The ancient Chinese garden, also known as the traditional, or classical, Chinese garden, has a centuries-old cultural history rich in unique features. Infinitely varied in type and artistic arrangement, the charming Chinese garden system is considered to be the best among the three most renowned systems of garden construction in the world. With a history spanning almost 5,000 years, the Chinese garden, a multi-faceted and brilliant oriental pearl, has won hearts and minds not only among the Chinese, but also among peoples around the world.
The origins of the Chinese garden can be traced back to the end of the Shang (BCE 1700 - 1027) Dynasty and the beginning of the Western Zhou (BCE 1027 - 771) Dynasty. At that time, the garden was called "You" or "For Your Amusement", which translated to "an enclosure reflecting concinnity, for the raising of animals for hunting." The early Chinese garden was thus more of a carefully designed wood, or park, for the purpose of hunting than a garden in the modern-day British sense.* During the Han dynasty, this garden-park ("Yuan") became a regular extension of the emperor's villa. Here the emperor could relax in a restful atmosphere, perhaps with guests, where the affairs of state could be discussed and decided. The "Lin Yuan" imperial garden was originally established during the Qin (BCE 221 - 207) Dynasty, but was expanded during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty, who also greatly expanded the territory of the Western Han Dynasty itself, this at a time when China's famous Silk Road trade – the Silk Road being located in Western Han territory – was at its peak.
The enlarged garden-park had a pond, the Tai Qing Chi, and boasted three man-made islands called Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yinzhou. Each of these islands had small palaces, pavilions, and diverse living quarters. It also had a wide variety of fascinating plants. Today, this type of pond-and-island, garden-park arrangement is referred to as the Qin & Han Style.
The period of the Wei (CE 220 - 265) Dynasty all the way through the Southern and Northern (CE 420 - 588) Dynasties was an important period in China. During these times, the economy flourished and society prospered. In this period of bounty, China's administrators became scholar-bureaucrats who pursued aesthetics and natural beauty in all things. It had become the prevailing custom among persons from the upper classes to make a journey to a famous site of natural beauty – to a particularly beautuful mountain range or a river – purely for pleasure, corresponding to the modern-day practice of vacationing in exotic climes. Influenced by this new practice, the architects of the garden-park expanded the garden-park from a relatively small, well-tended hunting grounds to an area comparable to a modern-day nature park, incorporating mountains and rivers. This greatly expanded garden-park was dubbed "the garden with natural mountains and rivers".
Beginning with the Sui (CE 581 - 617) Dynasty and through the Tang (CE 618 - 907) Dynasty, garden architects began to show an interest in integrating the grand plan, or scheme, of the garden with literary and artistic themes. They constructed gardens based on the descripton of the elements of a particular scene from a famous poem or painting, thus paying homage to the author of the literary or artistic work in question. Sometimes an architect would construct an exact replica of a given scene from a famous literary or artistic work. Thus the concept of the garden-park as a "garden with natural mountains and rivers" became the "garden imitating mountains and rivers".
The Chinese garden continued to flourish during the period from the Song (CE 960 - 1279) Dynasty through the Yuan (CE 1279 - 1368) Dynasty. During this period, garden architects became skilled at incorporating large rocks, or boulders, into the garden-park. Rather than just imitating the works of authors and artists, the designers of garden-parks increasingly drew in the authors and artists themselves in the creation of garden-parks, and thus the interaction between the creator-designer of garden-parks and the participating community of authors and artists brought about rapid advances in the scope and design of the Chinese garden.
The "golden era" of Chinese garden construction took place during the Ming (CE 1368 - 1644) and Qing (CE 1644 - 1911) Dynasties. The construction of The Royal Gardens at Beijing was undertaken during the period stretching from the reign of Emperor Kangxi to Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty. The main themes pursued by the architects of gardens of the period were "natural", "enjoyable", "poetic" and "graphic". Especially scenic parts of a garden were further enhanced by the addition of buildings, inviting greater participation on the part of the viewer, thus breaking with the former notion of artistic detachment; the garden increasingly became a place in which to live rather than just a place to be viewed.
The continued obsession with gardens in Chinese society increased to a point where the largest of gardens, sometimes referred to as a "garden of gardens", even incorporated subsections devoted to the imitation of smaller famous gardens. 'Art imitating art', one might say.
* We are of course speaking of a garden either in the British sense of a royal park or in the American sense of a large city park, i.e., corresponding to a large, well-kept park, or garden-park, as in "Central Park" in New York City or "Kensington Gardens" in London.