Written by: Stefania Miletti
The traditional Chinese garden, known as Zhōngguó yuánlín (中國園林,中国园林), is characterized by the search for balance and harmony between human and nature, often with the recreation of a miniature landscape. These gardens try to recreate natural visual balances, for example by sculpting rocks as if they were eroded by atmospheric agents.
Different types of gardens were built to adhere to the function they served: for example, the emperor’s gardens were vast and immense and therefore built to pleasure or to impress. More modest functionaries, scholars and poets preferred more intimate gardens with the scope to relax and escape from the real world.
A little bit of history
China has a long history related to building traditional Chinese garden that dates to 3,000 years ago. Many important figures, ranging from emperors and government officials to scholars and poets built their own. In the Yellow River Valley, the first Chinese gardens were created. Monarchs and members of the nobility harvested and planted fruits and vegetables in their gardens since the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC).
Chinese gardens deeply relate to both philosophy and to Feng Shui, with meticulous assortment of natural elements in relation to their historical-mythological, literary or symbolic meaning. In fact, it is curios that both landscape painting and Chinese gardens develop side by side in ancient china.
This link between gardens and philosophy leads, almost unsurprisingly, to the meticulous study of every element added to the garden, nothing is by chance, resulting in a combination between the landscape painter and the garden artist’s different points of view.
Sacred Gardens and their Philosophy
A perfect example of Chinese Gardens and in particular the influence of philosophy in their design are the sacred gardens, which were built by scholars, drawing inspirations by three main philosophical streams of thought: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
Starting with the Taoism philosophy, which relies on the concept of Tao, which represents the path every being takes, the “becoming of everything”, which becomes reality with the two extremes. Every time one of the extremes is reached, a force pushes in the adverse direction and vice versa. Natural examples of this theory can be seen with the passing of seasons, or with the movements of the Sun and Moon. The decent person has been seen as one whose existence has been based on naturalness, not fortune or status. This philosophy is reflected in the gardens’ layout, with a more natural approach in the design, that allows humans to better connect with their surroundings.
On the other hand, Confucianism philosophy is more concentrated toward geometry, leading to the Chinese domestic and urban geometric order. The main theory behind Confucius ideas was that knowledge was the most important tool available to humanity in order to exceed, leading to the “good man” mentality. This was clearly reflected in the gardens’ design, that encompassed the most traditional virtues of sensibility and harmony between humanity and the Cosmo.
When Buddhism arrived in China, it developed into a monastic tradition strongly based on meditation.
The importance of spirituality transposed into the design of the monastic gardens, elevating them from a mere functional meditation aid to a rich example of the spiritual values of Buddhism.
The tradition of meditation gardens is also a product of the melting pot of different philosophies, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In particular, the cult of the beauty of natural gardens from Taoism and Buddhism mixed with the Confucian appreciation for geometry. This shaped the gardens into idyllic landscapes, perfectly bonding inanimate rocks with live plants and water.
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