By James Renwick Long
Classical Gardens of Suzhou China in the Age of the Renaissance:
An overview of Far Eastern gardens and how they played a role with their western counterparts to inspire landscaping during the Picturesque movement.
Gardens and landscaping during the Renaissance centered in Italy, developed in response to Greco-Roman classicism and the ideals and concepts developed at the time. A world away in the Far East, beyond the Silk Road, private Chinese gardens simultaneously developed along their own unique path influenced by philosophy, poetry and art, religion, political ideals, and social status that shared similarities to while in many ways remaining disparate from European Renaissance gardens.
This paper explores the development of these Chinese gardens, specifically those known as the classical Chinese gardens of Suzhou, and compares their development to that of their European counterparts of the same time period. Many such gardens remain extant and will be used to provide a broad understanding of the primary aspects of Chinese design including borrowed scenery, rockeries, and irregular layouts. Lastly, this paper will explore the post-Renaissance movements of the Picturesque and Sublime which incorporated various aspects of classical Chinese and Renaissance European gardens into a new garden variation. These movements in art and landscaping combined concepts from the previously separate garden styles of Suzhou, China and the western world to create a new typology of public space. In this way, the elements derived from classical Chinese and western Renaissance gardens continue to affect our design and understanding of urban greenspaces throughout the world.
The history of the lands and peoples that comprise modern day China is several millennia long. Regarded as the one country in the world with the longest continuous history, China is often overlooked in western cultures as a source of inspiration and intrigue. Among the many innovations that have been present throughout China’s history are large scale agriculture, centralized governments, literature, civil projects, and architecture. Even within the scope of the built environment, Chinese projects have ranged in scope from the series of defensive walls (as with the Great Wall of China), or the Grand Canal, the longest man made waterway in the world, down to the scale of a private residential garden set within a dense city fabric.
For those unfamiliar with the history of China, consider this brief timeline that shows some key moments in Chinese history alongside major European historical events.
While many key events show a disparity between the development of China and the western world, such as the 500 year span between the invention of the printing press in China and its eventual development in Europe, other events coincide quite closely. The development of landscape design, especially gardens, is one such coincidence.
The role of paintings and artistry in the development of Chinese garden landscaping can be traced to landscape paintings. These originated as a distinct genre in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and have since persisted. Often these landscapes featured a variety of remote mountainsides and watersheds that were intended to be viewed as refuges for the political outcast or for those seeking enlightenment. (Henderson 2006, 12)
A school of “literati painters” was eventually developed during the Tang Dynasty. These painters not only expressed ideals and symbology in their artwork but also became prolific garden designers, often building their own gardens using the same principles and ideologies explored in their paintings.
Pools and hillocks in gardens symbolically implied that the proprietors dwelt among the hills and rested upon the rocks, or lived their lives in seclusion and away from human society; rocky peaks were used to symbolize famous peaks and sacred mountains and to suggest that the owner of the gardens were refined scholars and recluses; the pine, the bamboo, and the plum were meant to represent “the three friends in the winter season,” aloof and proud; while the lotus awas analogous to the “thoroughgoing gentleman” who “emerges from the mud and is yet unsoiled.” (Den-Zhou 1993, 6)
The Ming Dynasty saw a flourishing of over 270 gardens in Suzhou. While many of these private Suzhou gardens have been lost to time, there are some that remain due to renovations and rebuilding. (Henderson 2007, 10)
General Understanding of Classical Chinese Gardens (Including paintings)
Earlier examples of Chinese gardens were built by imperial families in Beijing. In addition to exemplifying the status and grandeur of the imperial office these gardens also served a practical purpose of reemphasizing the importance of agriculture for the wellbeing of the empire. Suzhou private gardens were built for leisure and as spaces of respite, likely influenced by the prevalent Daoist ideals of the time. These gardens also served to proclaim the scholarly attributes and wealth of the owners. (Henderson 2006, 7) So whereas the preceding imperial gardens often had an ancillary focus on reintegrating a critical practical element, such as agriculture, the private Suzhou gardens were meant as a place for officials to pursue a lifestyle of the ideal “courtly scholars.” (Henderson 2006, 12-13)
The typical Suzhou garden adheres to several common design principles. The garden serves as an integrated part of the residence for the owners and servants, but entry to guests is typically achieved via a reception hall. Once the owners have greeted their guests they might then be invited to enter a discrete passage leading to the garden. This begins the sequence of choreographed experiences within the garden, compressing the entry so that the initial view into the garden then conveys a sense of expansion, making the garden seem more like a vast series of landscapes. (Henderson 2006 , xi)
Once inside the garden, there are several distinct features usually apparent: a central pond or lake, a rockery, and one or more architectural buildings. From here there is a prescribed or intended path that visitors would take to experience the garden through a series of “rooms” or “scenes.”
