The Garden as a Site of Social Activity




As pleasant retreats that were easily accessible, gardens were favorite locations for social gatherings of many kinds. One could entertain distinguished guests, throw elaborate or intimate parties, or relax in private with family members.

 Woodblock illustration, "Lovers' Conversation" (Ming dynasty)                     

SOURCE:  Wang Bomin, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 20: Ban hua (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 75, p. 80.  Woodblock illustration of Cai Bi, "Lovers' conversation". Ming dynasty, Tianbao reign period.
The gardens of more elegant homes afforded the residents greater total living space and flexibility in entertaining guests. The garden served as an extension of the house proper in summer, and often the architecture built within the garden portion of the family compound included habitable living quarters. These rooms could prove to be more comfortable during the hot summer months, being ideally positioned to take advantage of breezes off the central pond and surrounded by plantings of aromatic flowers and herbs. Some of the wealthier families could extend their hospitality to friends or colleagues in need of temporary lodging, and the guest, especially if he were a painter or poet, might even spend a productive year or two as an extended member of the household, providing the host with paintings, calligraphy, or serving in some literary capacity in lieu of his expenses.

Because it remained within the walls of the family estate, the garden was also considered an acceptable location for the women of the household to relax, enjoy a pleasant and safe natural setting, and socialize among themselves and with visitors.  

Illustration of The Golden Bell, by Wu Sanghe (Ming dynasty)

SOURCE:  Wang Bomin, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 20 : Banhua (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 75, p. 80.

What mood do you think the image above is intended to convey? 

There is a bird in the top left of the image at which the women are gazing. From the picture's mood and the direction of the women's attention, can you suggest what the scene might illustrate?           

Many popular stories and novels of the Ming contain family dramas that take place within garden walls. In The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin, for example, most of the young hero's trials and tribulations occur in the gardens of the family estate.

The depiction of men and women together in Chinese art is not a very common subject. Woodblock prints from the Ming such as the one on the right, however, frequently illustrate men and women in what seems to be an acceptable locale for them to meet.

What do you think the relationship is between the individuals depicted here?

HINT:  This is a courtship scene. The two women are different sizes because according to representational coding, servants always appear smaller.

Illustration from a collection of zaju plays by Yuan writers (Ming dynasty, Wanli reign period)

SOURCE:  Wang Bomin, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 20: Banhua (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 93, p. 98.

Gardens were often constructed by members of the scholar class with the intention that they would provide a hospitable location for gatherings devoted to cultivated pursuits like painting, calligraphy, and playing the zither, as well as for discussing important topics of the day.

What features do you think a scholar would seek to establish in a garden to distinguish himself as a person of taste and learning?

What might the scholar- officials at right be doing, and why do you think are they doing it as this location?

ANSWER:  The scholars are either reading or writing. Because of its natural setting, a garden would encourage the self-expression and spontaneity associated with writing or reciting.

Woodblock print, Poetry illustration of venerable scholars (Ming)       

SOURCE:  Wang Bomin, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 20: Ban hua (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 68, p. 72.

This image illustrates a different type of gathering in a garden. 

What appears to be the focus of this event?

Can you tell what the occupations or social classes of the participants in this gathering are?

ANSWER:  This gathering includes scholars, monks and a Buddhist icon.

Chen Hongshou (1599-1652 AD), An Elegant Gathering         

SOURCE:  Yang Han, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 8: Mingdai huihua, xia (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988). pl.166, p. 187. detail. Collection of the Shanghai Provincial Museum.

Chinese scholars have often characterized art activities as means to purify their thoughts and quiet their emotions. These pursuits were considered essential for counterbalancing the chaotic realms of social responsibility and political career.

What kinds of "lofty" pursuits can you identify in the garden scene below? 

Li Shida, Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden                                                                             

SOURCE:  Yang Han, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 8 - Mingdai huihua (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 65, p. 70.
ANSWER:  If you look closely, you can see individuals writing on the large stone's surface and on paper at a table, weaving silk, playing a musical instrument, and possibly reciting poetry.


Since the time of the renowned Six Dynasties calligrapher Wang Xizhi, wine drinking has been viewed as an incentive or encouragement to creativity in the arts. Poetry gatherings were often modeled on Wang Xizhi's famous Orchid Pavilion outing, in which guests were penalized with a cup of wine for not being able to compose an impromptu poem. Literary quality was determined not only by skill with rhymes and diverse subject matter, but also with innovation and spontaneity.

In the scene below, what clues might suggest whether the men are in a garden or not?


HINT:  Notice the objects used in this gathering; they would be unlikely to be transported to any great distance.

Wan Bangzhi, Drinking. Detail of a handscroll                                   

SOURCE:  Yang Han, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 6: Mingdai huihua, shang (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 169 , p. 206.

Move on to Aesthetics of the Garden