Garden design was an art in China. One of the most common ways to make a Chinese home more
elegant was to develop one or more compounds into a garden with plants, rocks,
and garden buildings. Gardens were especially appreciated for their great beauty
and naturalness. In time, garden design came to be regarded as a refined
activity for the well-heeled and well-educated.
It may be useful to note that what we are calling a garden in China is
somewhat different from its counterpart in western Europe or the United States.
It is not an expanse of green with incidental buildings, but rather an area in
which buildings surround arrangements of rocks, plants and water; without these
buildings, the Chinese garden is not a garden. The architectural elements
themselves are decorative and structure how one views the scenery. Good views
are many and intimate in scale, in contrast with the sweeping vistas and
mathematically ordered plantings of European gardens of the same period. The
enclosure of the entire compound by walls or other natural barriers marks this
area off as a special precinct for private enjoyment.
Gardens were an important part of the homes of the elite long before Ming
times, but reached their fullest development in the late Ming in the Jiangnan
area, which comprised the southeastern part of China south of the Yangtze River,
including the densely-populated cultural centers of Yangzhou, Hangzhou, and
Suzhou. These gardens served multiple purposes for their owners. They were
extensions and developments of a family's property; they added cultural value by
providing a pleasurable environment for private relaxation and entertaining
friends and colleagues. In some cases they also contained a productive
agricultural portion in the form of orchards or fields for cash crops that could
support the needs of a large extended family. But most gardens were luxury items
that demonstrated and enhanced the status of their owners.
As you look at the images in this section, keep in mind the following