Jean and Matt’s English Class 14: Tell us about Chinese gardens


Nimmen hao,

in today’s class, we are going to discuss how to explain some important Chinese heritage by looking at some of the Chinese traditional art of gardens. We will talk about how to describe the principles, art, and crafts of Chinese gardens in English, and talk about what we like about Chinese gardens.

The traditional art and craft of Chinese gardens 

The Chinese Red guidebook, The Chinese Garden, tells us that since the time of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, over 3000 years ago, Chinese gardens have developed a unique national style that combines natural scenery with miniature gardens. Chinese gardens follow the idea that the works of men should match that of heaven, and every hill, stream, flower, grass, building, pavilion, bridge, and pagoda is carefully planned for the enjoyment of people who use them.

Chinese gardens combine the arts of architecture, design of rockeries and water sceneries, gardening, painting, and sculpture. The making of Chinese gardens involves a lot of craftsmanship, including not just gardeners, but also landscape designers, stonemasons, woodworkers, and builders.


One of the key techniques is the framing of the scene, sometimes by moongates, and also by different kinds of windows and screens.


Chinese gardens make symbolic use of water, stone, plants, and architecture to create a place of beauty, full of flowing qi, the universal energy. The four elements bring together the opposing principles of yin (earth/receptive/dark) and yang (heaven/creative/bright). Daoist philosophy views yin and yang as the forces that drive the rhythms of life.

Water is the yin, the lifeblood of the earth. In placid ponds and rushing rocky streams, water fills the garden with vital qi. Water reflects the moon and sun, stone, plants, and pavilions, so we can appreciate nature and the garden anew.

The strength and stability of stone balance the flowing yin of water in the rocky gorges and in structures such as bridges, courtyards, and pathways. Stone groupings soar skyward with yang energy and symbolize mountains, the abode of the Immortals, and the bones of the Earth reaching to the heavens.

Each season brings to the fore trees, shrubs, and blooms selected for their structure, texture, beauty, and cultural meaning. Pine trees symbolize endurance, bamboo flexibility, and lotus purity.

A multi-story pavilion reveals a sweeping vista, a small, open-sided one inspires pause for reflection. A teahouse invites us for refreshment and conversation, music and dance enliven a courtyard during seasonal festivals. Each Chinese garden is many gardens in which nature, the arts, and people intertwine.

Another principle applied to Chinese garden design is feng shui.  According to feng shui, gardens are not just recreation areas, but special places, where people connect to nature and recharge. The garden should provide good rest, relaxation, bringing comfort, peace and joy into your life.

Pause for reflection

First let’s review the words and phrases in the passage above. Then, working in your small groups, discuss the following questions.

What are some of the principles of Chinese garden design?

What are the four elements of Chinese garden design? What can you tell us about the elements?

What crafts and arts are involved in designing and making Chinese gardens?

How do people enjoy Chinese gardens?

Types of Chinese garden

There are four main types of Chinese garden: royal gardens, private gardens, natural landscape gardens and religious gardens. Danei royal gardens were generally built next to the palace, like a courtyard in a private house. Some of the famous (Danei) gardens include the Imperial Garden, Cining Palace Garden, and Jianfu Palace garden in the Forbidden City.

Jiangfu Palace garden

Ligong royal gardens, like the Summer Palace, were mostly built in the countryside where the Emporer lived and worked. Xinggong gardens were built for the short-term stay of Emporers. The biggest Xinggong garden is the Mountain Resort in Chengde.

Chengde Mountain Resort

Private gardens first appeared around  260BC, and were mostly owned by the literati, officials and wealthy businessmen. The style of these gardens reflects local conditions and is generally elegant and exquisite. The most famous private gardens are in Northern China, the Yangtze delta, and Suzhou.  The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou is subtle, peaceful, and delicate. The garden design mirrors the mountains, pools, rivers and undulating terrain of surrounding area.

Humble Administrator's Garden
The Humble Administrator’s Garden

China has many gardens for religious and ancestral temples and halls.  The Buddhist temple at the foot of the Tanzhe mountains has courtyards full of pine, cypress and ginko trees,


its surrounding gardens are full of flowers, bamboo forests, winding streams, stacked rocks and artificial (man-made) mountains, mirroring the landscape of the Yangtze delta.

Pause for reflection

Once again, let’s look at any words or phrases that need some explanation. Then, let’s discuss the following questions in our small groups.

Which famous gardens have you visited?

Which ones do you particularly like? Why do you like them?

