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The Chinese Garden: A Photo Collage

Elyn lived in China with her family for 30 years, soaking up the history and culture, having fun, and making many friends.

This photo collage showcases various common elements of Chinese garden design.

This photo collage showcases various common elements of Chinese garden design.

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.

Chinese gardens draw upon hundreds of years of inspiration for their designs.

Chinese gardens draw upon hundreds of years of inspiration for their designs.

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.

Lakes and ponds are important features in just about any Chinese garden.

Lakes and ponds are important features in just about any Chinese garden.

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.

The Philosophy Behind the Lake Tai 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This image is a segment of the painting "Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden" by Leng Mei from the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

This image is a segment of the painting "Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden" by Leng Mei from the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Chinese Gardens Have Long Been Spaces for Coming Together

  • For Celebrations: 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.
  • For Romance: 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.
  • For Contemplation: Gardens were also a place where people eased their hearts and spent time in contemplation. People still do that in gardens very naturally.
  • For Delight: 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 (and are) common places for scholars to gather.

Gardens were (and are) common places for scholars to gather.

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.

This picture shows a secret room in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou.

This picture shows a secret room in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou.

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.

This is the moon viewing pavilion in the Couple's Garden in Suzhou.

This is the moon viewing pavilion in the Couple's Garden in Suzhou.

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

Even the roofs are often sites of thoughtful and beautiful designs.

Even the roofs are often sites of thoughtful and beautiful designs.

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.

Though many gardens in China may now feature certain modern elements, that doesn't necessarily detract from their historic beauty.

Though many gardens in China may now feature certain modern elements, that doesn't necessarily detract from their historic beauty.

My Favorite Book on Chinese Gardens

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Please leave your impressions!

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:

nice lens

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. The architecture and plant choice is slightly different to Japanese gardens, which seem more controlled and open. Both are wonderful!

ShineRita on October 11, 2012:

Beautiful!!

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.

TonyB

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:

Beautiful lens

Kay on September 08, 2012:

So beautiful! I would love a chinese garden! Blessed!

shahedashaikh on September 05, 2012:

Beautiful.

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: