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Chinese Garden Characters

  • Rich Literatural and poetic content.
  • Designed By painter’s eyes.
  • For Chinese people, there is not a perfect Chinese garden just as there is not a perfect human being in this world

Chinese Garden Chatacters [an error occurred while processing this directive] The Chinese private garden was owned and built by highly cultivated individuals in the society in such a way that which walking through it, one would feel a complete enjoying of all aspects of the country’s cultural traditions, including the philosophy, architecture, poetry, painting, calligraphy and gardening. One could think of the moon gate of Chinese garden is a gateway to the entire culture of traditional China.

The ancient Chinese scholar-official who created a Chinese garden for himself was generally also a poet, a painter and perhaps also a musician. He built the garden for his own pleasure, on one hand as a means of cultivating his being, through bringing himself into unison with the forces of nature, on the other hand as a means of pure self-expression. So, the Chinese private garden embodied the sentiment of the poet and the eyes of the painter. When one enters a Chinese garden, he finds himself surrounded by the atmosphere of the poetic and the painting. To learn some cultural background about the art of the Chinese poem and landscape painting will help us to understand the characteristics of Chinese private garden.

Rich Literatural and poetic content

The integration of poetry with the art of garden-making is one of the special achievements of Chinese private garden’s construction. Chinese private gardens are extraordinarily rich in poetic content. For example, many scenes depicted in Chinese gardens have been based on themes taken directly from poems of famous poets. The Keep and Listen Pavilion (the Lin Ting Ge) in Suzhou’s Zhuo Zhen garden was built on the theme of the lines by Shan-Yi Li (813 –858): “Keep the remaining lotus leaves, that I may listen to the sound of rain.” Chinese garden scenes helped one to visualize the selected verses that enriched the garden’s artistic content. A successful scenes inside Chinese garden, such as a rock grouping with a waterfall and a gnarled pine or plum tree shaking under summer wind, etc, in their turn, could evoke the poetic mood within the viewers. Private Chinese gardens were favorite subject of Chinese literature. They became a common background for many famous poems and novels. For example, the entire story of classical work “The Dream of the Red Chamber” was based on a background of a imaginary private Chinese garden, Ta Kuan Garden. Strolling in a Chinese private garden, one will often encounter couplets written on boards hanging beside the gateways ad doors and poetic quotations carved on stone tablets or rocks. Either they are the famous lines which guided the construction of the special garden scenes or poetry inspired by the beautiful scenes. The poetic inscriptions, usually written in the wonderful calligraphy, provide the viewers with great aesthetic enjoyment and also help them understand and appreciate the garden’s scenes. Poetry can be regarded as the guide book for the garden builder as well as the viewers.

Designed By painter’s eyesChinese Garden Chatacters

The second characteristic of the private Chinese garden was generated from the painter’s eyes of its owners and can be summarized as free and asymmetrical. It is almost impossible to fully understand the private Chinese garden without any background knowledge of the Chinese paintings, especially the Chinese landscape paintings. Almost all of Chinese garden-makers were also painters. When building a Chinese garden, the Chinese garden-makers not only followed the natural landscape formations, but they also imitated the brush works of the old masters. Even for the visitors, they also looked at the Chinese garden through eyes educated by thousands of years of landscape paintings. Chinese landscape painters provided several basic conventions through which Chinese looked at their garden. Because the art of Chinese garden-making was integrated with the art of the landscape paintings, the evolution of Chinese garden styles in different regions could be thought as being guided by the styles of original Chinese landscape paintings. The Chinese gardens in the south of China are distinctly different in character from those of northern regions. The differences seem to be due not only to the different functions, which, as noted before, the Chinese gardens in south served those Chinese scholar-officials for private use while those in the north served mostly imperial needs, but also to the different styles of paintings developed in these regions.