If you have family or friends coming to visit, which gardens would you take them to see? 

Class quiz

What is the style of the Humble Administrator’s Garden?

Where are the most famous private gardens?

What kinds of Royal gardens are there? Where were they built? 

Chinese gardens and the arts

The prize-winning architect Wang Shu views architecture as being like creating a Chinese garden and draws on traditional painting and poetry in his designs. His Xiangshan Academy of the Arts is inspired by Mountain Water Painting (Shan Shui Hua).

Chinese Academy of the Arts

The painters’ aim was to create a scene that showed the experiences of someone in the natural guest-house4_380setting of the mountains. They were not attempting to convey reality in a single image, but rather a series of experiences or feelings that one might have when walking through nature. Wang Shu tried to use this idea in his university campus design. The rooftop is designed to mimic the many different paths that one could take if walking over a mountaintop.

The famous English gardener Monty Don came to China to learn about Chinese gardens and found himself confused by the Suzhou garden’s design: the rockeries monty and nigeland trees were beautiful he thought, but he didn’t understand what the gardens might mean. So he went to Huangshan to talk with a watercolor artist.

Let’s read the conversation and then view the video.

Monty: Chinese gardens seem to have been inspired by paintings. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about this.

Painter Yu: The garden, according to my understanding, is a kind of wish of the people to have a better environment. For example, in Suzhou, some of the gardens were designed first by the painters and definitely, they are closely related. One of the very important guidelines for Chinese painting is the harmony between nature and the human beings. The same is true with the gardens. And, for example, this is just an ordinary pine tree, right? Actually, this pine tree is a nation-wide famous tree, it is called the Welcoming Guest Pine. Just like you meet an old friend who’s about to give you a big hug, … and we’ll find almost the same element in the Chinese gardens.

Monty: So there seems to be a clear line from Huangshan to the art to the garden.

Painter Yu: I agree with you, 100%!

Monty: So if the ancient gardens were inspired by even older paintings of a particular landscape, that remains of profound inspiration to artists to the present day, I had to go and see it for myself. 

… These are the yellow mountains, a range of 77 peaks in 60 square miles. … It’s amazing, the way the trees are growing out of solid rock. See look at that tree, that looks exactly like the trees pruned in the gardens in Suzhou. That is exactly the effect they’re going for with such art and care, reproducing. That explains everything.

Ohoohoohoo! How about that! That’s as staggering a piece of landscape as I’ve ever seen in my life. You see, you see the paintings, and you see the gardens, and they seem to be a caricature almost, almost a cartoon image of mountains, and then you realise that you haven’t seen the half of it, … that’s it, blimey, blimey, blimey! This pine is the welcome pine that is in Mr. Yu’s painting. Now, this scene, with the steps going up, is exactly what he’s painted. and I honestly think, if you want to understand the gardens, you’ve got to come here…. 

(video to be played in class)

Huanghshan pine on mountaintop

Pause for reflection

Once again, let’s look at any words or phrases that need some explanation. Then, let’s discuss the following questions in our small groups.

Which famous gardens have you visited? Which ones do you particularly like? Why do you like them? If you have family or friends coming to visit, which gardens would you take them to see?

Natural and artificial (man-made gardens)

Both the royal and private gardens were originally for the wealthy elite. Once opened to the public ordinary people had access to them as visitors. Most people, however, have access to natural and artificial (man-made) landscaped gardens.  Natural landscaped are designed by using the landscape as a base. Many have been made over a long period, developing various scenic spots and bringing different architectural styles. Artificial landscape gardens mimic the landscape, reproducing an imagined version of the natural surrounds.

artifical stream hangzhou
Man-made stream along pedestrian street in Hangzhou

These days, many urban designs incorporate features of natural-style gardens, as well as copying some of the elements of royal and private gardens. Many people incorporate gardening into their local environment, including the streets and courtyards, balconies and inside the home. For most city dwellers, love of gardens and greenery involves these small spaces, the public gardens that are accessible on foot, where people like to walk (and walk their dogs), and the tree-lined streets that local government plants to help give everyday life some natural pleasure.

A Pomegranate fruit tree in a Beijing courtyard

Pause for reflection

Once again, let’s look at any words or phrases that need some explanation. Then, let’s discuss the following questions in our small groups.

Which kinds of Chinese gardens do you like?

Do you have gardens that you can enjoy where you live? What are they like?

Does your family like to bring nature into your home? Do you grow plants in your courtyard, balcony? What kinds of plants do you have? What kinds of plants do you like?

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