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What Defines the Style of a Chinese Garden?
This photo collage breaks down many of the elements of a Chinese garden. Though not all classical Chinese gardens have these elements, they are all part of what distinguishes Chinese garden design.
- moon gates and specially carved windows
- fascinating stones (often from Lake Tai)
- a pond or lake (usually with golden carp)
- rock gardens (sometimes arranged like a maze)
- rooms with different functions (libraries, rooms for playing music, rooms for studying religion like Taoism or Buddhism, and my favorite: secret caves for special meetings)
- pavilions (for enjoying nature)
- pagodas (and other places to drink tea in all weather)
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to visit China some day and walk through these gardens in person. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these Chinese garden photos I have taken over the last 30 years and learn a little about the philosophy and structure of them.
Hundreds of Years of Gardening History
A Chinese garden is full of symbolism and is meant to be a representation of the universe. At the same time, it is a miniature presentation of vast natural landscapes, there in all their glory, yet so small they can fit into a tiny pocket of land as a part of an extended Chinese family's sprawling house complex. It is the setting for huge family gatherings—especially during holidays—the place where people went for contemplation, where scholars, poets, and government officials met to discuss important topics, and a place for peace and relaxation.
It is hard to imagine until you have been in a few. If you don't observe carefully, you might think that all Chinese gardens are similar, with the same ideas: central pond, rock piles, corridors, latticed windows, old trees, and many buildings. But there is a lot of expression within the "rules" themselves. Each garden has its own delightful aspects that people from all over the world appreciate to this day.
They say it takes 300 years to cultivate a garden. Think about that.
The Critical Role of a Pond or Lake
A body of water—a lake or pond—is critical to a Chinese garden. It is both practical and an important philosophical statement.
The practical reasons are that it provides humidity and a cooling oasis in the center, as well as water for the plants and fish.
It is also there for philosophical reasons. Water is Yin in Taoist theory, the soft, yielding. The Lake Tai stones at the edge of the pond are Yang, the solid, unyielding. Together there is The Whole, the Yin Yang that describes all life, that balances your Qi energy, and gives vitality to all who visit the garden.
The water also provides beautiful reflections, can be a mirror for beautiful women anxious to have a glimpse at what their face looks like, can be used in case of fire, and can also be used to water the trees and plants throughout the garden.
In the earliest days of creating gardens, the name for this process was "cultivating a pond," instead of "creating a garden." That also gives us some insight into how important a pond is to a Chinese garden.
Lake Tai rocks layered in a wonderful arrangement.
The Philosophy Behind the Stones
Everyone likes strange and unusual things. Stones from Lake Tai are very unusual and are prized in China for their amazing holes, nooks and crannies. The holes occur when the limestone at the base of Lake Tai is eroded in certain spots, creating holes. It takes thousands of years, and that is another interesting piece about these rocks.
Stones are hard and make good accompaniments for the soft water of the pond in the center of the garden. In fact, it is the soft flowing water of Lake Tai that makes the holes in the limestone and creates these amazing stones. They are often piled up into stone mountains, many times layered, so that you get the illusion that you are in the mountains, looking at the craggy rocks layered in the distance.
Many Chinese people love strange stones, and they derive great delight in imagining what the stones could portray. A chicken, a layer of clouds, mountains, a tortoise, two birds talking? The rocks have a kind of freedom that is delightful.
A young child watches in fascination as golden carp swim around, with flashes of light in the deep water.
The Importance of Golden Carp
Carp are beloved. Who doesn't enjoy feeding the fish?
Many Chinese gardens have golden carp in the central pond. Carp can also be food for the family. In some gardens, there are special pavilions with the exact purpose of watching the fish.
Lattice adds a further touch of beauty to windows.
Windows Within Windows
The view of the view of the view. This is a common feature of a Chinese garden. If you look through the frame of a door, you may find a window just inside the door, which looks through into a garden, giving you a vista of layers upon layers of scenery.
It is a reminder of how complex and layered our lives are, and also how complex our universe is. At any rate, make sure you think of layers and appreciate them.
Many of the doors have wonderful shapes, including: moons, gourds, and all sorts of openings.
Gourd-Shaped Doors Signify Long Life
Whoever thought to make a door in the shape of a gourd? It isn't as strange as you might think. The gourd is a symbol for long life. Surely this door was created when someone reached a ripe old age, and this symbolic shape was created instead of a regular shape. Even if no one made it to 80, gourds could be seen as a wish that someone would live a long life, a blessing every time you walk through the door. Nice idea!
Why is the gourd a symbol of long life? Because the God of Long Life, who has a head shaped like a peach, carries a gourd on a stick over his shoulder that has the "elixir of long life" in it. This comes from one of China's many tales from thousands of years ago.
