Garden of the Humble Administrator, Suzhou
The earliest recorded Chinese gardens were created in the valley of the Yellow River, during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C). These gardens were similar to Persian gardens being large enclosed parks where the kings and nobles hunted game, and fruit and vegetables were grown.
During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), yuan became the character for all gardens. The old character for yuan is a small picture of a garden enclosed in a square which can represent a wall.
The Jingu Yuan, or Garden of the Golden Valley, built by Shi Chong, (249-300 AD) near of Luoyang held a banquet for thirty famous poets. He wrote, ”there is a spring of pure water, a luxuriant woods, fruit trees, bamboo, cypress, and medicinal plants. There are fields, two hundred sheep, chickens, pigs, geese and ducks. There is also a water mill, a fish pond, caves, and everything to distract the look and please the heart. With my literary friends, we took walks day and night, feasted, climbed a mountain to view the scenery, and sat by the side of the stream.” A tradition of writing poetry in and about gardens followed.
Tang dynasty Chinese classical gardens, or scholar’s gardens (wenren yuan), were (as in England) inspired by Chinese poetry and painting. The poet-painter Wang Wei (701-761) created twenty small landscape scenes within his garden, wrote a poem for each and commissioned an artist to paint scenes of each on the walls.
The most famous existing garden from the Ming Dynasty is the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It was by a minor government administrator who retired and devoted himself to his garden. Walls are used to organise routes and separate scenic elements, water is a central feature and there are many pavilions, tablets, stelae, and partitioned spaces for rock gardens, bonsai, etc. To explore is an adventure, especially getting there as soon as it opens, so it is just you and the gardeners for half an hour or so.
“The Chinese garden can never be completely surveyed from a certain point. It consists of more or less isolated sections which must be discovered gradually and enjoyed as the beholder continues his stroll: he must follow the paths wander through tunnels ponder the water, reach a pavilion from which a fascinating view unfolds. He is led on into a composition that is never completely revealed.” Osvald Siren
The Chinese aesthetic was to be close to nature, and this was achieved through spontaneity (tzu-jan) and sincerity (chen). Natural spontaneity in landscape design was seen in garden rocks eroded by water, whose creation was bay nature therefore both spontaneous and embodying naturalness.
Shakkei (borrowed view, jiejing) refers to the exploitation of scenery external to a garden’s physical boundaries, either immediately outside or at a distance, for the purposes of visually enlarging the garden’s scale and enhancing its aesthetic appeal. Buddhists also exploited this aesthetic device to illustrate the interconnectedness of all things in the world: everything, they believed, was part of a larger continuum. Here the garden frames views of the surrounding mountains and a famous aspect of a distant pagoda.