Classical Chinese gardens were popular early in Chinese history, but the design and structure of the gardens we know today was not established until the Ming Dynasty. At that time, gardens were built by the wealthy and upwardly mobile as a symbol of affluence and a place of leisure. Landed home-owners would use gardens as places to entertain guests, or sometimes just for personal enjoyment.
The design and purpose of the classical Chinese garden is much more philosophical, however. These spaces were intended to be places of thought and solitude and were thus planned around the idealistic concepts from Taoism, most notably the notion of yin and yang, for which opposites must be formed in such a way as to balance one another out. Therefore, the design of traditional Chinese gardens adheres to principles that make them balanced and harmonious with nature, incorporating both hard and soft elements and giving the visitor an intimate view of the garden (as opposed to the sweeping landscapes of western public gardens).
There are many important elements to a classical Chinese garden, but the most important ones include rock, water, architecture and plants. Without these basic ingredients, a Chinese garden would lack the harmony necessary to make it a good space for contemplation.
Rocks, which play an important structural role in the Chinese garden, are also seen as sculptures that play aesthetic roles. The most famous rocks for use in a classical Chinese garden are those of Taihu, a lake near Suzhou. The other architecture of the garden incorporates small, delicate buildings, pavilions and gentle walkways which lead the visitor on an cosy track through the garden and give specific, detailed views of the garden’s elements. Water trickles over small streams and settles into tranquil green pools, an effect achieved by lining the bottom of the cistern with clay.
There are many plants to be found in a Chinese garden, and each has a special symbolic meaning. The most important plants include bamboo, pine trees, and plum blossoms, all three of which survive during winter and represent the human virtues of resiliency and renewal.
The most famous of all Chinese gardens are located in Suzhou where, during the Ming Dynasty at the height of the gardening boom in China, there were some 280 private gardens. Suzhou’s mild climate and rainy season create the ideal environment for gardening, and its proximity to Shanghai lent it the means to becoming a supreme holiday center for the landed class. Many of these gardens still exist in Suzhou, and visitors flock there each year to take in the beauty and serenity of the classical Chinese garden.