Here you can see the back gardens at the Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou.
Cultivating Gardens for Futures to Come
A garden is an exercise in "cultivating temperament." It takes time to find the right parts.
If you have an inscription hanging over a door, you need the right person to do the calligraphy, hopefully an Emperor. And you have to wait until the right moment and the right connections to ask for it. You also have to wait for the plants to grow.
A good garden is not something that happens overnight, but matures and deepens its beauty as years go by. When you make a garden, you are not just doing it for now, but are anticipating the future and imagining the generations to come.
In a Chinese garden, you are also expected to build on what was there before you. Sometimes new ideas arise. If it is well received by people, you will suddenly find it in many local gardens. This is not so much copying as it is improving.
Chinese Gardens Have Long Been Spaces for Coming Together
- Many Chinese celebrations were held out in the garden. Extended family, friends, and important people all might have been invited to be part of celebrations. There would be tables full of food for the guests and offerings in honor of the moon. Everyone would sing songs, write poems, drink wine, eat mooncakes filled with sweet lotus seed paste, and have a good time being with each other.
- Gardens were also places where lovers could meet. In the 1980s and 90s, gardens like the "Couples Garden" were still a meeting spot for lovers. If you poked your head around any corner, there you could find couples enjoying themselves, often kissing. Chinese homes are very crowded, often with grandparents sharing the space. With no room to your own, what would you do if you had a boyfriend or girlfriend? Several hundred years ago it was the same—lovers often found a private spot where they could meet in the garden for a quick talk and maybe a smooch.
- Gardens were also a place where people eased their hearts and spent time in contemplation. People still do that in gardens very naturally.
- Gardens were made to be enjoyed. They were planned so that no matter where you looked, there was a new view and some new delight for your eyes.
Gardens Were Also Gathering Places for Scholars
Just as gardens were a place for contemplation, they were also a place where poets, writers, officials, and philosophers gathered and discussed their latest theories and philosophy. They also discussed deep philosophy and complex matters of religion.
In order not to be bothered, they often created hidden rooms where they could discuss their ideas in private.
Corridors to Protect From the Rain
In the Suzhou area, it rained a lot. If household helpers needed to carry food to the master and mistress of the garden, it was helpful to walk along corridors instead of having to walk through the garden in the rain.
Corridors are critical to garden architecture in Suzhou, south of the Yangzi River.
Calm Places for Gazing at the Moon
Gardens can be for many things, including: looking at the scenery, writing poetry, drinking tea, listening to the sound of a waterfall, painting, and enjoying the rain without getting wet. But they are also excellent for gazing at the moon, especially for looking at the full moon in September during the Mid Autumn Moon Festival.
Each year, my husband and I find a place where we can sit out at night and gaze at the moon when it is full. Sometimes people say the moon looks fuller on the night after the official full moon.
This little room at the edge of the garden (shown in the picture above) was built here specifically for gazing at the autumn moon, with a clear view to the moon's position during the Moon Festival.
Here is what Su Zhi, one of China's most famous poets, wrote while looking at the moon:
People have sorrow, joy, parting and coming together
The moon can be shady, clear, full or dim.
This has been so since the beginning of time.
May we all be blessed with longevity.
A thousand miles apart yet we see the same moon
Houses With Roof Tiles
Roofs in most houses in China (not apartment buildings) are made of roof tiles. The above picture will help you get a closer look at them.
My Favorite Book on Chinese Gardens
Rhonda Albom from New Zealand on August 23, 2013:
Wonderful gardens. The "Moon Gate" reminds me of the garden we went to in Suzhou.
sybil watson on August 01, 2013:
These gardens are beautiful, and I loved all the details that you included. I have a good friend who is Chinese (from Hong Kong) who is married to a Japanese-American landscape architect, and their garden is a combination of both Chinese and Japanese and it's so peaceful and relaxing.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 08, 2013:
How beautiful these gardens are now that I understand its meaning.
pericaluic on March 16, 2013:
Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on February 25, 2013:
I visited my son in Beijing when he studied in China for a year. We visited some places with lovely gardens like this. Thanks for the detailed look at this age old practice and the meanings behind the features.
dan100 on February 22, 2013:
I enjoyed looking at the photos you took of Chinese gardens as well as your explanation of the symbolism and function of the water, stones, gates and rooms. Thanks!
anonymous on January 19, 2013:
Such a zen experience to visit this lens again, I love it.
Would love to visit these gardens in China personally. :)
ibobby08 on December 11, 2012:
I enjoyed your lens. I traveled to China in 2011 and plan to take another trip there in 2013. I will pay close attention to the gardens with the information you have presented here in mind. Thanks.
