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Chinese Garden Design

by Master Tyler J. Rowe
Classical Corner – Guopu on Skyscrapers

TYLER J. ROWE has been involved in post graduate studies of classical Chinese texts for the past 10 years.  In this article he shows us how to apply some Chinese Garden Design in our own contemporary gardens.

Dating back to晋Jìn dynasty (265-420 CE), and recorded in early texts such the 易经 Yìjīng ‘Classic of Change’, garden design has been an integral part of Chinese culture, society and Feng shui.  Recent fieldwork in the eastern costal province of 江苏 Jiāngsū and surrounding areas revealed that while the techniques and methods of classical garden design may be ancient, they are still appropriate to today’s urban backyard and somewhat simple to apply.

These intricate and elegant gardens of Chinese antiquity were originally seen as complex living works of art.  An expression of our inner nature, they become sanctuaries in times of social and political strife, a retreat from life.  As a kind of ‘spiritual utopia’ they were thought to help connect man with nature.

The Chinese system of landscaping is ‘scattered and free’, ‘without stereotype’.  It follows the natural landscape, with condensation and assimilation of natural scenes to emphasize natural beauty and harmony between man and environment.  The key concept being that it is ‘made as if by nature but actually wrought of human hands’, which is to suggest – man made but embodying natural beauty.  As opposed to the standard western system which is based on lines, symmetry and geometry with an emphasis on regularity and an artificial representation of beauty.  Demonstrating man’s conquest of nature ‘control, order and reason’.

Historically there existed three types of gardens in China :

Royal – grand in scale and magnificent in appearance with an aim of material splendor, colourful design and majesty.  An excellent example of this is the 颐和园Yíhé Yuán ‘Summer Palace’, the imperial garden in Beijing.

Religious – simple, compact, elegant and quiet, with the purpose of assisting in the pursuit of spiritual integration of man and nature. Temple gardens such as those around the famous Buddhist site 普陀山Pǔtúoshān Mount Potalaka illustrate this.

Private – designed in compact layout, simple and elegant. The focus is on naturalness and a retreat from the busy world.  These are perhaps the most quintessential examples of Chinese landscaping and those around 苏州Sūzhōu are the most famous in particular 拙政园Zhuōzhèng Yuán ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden’ is a favourite.

It is clear the concept of the private garden is the most relevant today and therefore the focus of this article. The study of private garden’s can be summarized as consisting of four main design features, three primary techniques and four material elements.  The ‘four material elements’ are not to be confused with the 五行 Wǔxíng or ‘five elemental phases’.  They are in fact – rockeries, water, plants and architecture.  Let us begin with these interesting features.

Rockeries -There is an old Chinese saying that goes:   ‘Garden’s attraction is nothing but two things – water and mountains’

The importance of mountains and water is known to any practitioner of 峦头Luán tóu ‘Landform’ Feng shui and Classical Chinese Garden Design is no different.  Of course building actual mountains is usually impractical in a confined space so instead piles of earth and interesting rocks are used.  These high and low ‘rockeries’ act as small mountains containing peaks, ranges, valleys, crags, slopes, caves, overhead beams, stairways, mountain paths, cliff-side ways, ravines and waterfalls.  Traditionally there are 30 different techniques expressed as 30 Chinese characters.  The rocks themselves, sometimes known as ‘Scholar Rocks’ are often unique lime-stones judged by four principle aesthetic qualities – 瘦shòu, 透tòu, 镂lòu & 皱zhòu ‘thinness, openness, perforation and wrinkling’ respectively.  In times past these rocks may have been painstakingly transported many hundreds of leagues before reaching their final residing place in the garden.

In modern landscaping similar structures are created whenever boulders are used edging garden beds or as retaining walls.  These create ‘mountain energy’and can be used to reinforce the四灵兽Sì líng shòu the ‘Four Celestial Animals’ or 山星Shān xīng ‘Mountain Stars’.  Rocks needn’t be tied up in functional arrangements, they can make appealing individual features when placed mindfully.  Our own indigenous rocks – sandstone, volcanic, granite etc. are both useable and energetically sound.  Pairing them with native rock orchids can also be an attractive option.

