Classical Chinese Scholar Gardens

Ancient gardens designed to reflect a balanced life

by Anne Blankenship, NDSU Extension Master Gardener Intern,

The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, part of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, shows intricate stone mosaic pathways, stones and architecture, with trees and plants playing a secondary role. PC:

Chinese gardens intended for leisure first appeared alongside emperors’ palaces but were soon replicated within the courtyards of merchants, civic leaders, and scholars.

These scholar gardens gained popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Sophisticated gardens became a point of pride for the elite classes as a place where one could write or read poetry, practice calligraphy, paint, play a musical instrument, converse with friends, or sit alone in meditation. A balanced garden was thought to reflect a balanced life.

While small compared to English landscape gardens, the individual elements of a Chinese garden combine to represent grand scenic views that continually change as a person walks along circuitous paths, steps through interior gates, climbs over bridges, or simply sits within a pavilion and watches others interact with the environment. 

Chinese gardens are defined by four elements: architecture, water, stone, and flora. Whether in grand and minute settings, these features replicate larger formations like rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests. Ancient traditions suggested the essence of the larger formation could be contained in these miniature forms and allow viewers to immerse themselves in nature, leaving civilization behind.

“A man is known by his garden.” -A Chinese saying

High walls surround the gardens to block out the conflicts, stress, and tedium of daily life. This experience fosters a central tenet of Daoism that teaches people to separate themselves from society and connect with nature in order to follow the dao or the natural flow of the universe. This communion with nature allows a person to balance and refine their inner energy (chi).

The balance between the complementary forces of yin and yang is visually depicted within the garden when the architect harmonizes the placement of spiraling rocks (yang) and flowing water (yin). Uniform elements like relief patterns on a low wall or mosaic patterns of paving stones complement the garden’s cavalcade of abstract forms created by unusual rocks, undulating shorelines, and various flora and fauna.

Architectural elements range from large wooden tea houses, moon-viewing pavilions, and bridges to intricate stone mosaics decorating pathways. Walls separate sections of the garden and complement the beauty they surround, often undulating like a long Chinese dragon.

Each doorway and window frames deliberately designed, picturesque scenes, while latticework casts intricate shadows in the morning and afternoon sun. These views must work equally well in all four seasons and often use distant landmarks to give the impression of being in a larger space. Architects orient a long hall according to the dictates of feng shui, Chinese geomancy.

YuYuan, the Garden of Happiness, Shanghai. PC:

Tai hu, large rocks riddled with abstract hollows made by the erosion of limestone in Lake Tai, are highly prized and prominently displayed in the gardens. Larger gardens like YuYuan, a 5-acre garden in Shanghai, also contain accessible rockeries in which visitors walk through narrow valleys, climb steep paths, explore caves, and view the garden from atop a cliff. These rockeries do a remarkable job replicating the sense of being in the mountains, as you don’t know what to expect around each turn.

When constructing the garden, laborers used dirt from what would become the pond to build earthen mounds on which to place the stones to augment the vertical space. 

While flora plays a marginal role as compared to its counterparts in European and American gardens, each plant holds symbolic meaning. Gardeners chose peonies for wealth and aristocracy; bamboo for resilience and integrity; pine trees for longevity; and lotus plants for purity and perfection.

A Chinese garden is not grown so much as it is constructed.

The city of Suzhou boasts the most famous scholar gardens, many built by retired government bureaucrats. Civil service examinations in China included sections on music, literature, and poetry, so all government workers were educated in classical arts. The finest gardens in Suzhou, some one thousand years old, are honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

However, you need not cross the Pacific to immerse yourself in a Chinese garden. Teams of several dozen artisans from Suzhou helped build the first Chinese garden abroad in Vancouver, B.C., followed by gardens in Montreal, Staten Island, Portland, Ore., and St. Louis, Mo. The Huntington in San Marino, Ca., is the largest outside of China. These gardens follow the style of classical scholar gardens, but Seattle and its sister city Chongqing are building a Sichuan-style garden in which flora plays a more dominant role.

Associate Professor Anne Blankenship led tours of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s international gardens and teaches about them in her NDSU World Religions course.

Lion Grove Garden, Suzhou. PC: