Blog post

The Chinese Garden

Traditional Chinese garden design connects the realm of the physical with that of the ideal, to express the harmony that should exist between humans and nature.

Gouache depicting a garden with large pond, rocks, pavilions and flower pots, late Qing dynasty
Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

In China, spirituality has historically been a crucial aspect of arts and architecture. A specific part of art and architecture where the spiritual and the real meet is garden design and horticulture. Traditional Chinese garden design and cultivation is an activity associated with deeply intellectual and artistic practice. The goal of these gardens is to connect the realm of the physical with that of the ideal, to express the harmony that should exist between humans and nature.

a circular pond, looked down on from a side angle. The pond is partly filled with large green circular leaves floating on top of the water.

The earliest Chinese gardens that have been found date back to the Shang Dynasty, more than three thousand years ago. Traditional Chinese garden design intentionally aims at giving a natural feel to sculpted grounds. A perfect balance between what man conceives and what nature provides is believed to result in spaces for reflection where thoughts and emotions can emerge, freed from everyday stressors. This was especially true after the fall of the Han dynasty in the 3rd Century AD, which led to a period of great political instability. To escape the stress of the outside world, court officials started building gardens where they could reconnect with nature and focus on art and literature.

a white porcelain vase with a wide base sloping up to a slender neck with a small opening at the top sits on a white background. The vase has dark blue painted scenes on it of two men sitting in a garden together, in a Chinese style.

Not intended to be discovered at a glance, but hoping to continuously incite and surprise, the Chinese garden is laid out as a road of discovery. The surrounding garden wall, ponds with lotus flowers and other water plants, lacquered bridges, bamboo groves, pavilions, temples and pagodas make for inspiring scenery.

a white porcelain plate is seen from above, sitting on a white background. The plate is intricately painted with pink, green, red and brown coloured paint, depicting two ladies in a fenced garden among floral patterns and motifs.

Strolling around the garden following small pathways, galleries and corridors leading from structure to structure, a visitor can either actively enjoy the curated landscape experience or choose to sink into contemplation.

Rectangular black lacquer tray with inlaid mother-of-pearl decoration in a Chinese style, showing multiple people in a Chinese garden.

As carefully composed tableaux, exquisite vistas are highlighted across the grounds. To this end, dedicated structures are built, offering the best sights of plants, animals or panoramas.

Flower garden with pagoda at a public park, seen through a window grate

For that same reason, Chinese garden walls and passways are adorned with windows and doors – sometimes round, hexagonal or shaped in the form of a piece of fruit – framing scenes worthy of being marvelled at.

Moon gate at the administrator's garden

These so-called moon gates are sometimes crowned by inscriptions or decorated with natural motifs, often serving as talismans.

In Chinese gardens, language and calligraphy take pride of place as well: words inscribed on pavilions, proverbs and poems function as extra food for thought. The Tang Dynasty (7th-10th Century AD) is seen as the first Golden Age of the classical Chinese garden. The "Scholar's Gardens" built during this dynasty were meant to inspire, and in their turn be inspired by, classical Chinese poetry and painting.

sepia photographs of a Chinese (rock) garden with calligraphic inscription

Yin and Yang are guiding principles: a Chinese garden will want to complement wet elements with dry ones, light patches with shadowy areas, rocky walls with softer, greener zones or flower beds boasting peonies or orchids.

Shrubs and rocks, water and stone bridge, covered galleries and pavilion in a Chinese garden

While complementing each other, such opposite elements are not directly confronted but carefully positioned and distinguished from one another. Symmetry is generally avoided: a quality sometimes perceived as unsettling by early Western visitors.

The irregularity of the Chinese garden, however, is intentional and meticulously planned. As a whole, it represents the idea not of identity, but of harmony between man and nature.

The Chinese philosophy and design of gardens was first reported on in the West by Marco Polo in the 13th century. From the early 17th century onwards, Jesuit missionaries helped to spread the word about the clever and impactful landscaping style, igniting a rage for ‘Chinoiserie’ that would peak in the 1700s.

As interest grew, gardens across Europe began to follow the Chinese model and many a pagoda was erected to add an ‘exotic’ flavor to local green scenes: from Kew Gardens in London to Catherine the Great’s grounds at the Tsarskoye Selo palace.

Today, isolated elements from the Chinese garden style are to be found across the world, as a part of the established vocabulary of landscape architecture.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.