups and downs, and gradually reached a state of artistic perfection.
The Doors and Windows in Ancient Classical Gardens are the artworks and with the pretty landscape framed in it, like a vivid traditional Chinese style painting, and it is the real natural painting which is different from time to time. In Taoism, “Heaven and earth coexist with human being, and everything in the world are the same.”. The natural is better than human made. So natural painting is better than man-painted painting.
More detail about Chinese Garden Arts at Wikipeidia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_garden