A pavilion  at the water’s edge, surrounded by luxuriant foliage, creates a serene composition
A pavilion at the water’s edge, surrounded by luxuriant foliage, creates a serene composition

The history of Chinese gardens is as old as the country’s ancient civilisation, with stories of its legendary imperial parks and gardens dating back to the Qin (221-206 BC) dynasty. Perfected and elevated to an art form through the centuries, this gardening tradition reached its zenith during the rule of the two Song dynasties (960-1279). The high creative standards of this period became the benchmark for later eras, including those of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1910) dynasties. Gardens from these later eras exist today in their restored state, offering us not just an aesthetic experience but also a window into Chinese thought and philosophy.

Historical Chinese gardens have a cultural context and philosophy that is rooted in Taoism. Taoist belief emphasises man’s union with nature, thereby seeking to create a oneness with the natural world that leads to peace and harmony. The Chinese garden then serves to create for the visitor a sense of ‘being’, an immersion in the natural world in which the self is not apart but a part of, and in perfect harmony with nature.

To achieve this end, whole landscapes are represented in miniaturised form, also known as the art of pengjing. For example, carefully chosen rocks, placed precisely, may be part of a tableau representing one mountain or a mountain range, the reduced scale bringing it within the human ambit for contemplation. Other components of a Chinese garden are water, buildings and plants, all of which are used symbolically so that, in the hands of a master landscaper, it is their essence that is distilled into the garden and not just their mere physical properties.

Painting, poetry and philosophy come together in three-dimensional form to make up the stoned Chinese retreats

All the subtleties and nuances that come together to create the many layers of a Chinese garden were masterfully illustrated in the gardens I visited in Suzhou, located about a 100 km from Shanghai and famous for its many historical gardens. Besides changing seasons and changing weather, traditional landscaping also took into account the passage of time as day passed into night, altering the mood in the garden.

Suzhou gardening is often compared to ‘crystallised poetry’ and ‘three-dimensional painting’. The historical gardens here are made up of many layers and visual surprises are created by manipulating perspective, using contrasts to add artificial depth or broaden the main space visually through the ingenious combination of large and small spaces; views are ‘borrowed’ and the effect of a bigger world is created through a sudden, spacious view.

Pengjing or landscapes in miniature form with rock arrangements representing mountains | Photos by the writer
Pengjing or landscapes in miniature form with rock arrangements representing mountains | Photos by the writer

These landscaping techniques were typically used to enhance restricted space in the gardens near the southern Yangtze delta and can be seen in one of Suzhou’s most well-known historic gardens: Zhuo Zheng Yuan or The Humble Administrators’ Garden (1506-1521). The garden dates from the Ming dynasty and originally belonged to Wang Xianchen — a disgraced, rich official of the Imperial court who, having lost his job, returned to his birthplace to construct the 16-acre garden. He hired the famous painter and poet Wen Zheng-ming to landscape it, thus giving both painting and poetry a three-dimensional form in the shape of this garden.

Belying its name, this is one of the largest and most elaborate gardens in Suzhou. It changed hands a number of times, having been divided into three different parts shortly after the death of its owner, and was only partially restored in the early 18th century (Qing dynasty).

A Wisteria clad passageway leads the eye to a circular opening
A Wisteria clad passageway leads the eye to a circular opening

The central and western parts of the garden comprise interconnecting bodies of water, pools that weave around corridors, paths and buildings with bridges connecting the spaces as the water appears to continue on its way, caressing even small, hidden parts of the garden, much like the backwaters of the Yangtze river, embracing hidden views and creating a sense of a larger world.

The impression created by this Ming period garden is very different to the compact gardens of the Qing dynasty period of which the Wang Shi Yuan or Master of the Fishing Nets Garden (1750), compressed intricately into one acre, is perhaps the most beautiful. Originally built in 1180 and known as the Hall of Ten Thousand Volumes, it was constructed by Shi Zhenghi to house his private library and was called Yu Yin or Fisherman’s Retreat. It was restored in 1750 by a scholar official Song Zenghuan, who gave it its present name.

A dramatic rock composition frames the view ahead
A dramatic rock composition frames the view ahead

Despite falling into disrepair and changing hands several times through the centuries, the garden still managed to retain its original close-knit layout. In the central part, there is a large pond that dominates the space and radiating out from this are scattered pavilions, corridors and enclosed courtyard buildings with the eastern part of the garden having residential quarters. Normally, Suzhou gardens were separate from the houses of their masters, so this was a very unusual arrangement.

The garden is approached through a long, shop-lined alley near a busy main road, which presents a striking contrast to the sophistication and beauty of the garden that awaits just a few feet away, its entrance shielded by a screen that heightens the sense of anticipation.

The garden is crammed with a complex series of courtyards, halls, corridors and pavilions; circular openings and strategically placed doorways are used to frame pictures that change with the seasons. An open, spacious courtyard, with a paved brick floor and minimalist rocks and planting, opens into a space where the mood changes completely with a concentration of trees and subdued light filtering in through the feathery foliage.

A series of pathways connects this complex labyrinth, fitted together like an intricate jigsaw, all leading, by different routes, to the central pond or lake and to its Pavilion of the Clouds and Moon. As one walks down the paths, it is as if a scroll landscape painting is unfolding in three-dimensional form — so many superimposed layers, a series of contrasts, the yin and yang of artfully placed elements and structures, a density that belies the size of the plot that contains within it all the mystery and magic of a historical Chinese garden.

The writer is a garden designer qualified from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018