Classical Chinese gardens and fountains are more than collections of beautiful plants, trees and water. They are representations of nature, providing insight into the philosophical and spiritual mind of past Chinese artisans and high-ranking citizens.
The principles of classical Chinese gardening can be useful and insightful to garden lovers living anywhere in the world. Chinese design objectives can inspire American home gardeners to try something new such as a garden fountain and encourage the expression of culture and philosophy through gardening.
In the 2,000 years since the imperial family first set aside natural areas for hunting, traditional gardens in China have developed into an art form equal in rank to painting, calligraphy and poetry. Several of the finest gardens, built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1912), have survived the ravages of time and politics.
Suzhou, about 50 miles west of Shanghai, is known as “the city of gardens.” For generations, rich officials, merchants, landowners, scholars, garden designers and garden crafters settled in Suzhou to enhance its fame. The principles of classical Chinese gardens were well represented in their gardens. Visitors come to learn their secrets and experience their magic.
These gardens provide insight into the traditional Chinese view of nature, which includes the role human’s play in the natural order. The gardens hold clues to the ancient Chinese mind through the winding paths, the use of symbolism and the selection of plants. In the traditional Chinese view of nature, humans were equals with everything in the natural world. As the philosopher Lao Tsu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Man follows the earth. Earth follows heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. Tao follows what is natural.” Traditionally, Chinese people assisted in the expression of nature but did not impose their will upon it.
Chinese gardens were originally designed to symbolize a living entity: rocks formed the skeleton, water and fountains functioned as the blood, while plants provided the clothing. To portray the influence of human beings in nature, architectural constructions (bridges, pavilions, halls, courtyards, gateways, windows, doors and pavings) were integrated into a garden’s design. Their purpose was to illustrate the ideal interaction of humans with nature. Together, these elements made up all that is natural on Earth: vegetation, mountains, and bodies of water with gently flowing Chinese fountains as well as human influence. The way they were integrated into the garden expressed the relationships they have in nature.
Gardeners in the West may be unable to mimic the grandeur with which the ancient Chinese gardeners represented nature, but they can include parts of each element. The goal is to create a sense of wholeness within the limitations of the site and to consider all these elements as integral parts of the garden.
Just as a garden’s main elements are symbolic of the parts of a living whole, symbols that make up the culture’s beliefs are scattered throughout Chinese gardens and integrated in their design. For example, bad spirits were believed to travel in straight lines so pathways were seldom designed straight or flat. It was believed that the many changes in levels and directions made it difficult for these spirits to infect the people enjoying the garden. Dragons, symbols of strength, change and goodness, frequently adorn Chinese fountain walls and roofs of garden structures.