Chinese Gardens

Chinese gardens were always arranged in accordance with a set of Feng Shui or geomantic principles. A geomancy master would be engaged to find a location and to determine directional placement of the garden or the buildings within the garden that would take advantage of the beneficial flow of qi, the enlivening energy of the cosmos.

Unlike Western gardens which are typically formed around a house or structure, Chinese gardens are planned first determining where structures would eventually be placed.

Although there was no standard process for creating a garden, the evolution of a traditional Chinese garden is often based on the southern courtyard of Zhan Yuan, an early Ming dynasty garden in Nanjing:

  1. After a site was selected, the first decision was to establish the location and direction of the main hall. Ideally, the hall was to be in the northern section of the garden.
  2. High walls were positioned along the perimeter of the garden in order to enclose it.
  3. Spaces within the garden were subdivided to multiply the variety of scenery within it, creating a sense of boundlessness within a limited site.
  4. A body of water, usually a pond, was excavated and linked to channels of water. A pond was an indispensable element since it contrasted with the rockery and provided a mirrored image of scenic objects.
  5. Latticed windows were used to lure the visitor into the garden. A moon gate and other geometric openings were often used to frame scenes within the garden and to create the illusion of depth. No cul-de-sac or dead ends were permitted in any garden space, so pathways always seemed to continue in forward motion. The visitor was never allowed to see the panoramic whole of the Chinese garden at the outset since it was carefully designed in a sequence of the hidden and revealed scenes that would emerge along paths and at observation points.

In the West gardens are grown, but in China a garden is built. The many buildings in Chinese gardens are a reminder that gardens were meant to be lived in as well as viewed. The Chinese garden is a good example of the Taoist principle of harmony with nature and creative imagination.

*This article contains excerpts from Carole’s Masters of Asian Studies thesis