China - Table of Contents  .................. Chinese Architecture Dictionary  ................... Illustrated Architecture Dictionary .

Classical Chinese Gardens

In contrast to the buildings, Chinese gardens are a notable exception which tends to be asymmetrical. The principle underlying the garden's composition is to create enduring flow.

Gardens typically include the following:

1. Rocks
2. Water
3. Plants
4. Buildings
5. Bridges
6. Moon gate
7. Patterned screens

Chinese Gardens

The Chinese house and the Chinese garden are designed from two differnt philosophies.

The purpose of the garden is to replicte in miniature the fullness of nature in all its avariety, so as to produce an environment in which the soul can immerse itself and find tranquility and peace.

Garden design is a great art, akin to the composition of a poem or of a landscape painting ... cunningly contriving scenic arrangement of natural and artificaal elements intended to reproduce the irregularities of uncultivated nature.

- Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition, by Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner. Harcourt Brace College Pub. 1996, pp. 520-521

"Mountains and Water"

The Chinese term for landscape is shan shui, literally “mountains and water.” Water is the yin, the calm, nurturing, yielding element; mountains are the complementary yang, vertical and powerful.

The garden is completed with a body of water, its spiritual heart, and monumental T’ai Hu stones, from the Tai Hu region of China and other nearby regions. These fantastically shaped boulders of eroded limestone serve as nature’s statuary, evoking the awe of ancient mountains, seeming at once solid and transparent, suggesting faces, animals or spiritual forces.

- Missouri Botanical Garden (online Dec. 2013)
Rocks and Mountains

Rocks were to the Chinese garden what sculpture was to its European counterpart. A deep appreciation for rocks stemmed from ancient religious attitudes toward nature, which included the veneration of mountains. Rocks were believed to have a concentrated amount of natural energy and symbolized the dwelling places of the Daoist immortals. 

Rocks were introduced into the garden as individual specimens and as components of complex rockeries. One of the most characteristic and outstanding features of the Chinese garden is the artificial mountain built of individual stones, which were cemented together to form complex structures.

As an element, rock is classified by the Chinese as "yang" because it is strong, durable, hard and "male"), but the best garden stones also exhibited spareness and delicacy.

If a rock appeared porous with many holes penetrating all the way through and had a strangely contorted overall form, it was considered a highly valuable asset to the garden. Lake Tai near Suzhou produced the most prized rocks; the chemical composition of the Great Lake caused the limestone on its bed to erode in an irregular fashion.

- University of Washington (online Dec. 2013)
Water was believed to serve as a balance for other elements in nature and in the garden.

The water in a city garden is typically broken into small, separate areas that are sometimes connected with ponds or flowing water. Pools are made to wander, disappear, then reappear at the next corner.

Semi-circular bridges, as seen below, are often chosen because they "complete themselves" as they are reflected in the water; they are also a symbolic reference to the moon.

Water quality is not always clean and brilliant - often the ponds are rather murky and opaque. When water is thick with algae it is imbued with a sign of life.

- University of Washington (online Dec. 2013)

Despite the fact that many buildings in gardens could actually serve as residences year round, most garden architecture is fanciful and decorative. The overall arrangement of buildings divides the interior space of the garden into smaller cells that contain one or many small scenic views.

Buildings in a garden are often connected by covered walkways and different spaces are visually linked by views glimpsed through open doorways, lattice windows, and decorative openings in walls. At other times, the view is purposely obstructed by building placement and other "natural" barriers such as artificial mountain structures.
The Garden as a Site of Social Activity

As pleasant retreats that were easily accessible, gardens were favorite locations for social gatherings of many kinds. One could entertain distinguished guests, throw elaborate or intimate parties, or relax in private with family members.

The garden served as an extension of the house proper in summer, and often the architecture built within the garden portion of the family compound included habitable living quarters.

Some of the wealthier families could extend their hospitality to friends or colleagues in need of temporary lodging, and the guest, especially if he were a painter or poet, might even spend a productive year or two as an extended member of the household, providing the host with paintings, calligraphy, or serving in some literary capacity in lieu of his expenses.

The depiction of men and women together in Chinese art is not a very common subject. Woodblock prints from the Ming, however, frequently illustrate men and women in what seems to be an acceptable locale for them to meet.


Photos and their arrangement 2013 Chuck LaChiusa
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