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The Chinese Garden

November 11, 2007
D.F. Braun

In California we plant a garden, but in China a garden is built. A western visitor may be astonished by the contorted piles of rock, but will be no less amazed by the number of buildings. Even in a city garden there is an extraordinary number of buildings and “rockeries” crammed into a garden of no more than an acre.

In the Taoist philosophy man is seen as only a small part of nature, never dominant. In ancient pictures and scrolls one must sometimes search to find a trace of a human figure. Taoist see a unity with nature which could explain the wild appearance that may seem grotesque to our western eyes. Zig-zag designs of paths or bridges lead from pavilion to pavilion over water to perhaps a mountain of rocks. This unplanned look is exactly what the Taoist seeks—a natural pastoral retreat.
Buddhism is also reflected in larger gardens with the creation of tall hills of earth following the Buddhist notion of the universe centering around a massive central peak.
But before a false impression is given here, owing to western tastes it must be said that the Chinese garden may be a beautiful, restful place of enchantment!
The Chinese consider gardens a serious art form and while nature can appear to be haphazard, there is also a display of real beauty in the pavilions, bridges and uses of water. Calligraphy as art can often be seen, as well as paintings within pavilions on walls, ceilings and long corridors. These corridors provide seating to view the garden or allow owners to wander and enjoy in rain and snow. Windows and gates are considered “scenic openings,” which act as picture frames directing the eye to a particular view. Two pavilions may be joined together at the corners to form a butterfly, rocks formed into goblins or savage beasts, a doorway or gate may be shaped like a vase, leaf or moon to enhance the view beyond.
Trees play a major role; willows weeping over ponds, brightly blossomed fruit trees as well as the three friends of winter: bamboo, pine and prunus (peach).
China owes an astonishing wealth of its plant life to a unique combination of geographical accidents. Even the mountain areas escaped the ravages of the great ice caps, so that many species continued to develop in China that were wiped out in much of Europe and North America. In this temperate climate three different floras all mingled and fused freely for thousands of years. The collector Ernest Wilson sent the seeds of more than 1,500 different plants to England and the U.S. between 1899 and 1911. Altogether, his collection from China numbered more than 65,000 specimens including 5,000 species! Without China we would have no garden chrysanthemums, nor the huge showy blooms of tree peonies, which Marco Polo once described to everyone’s derision –as “roses, big as cabbages.” The list of plants we use in profusion in our gardens, azaleas, rhododendrons, climbing roses and trees of fir, magnolia and cypress is too long to list. And yet the paradox is that plants are used sparingly in Chinese gardens and usually for their symbolic qualities, e.g., lotus - purity, bamboo - resolve, plum - vigor, pine - longevity. Trees are venerated and may be propped up unceremoniously long after they have died. Penjing, like the Japanese art of Bonsai, is also practiced with trees potted for use in the garden.
Chinese gardens rarely have lawns.   The ground is either paved, pebbled or patterned in mosaics or larger tiles.
Water, an essential element, is used wherever possible. As a mirror it is a contrasting partner balancing the appearance of hard stone and, just as important, a home to goldfish, symbols of good fortune.
Maggie Keswick, the author of “The Chinese Garden” stated, “it reflects a profound and ancient view of the world and man’s place in it, but its use for sheer pleasures should not be overlooked.” Further, and some of us may ascribe to the Chinese idea that “a garden can never be really finished; it is a constant reflection on the owners care and interest, as well as his character.”

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