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Chinese Garden

The Chinese garden has a long history. It first appeared as early as the 11th century B.C. during the Zhou Dynasty in the form of a hunting preserve for emperors and nobles. During the Qin and Han dynasties, those natural preserves were made more beautiful and became places of recreation for imperial families. Imperial garden construction upsurges occurred during the Sui/Tang (581-907) dynasties. Private gardens saw great development by men of letters during the Tang and Song dynasties, and entered the peaking stage in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). The achievements in gardening during the Qing Dynasty attract greater attention, representing an important component of the third development upsurge in Chinese architecture. The imperial garden Yuanming Yuan was regarded as the master work of this period. Almost all of the existing gardens were preserved during this age.

The garden is one of the important types of architectural art. It is essentially aimed at organizing an environment rich in temperament and interest and full of the beauty of artistic conception through the so-called four gardening elements including mountains, rivers, structures and plants, as well as the organic components such as roads, interior settings. In comparison to ordinary structures, the spiritual character of gardens is more outstanding, and it requires that artists have greater and higher ingenuity and imagination.

Compared with other gardening systems of the world, such as European or Islamic, Chinese gardens are made to resemble natural landscapes on a small scale and have their distinct national characteristics:

a. Paying attention to natural beauty. Chinese gardens carry out processing and transformation of the original terrain and land form by following the principle of "making it seem like nature", or seem naturally formed, so as to satisfy people's feeling of getting close to nature.

b. Pursuing many twists and turns. Nature itself is ever-changing and interesting. Chinese horticulturists who emulate nature necessarily pursue changing, free-style composition. It is of a completely different system compared with the Western landscape gardening theory of compels nature to accept the symmetrical rules.

c. Advocating artistic conception. Beautiful environment created by Chinese horticulturists does not stop at the stage of formal beauty, but tries to express inward feeling through outward scenery.

Traditional Chinese gardens fall into three categories: imperial gardens, private gardens and landscape gardens.

Imperial Garden

Most imperial gardens are located in north China: Beihai Park, the Summer Palace, the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde and the Huaqing Palace in Xian. Imperial gardens occupy large areas. The Summer Palace, for instance, has an area of 290 hectares while the Summer Resort in Chengde which covers more than 560 hectares, is the largest imperial garden in China.

Most of these gardens have three sections which serve administrative, residential and recreational purposes. In large imperial gardens, the main buildings are connected by an imaginary line in the middle of the garden on a north-south axis. Other buildings scattered among hills and waters are linked by subordinate lines, forming a well-designed symmetry and adding more beauty to the chief architectural complex.

Other characteristics of the imperial gardens are colored paintings, man-made hills and lakes and ingeniously-designed buildings, screen walls, stone tablets, bridges and decorated archways abound in those gardens.


Private Garden

Most private gardens are found in the south, especially in cities south of the Yangtze River. Private gardens were mostly built at one side or at the back of the residential houses. In almost every garden, there is a large space in the garden set in a landscape of artistically arranged rockeries, ponds, pavilions, bridges, trees and flowers. Surrounding the beautiful scene are small open areas partitioned by corridors or walls with latticed windows or beautifully shaped doors. Buildings in the garden were used for receiving guests, holding banquets, reading or writing poetry. They are open on all sides and are often situated near the water. The winding corridors connect various buildings and also provide a covered veranda as shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. The best-known private gardens are the Surging Wave Pavilion, the Garden for Lingering, the Lion Grove and the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou.


Landscape Garden

Landscape gardens are different and are places for public recreation. The landscape garden mainly contains natural scenes, so it looks more natural than artificial. Good examples include the West Lake scenes in Hangzhou and the Slim West Lake scenes in Yangzhou. According to UNESCO:

The West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou, comprising the West Lake and the hills surrounding its three sides, has inspired famous poets, scholars and artists since the 9th century. It comprises ‘cloud-capped hills’, numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and ornamental trees, as well as causeways and artificial islands which merge with farmed landscape. These additions have been made to improve the landscape west of the city of Hangzhou to the south of the Yangtze river.

West Lake is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape that display with great clarity the ideals of Chinese landscape aesthetics, as expounded by writers and scholars in Tang and Song Dynasties. The landscape of West Lake had a profound impact on the design of gardens not only in China but further afield, where lakes and causeways imitated the harmony and beauty of West Lake. 


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