Water -Traditionally a garden wasn’t considered a garden in China unless it was made up of at least one third water. [what it was called if that wasn’t the case then, I do not know!].  So it was obviously a very important component, which makes sense with the knowledge that ‘water is the mother of qi’ and brings with it movement and prosperity. Water usually existed as ponds adorned with branching streams and brooks, often zigzagging to appear natural.  Their surfaces were used to mirror light and create reflections – clouds, rockeries, plants or architecture providing interesting perspectives. Most commonly a central lake was built with water courses running off from it like veins.  Other forms included river, pool, well and waterfall with attention paid to the waterfront – banks, wharfs, isles, beaches, bridges, gates and platforms.

Water adds liveliness to outdoor space.  It can help regulate temperature and humidity, reduce dust, provide irrigation and even prevent fire.  Today access has been made far easier by the variety and affordability of water features for use in and around the home in the form of fountains, prefabricated ponds and swimming pools.  Many splendid water plants, including some Australian native species are also available to decorate these essential garden elements.

Plants – Plants to a garden are said to be like ‘hair’ to a person.  Interestingly, while trees and flowers are essential to a classical Chinese garden, they are not the most important factor [really you can be handsome without hair!].  Their use, dissimilar to the west, is to form scenes and partition space – not just for appreciation.  Their function, is to ‘relax the mind’ and ‘attract the eyes’.

Many plants have medicinal and cultural associations that are applied in Feng shui such as :- the peony representing nobility, the pomegranate – fertility (its’ fruit skin ‘astringes the uterus’), bamboo – uprightedness, conifers – antiquity & longevity, willow – gracefulness, lotus – purity, orchids – leisure & tranquility and the chrysanthemum – integrity (due to its ability to sustain through frost).

They were be planted to appear natural and change colours in different seasons.  Potted plants were rarely used as they are sometimes associated with ‘limited growth’ (the 盆景Pén jǐng; traditional Chinese Bonsai too) so they appear only sparingly, in small numbers.  Traditionally local species are considered best.

With the current state of climate change and the Australian environment this statement has never been more true.  The neatly manicured lawns, exotic species of plants and moisture hungry flowers do not suit the soil they grow in.  Instead our cultivation needs to match the bush or forests surrounding us.  Colour can be achieved through foliage, not just flowers; barriers through density of planting instead of lush flora; and association to health or prosperity through symbolic metaphor.


谊园Yì Yuan ‘Chinese Garden of Sydney'”

In the Chinese garden, all scale is based on people and their interaction with the environment.  The buildings that house them, are considered the fourth and final element of materials.

Many pavilions, pagodas, towers and halls were utilised as key points or ‘faces’ of the garden.  Usually simple, open, modest, well ventilated, naturally lit and spacious.  Their practical uses were for leisure.  Among the more common applications were music, chess, calligraphy and painting Peripheral structures included ‘moon gates’, ‘dragon walls’, bridges, architectural walkways (covered with roofs) and ornamental sculptures.  Architecture was designed to look proportionately small to the garden and appear as ‘exquisite and colourful decorations’.

The home is of course the main architectural feature on any residential site, with garages, sheds, pergolas, gazebos, greenhouses, play houses and decks making up the secondary structures.  These need to match the environment visually, by appearing attractive and in harmony with the land; and spatially, by dimension.  While they are by definition in proportion to man, are they in proportion to the garden?  In many built up areas the amount of land is out of balance with the residences built thereon.  The key to regaining equilibrium lies in understanding and employing the four main design features and the three primary techniques mentioned previously.

Four main design features -The four main design features incorporated into classical Chinese garden design can be summarised as ‘Meaningful conception’, ‘Clear approach’, ‘Ingenious layout’ and ‘Expert technique’.

