The Beauty and Poetry of Chinese Gardens

Imagine the beautifully delicate pinkish white blossom of the flowering plum tree, the rustling of bamboo, ancient trees and rocks and the reflections of plants and of the moon in tranquil water. These are some of the elements which we associate with Chinese gardens.

The origins of Chinese civilisation are lost in the mists of time but there is archeological evidence to support the existence of a community in the basin of the Yellow River in about 12th century BC. These seem to have been the Shang people. By the 4th century BC China had a highly developed society, elements of which can still be recognised today. This seems to have come about as a consequence of the Chinese being able to absorb influences from outside and in so doing managing to keep a stable society. For example, Buddhism was introduced by traders who came from Asia and India via the Silk Route in 1st century BC. Confucianism and Taoism were already well established. In essence Confucius argued for a structured, hierarchical society with the family being the mainstay, and where harmony would be achieved by everyone carrying out appropriate tasks and responsibilities. This particularly emphasised looking after the aged and honouring them after they went went to the afterworld. This veneration of the ancient seems to also to relate to their gardens.

Taoist thought had even more influence. Taoists believed that there is a natural order in the world, and that by studying nature they would begin to understand the laws- the nature of nature. This led on to the study of science. The art of Fenshui was also practised by the Taoists because it helped them to position buildings in such a way that the spirit of the site was not offended. This idea arose because in popular thought inanimate objects were believed to have spirits.

Against this background the way that gardening is viewed in the Chinese tradition becomes fascinating.

For the Chinese it seems there is no gardening without poetry, and, in fact, the four arts of gardening, poetry, calligraphy, and landscape painting are inextricably interlinked. It is believed that in order to be expert at one it is necessary to be equally proficient at the others. This becomes clearer when we recognise that Chinese gardens are all about symbolism. Taoist philosophy believes that nature possesses order and harmony which, though hidden, is none the less real and may be experienced in moments of enlightenment through tranquil intuitive receptivity. Therefore gardening, like painting and poetry, involves meditation on the unity of creation and is an act of reverence as well as a delight. This view is considered to be at odds with the general view of life, and so these artistic occupations are often associated with those who have renounced worldly ambition and see themselves in a less omnipotent way in relation to their surroundings. That is, they feel themselves to be part of nature, able to contemplate and observe its ways, but nevertheless insignificant in relation to it.

Unlike Western gardens the thing that sets Chinese gardens apart is that symbolism is always, intentionally present. They are symbolic representations of the natural scene and do not seek to replicate it.

It is believed that nature reveals itself slowly, bit by bit, and cannot be taken in from a single viewpoint. While trying to represent some kind of permanence these gardens also try to encapsulate movement. This philosophy of things being revealed moment by moment is shown in the way scroll paintings are viewed by the Chinese. Whereas vertical scroll paintings are supposed to be hung and viewed at a glance, the horizontal scrolls are treated differently. They are unrolled slowly from right to left, and viewed section by section so that their beauty is revealed in the same way as nature is deemed to reveal itself. Likewise gardens are rarely visible all at once. The observer moves from one scene to the next, with each new vista replacing the previous, now invisible one. This symbolically represents the way nature reveals itself.

In old Chinese gardens there was no formal symmetrical plan, or use of lawns, or indeed water for fountains. These more Western features have been used more recently in civic gardens, but do not equate with the symbolic treatment of trees and rocks which were part of Chinese tradition.

Confucius died in 479 BC.His tomb is in Shantung province where he spent much of his life. The garden/grove which surrounded his tomb was severely damaged in recent years. However it is believed that the trees surrounding it were planted by some of his followers. These ancient trees, now contorted, gnarled and almost lifeless were supported by iron rings are revered as things worthy of great contemplation. Like the ancient stones that are so highly regarded in Chinese gardens these trees symbolise qualities of grandeur and great resilience.

Veneration of stones has been part of Chinese life over the centuries and rocks have been erected in gardens for centuries. The size and shape of them is to be appreciated and if they have unusual holes or other markings, or appear to have an overhang so much the better. As stones are considered so important there are rules about erecting them. They have to have a solid base, more than half underground and should never be symmetrically arranged. If some are put on top of others to create an overhang that must be done in such a way as to avoid feelings of instability or artificiality. Often there is a special place from which to view the stones, such as a pavilion or a bridge. Tai Shan Temple which is on the most holy mountain of China, is noted particularly for its extraordinary large distorted rocks.

In China, wine and poetry go together along with gardens. The Chinese have also always used their gardens after dark for contemplation and to view the moon or the plum blossom reflected in the water which is also seen as an integral part. It is said that competitions were organised to see how many poems could be made up while a wine cup floated from one part of the garden to another. One can imagine the revelry.

Chinese poetry was often about flowers which also had symbolic meanings. I have already mentioned the flowering plum which is one of the most well loved trees and is much painted and written about. This, along with the pine tree and the bamboo are thought of as the three friends of winter. The plum flowers at the end of winter and is loved not just for its fragile grace but also for its contrasting gnarled and dry branches which are seen as standing for endurance and dignity as well as age. The pine is used a great deal also to give the impression of age and the bamboo is symbolic of resilience and hardiness, due to its strength and the pliability of its stems.

The flowering plum is also linked with the orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum to represent the four seasons. The qualities linked with these are those of resilience and endurance, as well as grace and nobility. The chrysanthemum, one of the earliest plants to be grown for its ornamental qualities, was described as early as th century BC. As it is an autumn/winter flowering plant it is associated with longevity. Its flowers were also used to flavour medicines. The orchid is revered for its extreme delicacy and rare beautiful fragrance. It seems to represent a spiritual quality much admired by painters.

However, flowers are valued for specific qualities but also in general because it is felt that their contemplation leads to further associations and further thoughts. This is seen as beneficial and may in some ways be related to what we in the western world might term as free association.

The lotus flower which may be found in virtually every Chinese garden lake carries the symbolic meaning of perfection. This seems to be a notion that has passed into wider usage.

The peach tree which is linked with the immortal world is associated with longevity and is still given as a birthday gift to encourage long life. The Taoists particularly favoured it and indeed the gum from it as it was seen to be linked with immortality and the elixir.

Other more formal Chinese gardens, such as the royal gardens which started as a hunting park, were often seen as too big and a cause of resentment because of all the extravagance. One such paradise garden is written about by Marco Polo and is described in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Even in these gardens poetic meditation was still an integral part.

It seems that for the Chinese gardening and poetry are always intertwined.

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