While the rockeries and water features are usually the largest features within these gardens and therefore comprise the main scenes, their disposition and size in relation to the architectural features was considered a key aspect of a successful garden. No one element should be seen as dominating all others, even if it is intended to be of hierarchical importance.
Continuing along the paths of the garden guests would experience the garden as a chain of rooms, each presenting a carefully crafted scene. Pathways connecting these scenes would likewise be unique in their construction. Some are simple stone bridges across streams, some are circular “moon gates,” and still others are narrow open air halls with miniature landscapes of their own. Yet, although these spatial zones are intentionally distinct from each other they do come together as a collage. The entirety of the garden emulates the natural world, either as a miniaturized caricature or via symbolic means. Thus, the distinct rooms and scenes do not have hard edges except where architectural elements are inserted, and the palette of materials is used consistently throughout. Even the architecture serves to emulate this sense of a natural setting where the man-made structures are nestled within as opposed to the reality of the garden being a construct nestled within the fabric of the city.
Present throughout much of every classical Chinese garden is the practice of “borrowed scenery.” This is arguably the most important part of their design and one of the elements that will be most readily apparent in future landscaping developments inspired by these gardens. Borrowed scenery is a method of design that can be applied in a variety of scales, from a single window forming a framed view of a separate space or trees on either side of a lake framing the view of a distant tower that has no other relation to the garden. In short, borrowed scenery gives a sense of depth, distance, and continuity of choreographed nature scenes by visually connecting multiple of these scenes to each other and to pieces of architecture that appear dotted within a grand overall natural landscape.
Below we will further explore the design and materiality of three such gardens. These gardens showcase the consistencies found in many of the classical Chinese gardens of Suzhou and also how the same basic elements can be brought together in a great variety of ways to create distinct gardens. Each garden will be presented as a storyboard, the point of view of a guest as they enter and move through the garden. Architectural elements denoted in red and miniature landscapes in green. A dotted line represents the path taken for the sequential scenes.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
The Garden of Cultivation
The Lingering Garden
Comparison to European Renaissance Contemporaries
Next we will consider two well known Renaissance gardens. These gardens exemplify many of the qualities developed in landscape design during the same period of time as the flourishing of gardens in Suzhou, China. While examining these gardens keep in mind some of the following comparisons.
The Chinese gardens we examined establish relative dimensions between major elements within the gardens as an important aspect of design. This sense of relative proportion is not necessarily tied to any sense of geometric relationship, rather it responds to proximity between the elements and their positions relative to intended viewpoints. (Den-Zhou 1993, 14) As we will see in these Italian gardens, the use of regular geometric shapes organizes the individual spaces within the garden while shared sightlines connect those spaces together. (Girot 2016, 153)
A case could be made that nearly all Suzhou gardens are to at least some extent modified or expanded from their original format due to a prevailing mindset regarding the passages of time. Whereas the common western ideology regarding historic or otherwise important built environments might be to preserve them as much as possible according to their original construction, the Chinese have treated the Suzhou gardens as templates to be renovated, expanded, and modified according to a set of design philosophies. Thus the spirit and intent of the gardens might be preserved when the raw physical forms succumb to time. (Henderson 2006, 14-15) The following Italian gardens exist today much as their original designs intended them, with any reconstructions meant to replicate original features as closely as possible.
Villa Medici at Fiesole, Florence, Italy by Leon Battista Alberti, 1451 CE
Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Italy by Jacopo Vignola, 1568 CE
Joint Inspiration for the Picturesque
While we’ve established some of the similarities and differences between classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou and some of their Renaissance Italian counterparts, let us now consider how the two came together during the 18th Century. The Picturesque and the Sublime were two movements in art and culture that drew inspiration from both the western renaissance and the Far East.
Aside from landscape design, these movements borrowed heavily from Far Eastern arts, particularly painting. Consider the renowned painting of the Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog and a lesser known work from China titled Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour. The sense of grandeur, of man being a wanderer on a vast landscape shrouded in fog.. the comparison is striking.
Returning to the gardens, this time period took the aforementioned interests in design and combined them. The result was a refined use of garden perspective methodology and non-geometric arrangements of spaces meant to emulate a non-man made setting. (Girot 2016, 213) These are built and choreographed gardens, but they begin to reduce the use of hard lines and edges in favor of rolling hills and meandering rivers.
Rousham, Oxfordshire, England by William Kent, 1738 CE
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2.- Dun-Zhen, Liu, Wood, Frances. 1982. “The Traditional Gardens of Suzhou.” Garden History 10, no. 2 (Autumn): 108-141. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1586743 .
3.- Girot, Christophe. 2016. The Course of Landscape Architecture. New York: Thames & Hudson.
4.- Henderson, Ron. 2013. The Gardens of Suzhou. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
5.- Li, Tianyingzi. 2020. “A Brief Analysis of the Construction of Private Gardens in Suzhou under the Theory of Spatial Narratology.” Journal of Physics: Conference Series 1673. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/1673/1/012071 .