Takkhis on November 06, 2012:
Informative lens and i like the photography.
nifwlseirff on October 23, 2012:
Chinese gardens are beautiful. The architecture and plant choice is slightly different to Japanese gardens, which seem more controlled and open. Both are wonderful!
nifwlseirff on October 23, 2012:
Chinese gardens are beautiful. Both are wonderful!
ShineRita on October 11, 2012:
Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on October 06, 2012:
@Diana Wenzel: I agree. I really love the secret rooms. They are very cool. Water in a garden is so soothing.
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on October 05, 2012:
300 years... to cultivate a garden. I find it very meaningful to think of this. Really appreciated this glimpse into Chinese culture. I want one of those secret garden rooms and moon pavilions. Oh, and of course, some koi in a pond.
Smashbooks LM on October 03, 2012:
Beautiful--thank you so much for this lens!
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on October 02, 2012:
Really beautiful with lots of great ideas and suggestions!
Allison Whitehead on September 29, 2012:
Lovely lens. I find Chinese gardens very calming, even if it's just a matter of looking at pictures of them.
anonymous on September 24, 2012:
I would love to have one.
June Nash on September 24, 2012:
I very much enjoyed this lens. Beautiful and interesting. I hope it helps to inspire me in my gardening through the years to come.
Tony Bonura from Tickfaw, Louisiana on September 22, 2012:
Great lens. Beautiful pics. Loved it.
GabrielaFargasch on September 21, 2012:
I also am fascinated with China and Chinese stuff!
Great lens! :)
anonymous on September 19, 2012:
I'm so glad you created this lens, its one that I will return to. Very refreshing and relaxing. Blessed! :)
coolmon2009 lm on September 15, 2012:
Beautiful place and nice lens
bilafond lm on September 15, 2012:
Kay on September 08, 2012:
So beautiful! I would love a chinese garden! Blessed!
shahedashaikh on September 05, 2012:
Alana-r on September 03, 2012:
So, so amazing, beautiful photos, and a great lens!
WriterJanis2 on September 02, 2012:
Very beautiful. I would love one of these. Blessed!
montanatravel52 on September 02, 2012:
Beautiful pictures, and I learned so much... thanks for a nice read!
JustOneGuy on August 29, 2012:
If there is a heaven, it's here on earth. These gardens represent a part of the respect the best of us feel for the world and our place within it. Someday, perhaps our lives will be as timeless as these beautiful places.
JoyfulReviewer on August 29, 2012:
What a lovely and informative lens! ~~Blessed~~
Kumar P S on August 28, 2012:
Great lens ! Thanks for sharing.
Kumar P S on August 28, 2012:
Great lens ! Thanks for sharing.
roseannyoung on August 27, 2012:
Love the pictures, especially of the different ways that light enters the gardens!
Expat Mamasita from Thailand on August 26, 2012:
What a lovely idea for a lens.....and a garden.
sherioz on August 26, 2012:
This is an absolutely beautiful lens and so informative. As I move into my new home soon and have a yard that has overgrown and has to be tended, I am getting inspiration from this lens. Thanks. Blessed.
TheMinuteIdea LM on August 26, 2012:
Great lens, thanks for making it. I did not know there was so much history behind these gardens. It helps also to understand the chinese culture a bit more. Very insightful :)
Clemme87 on August 26, 2012:
great lens, very inspirational.
Clemme87 on August 26, 2012:
great lens, very inspirational.
blessedmomto7 on August 25, 2012:
Beautiful pictures in your lens.
octopen on August 25, 2012:
Good lens very detailed.Would love to visit china
anonymous on August 25, 2012:
JoshK47 on August 25, 2012:
Absolutely beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!
Srena44 on August 24, 2012:
mikeho120815 on August 24, 2012:
Very good writing on Chinese garden, as a Chinese I don't know as much as you have understood !
kgdunst on August 24, 2012:
Yes I like and enjoy reading it, thanks.
Heroear on August 24, 2012:
Kirsti A. Dyer from Northern California on August 23, 2012:
AnObeseMan on August 23, 2012:
These gardens are fantastic looking. There is just something about them that draws me to the unique looks.
pheonix76 from WNY on August 23, 2012:
Beautiful lens! Thanks for sharing this with us and for teaching me about Chinese gardens. :)
IWS LM on August 23, 2012:
We visited one in Canada, it was very beautiful!!
Declutterday on August 23, 2012:
Beautiful love that garden!
ohcaroline on August 23, 2012:
This is a beautiful and well written lens. Very inviting.
Rose Jones on August 23, 2012:
Wonderful and beautiful. I emailed this to my sister who is getting a garden tours company going. blessed.........
