OBJECTIVES OF THIS UNIT:  :  To introduce students to the Chinese garden as an art form. To help students understand the literati elite not just in terms of their connections to government service and Confucian learning, but also in relation to notions of elegance.

TEACHING STRATEGIES:  This material is suitable to a comparative approach. Students can compare not only western gardens to Chinese gardens, but western luxury residences (palaces, country houses, mansions) to the gardens and homes built by Chinese with means and taste.

Another good approach to this unit is to link gardens to other key elements of Chinese civilization, such as aesthetic principles also found in landscape painting, ideas associated with Daoism concerning paradises and immortals, and the social life of the literati elite.

WHEN TO TEACH:  In a chronologically-organized course, Gardens should not be taught before the Ming dynasty, when these sorts of gardens became an important part of the life of the elite, at least in the Jiangnan area.  If both Homes and Gardens are used in the class, it would be better to do Homes first as it introduces concepts elaborated on in Gardens.  This unit could also be used in a course on Chinese art. 



Xie Huan, Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden (detail)                                              

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua 6: Mingdai huihua, shang (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 42, p. 49. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Xie Huan (Ming, active 1368-1437 AD), An Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden. This is the third section of a handscroll executed in ink and colors on silk. The painting depicts a gathering organized by Yang Rong, one of the Grand Secretaries under Ming Xuanzong. Yang Rong invited eight other high-ranking ministers to his garden to enjoy themselves composing poetry, viewing paintings, and playing chess.

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 questions:

How does the garden relate to the courtyard-style home in terms of structure and design?
What differences between the house and garden made the garden a desirable addition to the elegant home?
What types of activities or events were more likely to take place in the garden as opposed to the house, and why?
How did the ways to make homes more elegant and impressive differ in China and Europe? 



Social Uses