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Chinese garden designers followed a fairly traditional approach in the choice of plant materials. They selected and cultivated long-standing favorites that carried symbolic meaning in poetry and literature, like the pine, cypress, plum and bamboo, as well as flowering plants like the peony, orchid, and chrysanthemum.


Some of these plants were associated with famous historical figures, while others were especially cultivated in certain areas. The peony, for example, was linked closely to Loyang because it was cultivated there with great skill.

Chen Hongshou (1599-1652), leaf from an album of miscellaneous paintings                   source


Between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, a wide array of botanical items was introduced into western Europe from China. As these new materials became available and design ideas borrowed from China gained greater acceptance, European gardens of the period acquired a new vitality and emphasis on exotic naturalism. Despite the great variety of plant life available at home throughout China, the garden patron still relied heavily on traditional plant selections to create a symbolic environment.



As you look at the examples below of plantings in Chinese gardens, think about the following questions:


What symbolic botanical references would a well-educated man be expected to understand and communicate in creating a garden?

Were garden patrons conservative or consistent in their choice of plant materials? Why?

How do the plants fit into the overall design? Is the shape of a plant's leaves, for example, an important factor in where it is placed?



Many of the plants selected for display in the garden had a rich history of literary associations. In ancient works like The Book of Odes, it is evident that plant symbolism was already well developed in the Zhou dynasty. For example, because pines were tough and rugged, they were considered symbols of the virtuous scholar who weathered the political ups and downs of official life; the cypress, twisted and withered, was a symbol of longevity. Bamboo was considered the emblem of the perfect Confucian gentleman, who kept his virtue pure and his emotions in check; like a bamboo stalk, he kept his inner self empty and untroubled, and could bend in the wind without breaking.


Often the visual effects of plant materials were more important than the plants themselves: they created dappled lighting effects on otherwise plain walls, and when placed in conjunction with water features helped to visually expand the space of the otherwise cramped urban garden.


The plantain, shown at left, has large leaves like that of a banana tree. It was associated with poor scholars, since the leaves were wide enough to write on when paper or silk was scarce. It was also valued for the somewhat melancholic sound raindrops made when hitting its broad leaves.


In paintings of gardens such such as the one on the left, most features included would have some significance, especially plants. 


Chen Hongshou (1599-1652), Drinking Wine in the Garden                                           source


What significance might the plantain hanging over the scholar suggest in the painting on the left?


What signs of a literati class do you see?


In the examples below, do the  plants seem like a dominant element in how the scenery is put together, or are they minor accents to the rocks and architecture? Why?




Why do you think the ground surface is paved?








Click here for more examples of paving patterns.

Courtyard from the Garden of the Artless Official, Suzhou (Jiangsu province)                                                                               source


Do you think passageways and courtyards like the one at right were meant to be viewed from one position?

How would your perception of such a courtyard change if you were standing on the other side of the wall looking in? 

Wall in the Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou   source




Seasonal arrangements of brightly colored flowering plants often highlight an area that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Seasonal plantings amid rockery at the Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou                                                                                      source

Many windows seem to be composed with a particular view in mind. This one below is backed by a wall, forcing a close-up view and encouraging the use of plants and rock of small size.  



What type of gardening would this scene require?



How does the bamboo complement the rock in this scene?


View onto small rock and bamboo landscape from a "leak window" at the Garden of the Artless Official, Suzhou                                                              source


       Move on to the Garden as a Site of Social Activity