DesignSpace on August 23, 2012:
This was a great lens, the pictures were beautiful and it was all very interesting!
rawwwwwws lm on August 23, 2012:
Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 23, 2012:
So beautiful and well-presented. I'd love a moon gate.
anne mohanraj on August 23, 2012:
GreenfireWiseWo on August 23, 2012:
Enjoyed the lens.
SheilaMilne from Kent, UK on August 23, 2012:
Myreda Johnson from Ohio USA on August 22, 2012:
Interesting and well done lens.
Bulbs1 on August 22, 2012:
Stephen Bush from Ohio on August 22, 2012:
siobhanryan on August 22, 2012:
sunny saib on August 22, 2012:
Wonderful lens.. :)
redstanford lm on August 22, 2012:
beautiful pictures and I really like the koi.
Michelle from Central Ohio, USA on August 22, 2012:
This is an amazing lens. I've always enjoyed these gardens but now I know a bit about the "why". Blessed!
VeseliDan on August 22, 2012:
Great! I have chinese garden at my backyard. This lens looks great and you show us some great pictures, thank you for that. Blessed.
anonymous on August 22, 2012:
Rosaquid on August 21, 2012:
Gorgeous lens! Thanks.
Monica Ranstrom on August 21, 2012:
Beautiful lens. Thank you for sharing!
MarcellaCarlton on August 21, 2012:
Love the lens. The Chinese garden is very symbolic and beautiful.
Michey LM on August 21, 2012:
yes! I like Chinese Gardner, I find all of them relaxing, full of vegetation, and healthy. Thanks for a great lens. Blessings!
anonymous on August 21, 2012:
I have fallen in love with Chinese Gardens.. :)
leguan on August 21, 2012:
Beautiful ah! This is the legendary gardens in Suzhou?It is so beautiful!Thank you to share.
shineall on August 21, 2012:
Like your lens very much! thank you for sharing!
bwet on August 21, 2012:
wow.. impressive lens on chinese garden. love that you talk about all the features of a chinese gardne
Fay from Cornwall, UK on August 21, 2012:
What a beautiful lens and garden. Congratulations on the purple star. Blessed.
manutara69 on August 20, 2012:
Thank you for creating an informative lens. I love the photo of the carp.
Ardyn25 on August 20, 2012:
I enjoyed learning about this...thanks!
crstnblue on August 20, 2012:
Excellent lens - makes me think to quit everything right now and go visit such place! :)
tobydavis on August 20, 2012:
Fab lens - loads of info - and loved all the fantastic pictures - so much to see :-)
C A Chancellor from US/TN on August 20, 2012:
Lovely lens! I visited a Chinese Garden in San Francisco but it wasn't nearly this elaborate.
dahlia369 on August 20, 2012:
Wonderful place, Chinese garden, and beautiful lens about it - thank you!! :)
VspaBotanicals on August 20, 2012:
OMG! Oh, my goodness, this is such a lovely lens! I felt at peace just viewing the photos. Thank you!
BeadCatz on August 20, 2012:
Awesome lens. I love the Chinese culture. Their artwork and architecture is some of the most beautiful in the world. Someday I want to go there. I also love the way they worship their elders unlike in the US. Their elders hold a respectful place in their society.
aquarian_insight on August 20, 2012:
A beautiful lens and I must say this is exactly the kind of garden I would love to have. *blessed*
jlshernandez on August 19, 2012:
I did not know too much about Chinese gardens until now. Thanks for sharing.
Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on August 19, 2012:
I can see why this lens won a purple star, it's absolutely beautiful.
sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on August 19, 2012:
benny77 on August 19, 2012:
Very nice....thanks for sharing
anonymous on August 19, 2012:
How lovely! I would love to visit one.
Genesis Davies from Guatemala on August 19, 2012:
Beautiful lens. I used to visit the Chinese Gardens in Vancouver and it was so peaceful there.
Leah J. Hileman from East Berlin, PA, USA on August 19, 2012:
Very educational and beautiful, thanks.
momsfunny on August 19, 2012:
Great lens. Chinese gardens are lovely.
John Tannahill from Somewhere in England on August 18, 2012:
You've done a great job with your words and photographs here.
anonymous on August 17, 2012:
This was beautiful and inspiring for a garden yet to be at my home - thanks for sharing.
Matthew from Silicon Valley on August 17, 2012:
I have been to Chinese gardens in several cities around the world (SF, Ireland, NY), but don't think I ever saw such a complete explanation to help interpret their key components. Thank you for sharing! Blessed!
Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on August 17, 2012:
@anonymous: I love moon cakes too. But not all of them! I like the ones from Guangzhou - lotus seed. Yum!
Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on August 16, 2012:
Beautiful gardens and so interesting to learn about the traditions and philosophy behind them.