Conception – This is the principle symbol to judge the art of gardening and its indirect cultural connotations.  It should appear like a Chinese painting or poetry to epitomize the spirit and beauty of the mountains and waters. A somewhat surreal ideal of nature, where history and culture ‘make an artistic delight’. ‘blurring the line between the artificial and natural’ Classical poetry and literature were often used for naming gardens and sometimes couplets inscribed on tablets within. The important point to consider here is the creation of a ‘representation of nature’ in its most attractive forms.  This is essentially to ‘paint a picture’ but avoid over-control, or in the other extreme, complete surrender to wildness.

Approach – The thorough investigation and mapping out of principles before designing.  This requires an understanding of natural environment and social culture. Simply put this means studying the guidelines well; knowing the purpose or requirements of the site (the ‘audience’); as well as recognizing any restrictions (local, council and otherwise); and not forgetting to always consider balance of Yin  yang, Wu xing, Ba gua etc. – Should suit local conditions and natural features.  The aim is to create a large space within the tiny.  This can include creation of scenes – dividing space into smaller areas to make it appear grander.

Each turn in the bridge forces a different view

“Each turn in the bridge forces a different view”

Layout – Should suit local conditions and natural features. The aim is to create a large space within the tiny. This can include creation of scenes – dividing space into smaller areas to make it appear grander.

Contrast is also regularly employed to add depth of scenery as well as broadening the main space visually – differences in size, height, density, regularity, brightness, movement and colour.  Along with methods such as ‘containing before expanding’ which uses winding paths, streamlined routes, corridors and twisted bridges to control the human journey and guide a person through alternate perspectives,  changing scenes at every step.

The famous Ming dynasty garden designer, 计成Jì Chéng (1582 –  1642 CE) detailed many such important factors in his text  園冶Yuán yě ‘The Garden Treatise’. Beyond landscaping, this implies a multitude of interwoven layers carefully planned to make up an exterior space.  While some may be beyond the scope of the urban gardener others are relatively easily employed with a little imagination.  In particular, contrast can become a strong theme by increasing the variety of materials being used.  Making garden ‘rooms’ can be achieved with selective planting, while pointing the walkways between in interesting directions (or vice versa) is also possible.

Technique – This final design feature consists of three primary artistic approaches.  These are known as ‘borrowing views from outside’, ‘using opposite scenes’ and ‘constructing scenes according to seasonal and climactic varieties’.  These are entirely unique to Chinese garden design and require some explanation and illustration.

View borrowing – a traditional method to create scenery.  Views are borrowed from other areas by looking up, looking down, into the distance or at neighboring things.  What is seen outside the garden in contrast to what is seen within.  Anything of value is to be taken in and the trite is to be discarded. Unfortunately we often manage to do the contrary – windows that look out onto walls or fences and doors that open to nothing.  The key here is ‘young eyes’, they will see what we have forgotten and notice what we overlook. A fresh perspective can clearly show where this technique is needed.

Opposite scenes – refers to the scene that lies on the gardens axis or the scenic visual line’s end.  The intention is to provide a better place and angle to appreciate scenery forming lots of colourful paintings. Where is the best place to take a photo of the garden?  This is where we should be able to linger to appreciate it fully.

Constructing scenes according to seasonal and climactic varieties – implies paying attention to seasonal features, as well as weather and time.  Aspects which show mindfulness of changes between morning and evening, rain and sunshine, winter, spring summer and autumn.

Any good modern gardener is already aware of this practice – planting flowers that bloom at different times and foliage that flourishes in varied conditions or even vegetables and fruits that are harvested seasonally.

Since their early inception in Chinese history there have been many commentators and innovative architects of classical Chinese garden design.  The philosophy and technical detail has become an immensely complex art in many ways, but still founded in simplicity and harmony.  While one can immerse themselves in the countless rules and theories of its study, it is important to remember the basic principles and apply them with common sense.  It is auspicious that while these produce the most aesthetically pleasing results, they are often the most environmentally sound and healthy options also. Embodied by the classic idiom – ‘Securing the interest by following the natural law’.


  • The Garden Museum, Suzhou
  • Ji Cheng (1631) [translation Hardie, A 1988] ‘The Garden Treatise’ Yale University Press.

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