China’s art of garden design stems from the arts of literature and painting, and has since the Tang and Song dynasties been particularly influenced by the art of mountain and water painting.
1. Types of Chinese gardens
In the long process of evolution, three types of gardens were formed in China: imperial gardens, private gardens and scenic resort gardens.
The Lingering Garden
According to the distance from the imperial palaces, the imperial gardens could be sub-divided into following 3 types: Yuyuan (royal gardens or gardens within the imperial palaces), Jinyuan (forbidden gardens outside the imperial palaces) and Ligong (gardens of the temporary imperial palaces in the city suburbs).
Private gardens were attached to residence. Because the idea for constructing gardens and the fact that many well-known private gardens passed on for generations were built by scholars, such private gardens were also called scholar’s gardens.
In areas to the south of the Yangzi River, scholar’s gardens were mostly built in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and the best examples were Suzhou gardens.
In north China, scholar’s gardens were mostly built in Beijing, yet most of such gardens were ruined in the vicissitudes of history and can no longer be found.
2. Evolution of the imperial gardens
The imperial gardens first emerged in the late Shang Dynasty in the 11th Century B.C. when large-scale You (meaning imperial bird and animal farms) were set up for hunting. Up to the Qin and Han Dynasties in the 3rd Century B.C., imperial gardens in true sense came into existence after a long period of evolution.
Such imperial gardens could be represented by the Shanglin Garden and indicated by Shenxian (Fairy’s) Island.
Entering the Wei, Jin, the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the bold style of the gardens underwent changes, and luxurious gardens were built for entertainment purposes, while the hunting activities gradually subsided.
In the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the imperial gardens began to emphasize beautiful and natural scenery, as represented by the Xiyuan garden built in the Sui Dynasty.
Literature, arts and architectural technology witnessed rapid development in the Song Dynasty, and the imperial gardens advanced to an artistically high level emphasizing refined and condensed beautiful scenes of areas all over the country, as represented by the Genyu Garden in Bianliang City (the present Kaifeng City).
After relatively retarded progress respectively in the Jin (265 A.D. to 420 A.D.), Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the imperial gardens entered their final and most brilliant period of development in the Qing Dynasty.
During the reigns of Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, many temporary imperial palaces and Jinyuan were constructed, and the imperial garden-making was promoted to an unprecedented high level. The imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty might be represented by the Yuanming Garden, the Summer Palace and the Chengde Mountain Resort.
Existing imperial gardens include Beijing’s Bei Hai Park, the Summer Palace and the Royal Garden with the Forbidden City, the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde district, and the Magnificent Clear Lake in Lintong district, Shaanxi Province. These gardens include the examples of gardens within the Forbidden City proper, gardens in the suburb of the imperial city, and gardens for the monarch in retreat. They are fine examples of the imperial garden, with invaluable artistic qualities.
3. Evolution of scholar’s gardens
The scholar’s gardens originated from the ancient hermit ideology. In the Western and Eastern Jin Dynasties from the 3rd to the 5th Centuries A.D., a number of scholars and noted noblemen moved their homes to scenic areas to evade cruel political struggles.
As a result, many large beautiful manors came into existence, in which the owners lived a self-sufficient life. Meanwhile, small gardens simulating natural scenery began to be built by the intellectuals and bureaucrats.
The Summer Palace
From the “6 Dynasties” to the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the declining old scholars and officials were pushed aside by new scholars who entered high social positions by passing royal examinations. Those new scholars began to build their own manors in the countryside or to build gardens in their urban homes.
The most well-known gardens were the Wangchuan Villa built by Wang Wei, the Pingquan Manor built by Li Deyu, the Sikong Manor built by Sima Tu, the Luye Cottage built by Pei Du and the Lushan Cottage built by Bai Juyi.
In the Tang Dynasty, the scholars began to blend poetic and artistic themes with the gardens. Entering the Song Dynasty, scholars’ ideology pursuing the hermits’ life changed and land shortage in the urban areas was experienced.
As a result, the scholar’s gardens could only be built on smaller pieces of land. This promoted the technology to condense large natural scenes into landscape in miniature gardens. The scholar’s gardens of the Song Dynasty could be represented by the Dule Garden and Fubi Garden.
In the Southern Song Dynasty, numerous scholars flocked into the prefectural capital of Lin’an, and private gardens owned by noted officials and noblemen were constructed all around the West Lake. Perfectly fitting the natural scenes of the Lake, those gardens were extremely elegant and beautiful.
Although few scholars’ gardens were built in the Jin and Yuan Dynasties, gardens constructed by the scholars and noted officials again flourished in Beijing, Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Garden construction was extremely active in Suzhou City, and the technology in building the gardens was almost perfect, as seen from the representative works of the Zhuozheng Garden and Liuyuan Garden.
The Great Brightness Lake
Even internationally, these gardens acquired a high standing, and the Suzhou garden is considered the pearl of this Chinese art. In December 1997 the Heritage Committee of UNESCO specified the Suzhou classical gardens as a World Cultural Relic.
Suzhou has preserved more classical gardens than any other city in China. These gardens are furthermore of the highest quality and artistry, the famous ones including Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician (Zhuo Zhen Garden), Lingering Garden (Liu Garden), Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets (Wang Shi Garden), Lion Grove Garden (Shi Zi Lin) and Surging Wave Pavilion (Cang Lang Ting).
As it can be seen from these gardens, the special qualities of the Suzhou garden lie in the twists and turns in plan as well as the unfathomable mysterious atmosphere. Full of unpredictable variations, with poetic elegance and painterly effects, they are the most preeminent of the Southern gardens, commanding great influence over all China. Suzhou garden architecture is specially known for its beautiful forms and fine decorative carvings. Stone mountains, large bodies of water, and flowers and woods are all balanced just right. In the art of “creating mountain and forest in a foot of space”, the Suzhou style reached the highest artistry.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the most famous of the south-eastern gardens; the very best of the East Wu Kingdom, and one of four great Chinese gardens – a classical Suzhou garden.
Masterpieces of the private gardens in Beijing area constructed during the same period were the Shaoyuan Garden, Qinghua Garden and Banmu Garden.
4. Evolution of the scenic resort gardens
The essence of scenic resort gardens was its public nature. The origin might be traced back to ancient folk customs such as people’s recreation activities like the Shangsi and Fuxi Festivals.
Slender West Lake, Yangzhou
One of the examples was the Qujiang Pond scenic resort of Chang’an city in the Tang Dynasty. In ancient times, water-side scenic resorts and gardens mostly came into existence for the construction of the irrigation and navigation facilities.
Instances of this kind can be cited as the West Lake in Hangzhou, Daming Lake in Jinan, Jinhua Pool in Kumming and Lean West Lake in Yangzhou.
During the same period, public buildings such as Buddhist monasteries, Taoist temples, ancestral halls and academies of classical learning were often constructed in noted scenic areas. All these factors promoted the formation of the landscape gardens, as could be seen from the fact that the 4 Major Temples for Buddhist rite services and numerous Taoist “cave paradises” had later become tourist attractions.
The Chinese people have a history of appreciating and enjoying nature’s beauty. As famous tourist attractions, the natural scenic parks all contain scenes of exceptional beauty. These scenes, known as jing, are usually given poetic names.
Typically, there are many different scenes in each park, for instance, the eight scenes of the Great Brightness Lake, Jinan, the ten famous scenes of West Lake, Hangzhou, and the 24 scenes of Slender West Lake, Yangzhou.
At one time there were as many as 60 scenes in Foolish Old Man Valley of Wuxi.