There were two obvious different styles of the landscape paintings in the ancient China, the “Northern” and “Southern” styles. The former stressed “Kungbi”, which can be translated in English as “the hard-work brush”, and devoted itself to meticulous detail; the latter, “Xieyi”, focused on “expression of feeling”. Chinese garden styles developed correspondingly in these regions. The gardens in the northern regions of China, like the “Kungbi” landscape painting, usually reveal the exuberant and ebullient in character while those of southern are dainty and subtle. The majority of the following discussion will be about the private Chinese garden in the southern of China. In order to better understand the character and the design principles of this kind of Chinese garden, it would be better to learn some background knowleges about its corresponding painting, the Xieyi painting, first.

Xieyi painters think of painting as a mode free self-expression. To paint is really nothing but to express one’s innermost emotion, or to pursue one’s own enjoyment. Xieyi painters seeked to create an atmosphere of Shensi, or similarity in spirit to natural beauty. For instance, in order to paint a landscape painting, the Xieyi painters wondered among many famous mountains and rivers to assemble and digest the quintessence of the natural environment, and then after months of preparation, they finished, or “express” their paintings perhaps just in seconds. One essential difference between Chinese Xieyi paintings and the Western European paintings lies in that, for Western artist, the landscape crystallizes into its final art form only during the process of creation, while the Chinese Xieyi painter shows up the imagination already complete in this mind. Xieyi art is much more subjective than objective. This characteristics is revealed clearly by the following sentences from the “Collection of the Purity of Landscape”, written by Han Cho in 1121.

“Painting is brush lines, and these lines in turn reveal the emotion of the heart. Painting reaches back to before that which is still unformed and is first comprehended beyond the law. It stands in subtle concord with the creative process of nature and has the some driving forces as the Tao. In adhering to its law one unfolds all forms, and is wielding the brush one sweeps over thousands of miles.”

Corresponding with Xieyi painting, the Southern Chinese private garden does not simply represent the actual scenes of nature, but synthesizes the idealized scenery of Chinese landscape. Like the painter, the Chinese garden-maker must grasp the essence of nature, not the particular element, to create the shapes with deeply spiritual similarity, not the individual likeness. In a word, while making scenes for a Chinese garden, a Chinese garden-maker must be an interpreter of nature, not merely a duplicator of a scene. For example, even a single rock in the Chinese garden may represent a complete range of mountains. The following sentences from Yuan Yeh, which had been thought as only one Chinese garden manual in ancient China, can be used to reinforced this kind of the garden designing principle: “Follow the nature’s plan to a certain extent, but do not forget that it is the human hands that practice the plan, select and seize what is gold. Those who have the right interest will understand the matter.”

In ancient China, there was not any professional like garden designer. Those scholars designed most of the private Chinese gardens. Thus, like the Chinese paintings, Chinese gardens also can be seen as manifestations of its owers’ character, as well as reveal their care and interests. Scenes in the Chinese garden were made following two major principles: One, of course, was to follow the Tao of nature, or to be in tune with the underlying rhythms of the seasons, the plants, and the universe; and the other is to reflect the owners’ innermost emotion. A elastic zigzag of the pine tree or a grotesque rock which conflicts with the smooth serenity of a white-washed wall in the garden can be seen as a reflection of the unease mood of its owner during a period of political turmoil. The owner’s personal emotion is so much a part of the scene that is really hard to tell whether he is part of nature or nature is part of him. So, to enter a Chinese garden and find just “rocks, water, and trees” as well as architecture is to miss the deep meaning of the scene, or the hidden language that all these objects embody. Regarding the garden as a reflection of his interest, as the constant changing of his interest, a Chinese garden owner usually recreates the old scene or adds new scenes into his garden. Thus, Chinese private garden was a continuous process that never tends toward an absolute end. The follow sentences can give us some general idea how Pan En (a sixteenth century Chinese painter) built his garden. “For twenty years I continue to build the garden, I sat on a seat, and rested on a rest, but it was still not perfect…. I created the site of the ground, adding plots of land, I made seventeen pools. Furthermore I bought many fields and devoted the entire revenue from these to beautify the garden.” For Chinese people, there is not a perfect Chinese garden just as there is not a perfect human being in this world. Chinese private gardens are so subjective in nature that it is impossible to try to summarize all of their different characteristics. They do not add up to any single conclusion, and there is no one style that is essential.

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