164th Meeting – December 1997
A talk and presentation by David Engel
Convenor writes: While no summary was written for this talk at the
time, on 23rd September 2000,
David gave a slide lecture entitled “Chinese and
Japanese Gardens Compared”
Lecture at the
Background in Gardens:
Three thousand years ago, whenever the
The first suggestions of a cultivated garden
But already by the 8th century,
about five hundred years before the Ming and
Such an unaffected and lavish style of
landscaping flourished, of course, mainly within the exclusive ruling
of the time – in China, the T’ang Court, and in Japan, the
esthetically attuned Heian court. Eventually, over time, new historical
and shifting cultural values caused gardens also to change. Now,
more subdued and evocative forms began to show up in the domains of
feudal lords, and religious orders, and in the family compounds of
merchants, scholars and artists. Gardens became scaled down to
private life and the rituals and routines of the temples. And despite
differences in styles, designers in both
Before considering the differences in their
gardens, consider first the common ground – the values and
traditions shared by
Another compelling influence was Taoism. Unlike Confucians and Buddhists, Taoists, essentially optimists, accept and appreciate things as they are. They seek the bright side in a world of suffering. The Song allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters points up the difference between the three doctrines: Sakyamuni, Confucius and Laozi once stood before a jar of vinegar – the symbol of life. Each dipped their finger in to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour; the Buddha called it bitter; and Laozi pronounced it sweet.
Linked to its basic optimism, Taoism
particularly encouraged primitive simplicity, the return to nature,
world of fancy and wonder. In both
You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain: I smile and make no reply, for my heart is free of care. As the peach blossom flows downstream, and is gone into the Unknown, I have a world apart that is not among men.
Deep amid the hills let me sip the pure water of clear mountain rills while gathering chestnuts that have fallen here and there.
Such examples of the austere and untouched way of life of recluse hermits and poets exerted a profound influence on artistic taste, architecture and gardens.
Bonsai, bonkei – miniature mountain scenic arrangements
Finally, Taoists advocated the exercise of
suggestion in art. In leaving something unsaid, the artist offers to
observer a chance to complete the idea. A vacuum is there to be entered
filled up to the measure of one’s aesthetic emotion. Accordingly,
the strongest force in the later development of Zen, the most
of all the sects of Buddhism, which, in turn, influenced garden design
But from earliest times in both
But how could this be accomplished? Chinese and Japanese artists and garden makers studied actual mountains.
The occurrence of oscillating, reverberating scale in both Chinese and Japanese gardens.
And so in a garden, in reduced scale, were
contrived basic features of the wild landscapes – rocky peaks,
streams, waterfalls, and ponds – nature created in abstraction,
distant landscapes outside a garden wall. Though not a faithful copy of
Evocative gardens with their solid, immovable rockery signaled both timelessness as well as fleeting time, marked by the growth and dying back of plants, falling leaves, the passage of seasons, shifting shadows on a wall. Thus both Chinese and Japanese gardens call to mind the sense of the infinite duration of time, as well as the transitoriness of life.
But regardless of their early common origin,
Upon entering a Chinese garden, you see at a glance that it provided, above all, a setting for daily life. It accommodated an array of activities for all ages within the Chinese extended family. An enclosed, protected world was created, a physical expression of the overall concept of home, a dwelling place. The house became closely joined to the walled courtyard, forming a unified domestic structure. Within the paved garden courtyard children played, while old folks dozed, and adults entertained friends. And then exiting the walled courtyard, one entered a transitory space, a stroll garden that linked several houses of the extended family. Within that naturalistic setting in hidden recesses, away from the family, you could find solitude.
These very concrete and mundane uses reflected the Chinese pragmatic, and undoctrinaire, view of a garden. While garden features, symbolizing parts of a natural landscape, were designed to uplift the spirit, one also could feel free to express a more earthy side of life – the Taoist influence – without the stifling constraints of Confucian precepts. The garden’s worldly quality expressed a realistic acceptance of human nature, far removed from the more abstract, anti-nature and idealistic Japanese idea of a garden. And so Chinese gardens were made for the physical presence of man.
In contrast, the domestic Japanese garden is
viewed mainly from the house, or from a set point. Placing people in
disrupts illusions of scale. Today, the garden in
Nevertheless, even in the face of the Japanese tendency to exaggerate the garden’s shadowy spiritual depths, the overwhelming sense of compression, the search for the minimal, and the stripping away of the non-essential are what immediately strike the mind.
the more down-to-earth Chinese, placing less importance on the
imagination, are more concerned with the explicit, the concrete. A real
feature in a Chinese garden is not left to the imagination. By
forceful example of Japanese insistence on using imagination lies
walls of the Zen temple at Ryoanji – its kare-san-sui
(dry hill/water) composition of fifteen rather unremarkable rocks
asymmetrically on a raked, finely graveled “ocean”. From
the hojo porch you gaze down on a
puzzling scene. Are they islands dotting the Setonaikai,
Equally, within a domestic setting’s more limited and familiar space, the Japanese homeowner may be quite satisfied with his own kare-san-sui garden. For the Japanese mind, the idea of water – its abstraction – can be as fulfilling as water itself. To imagine, through a spurt of concentration, that one sees water is a Zen exercise that appeals to the Japanese temperament. But if water is made a feature of the landscape, the homeowner will usually be satisfied with the slow trickle of water dripping from a bamboo spout into a stone water basin.
The Chinese, on the other hand, see in water far more than its surface charm. For them it is a clear symbol of the duality of the Tao. A precept, attributed to Laozi, asserts: “There is nothing softer and weaker than water, and yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong surfaces. For this reason there is no substitute for it.”
For the practical Chinese homeowner, instead of laying out a kare-san-sui terrain, upon which it is forbidden to tread, it was far better to pave part of his courtyard garden in an attractive mosaic pattern as a site where children could play. In contrast, the Japanese child learns early in life that the garden – usually his father’s special province – is no place for games.
In short, to experience all the elements of a Chinese garden, one must live in it, move through it, and physically occupy it – a four-dimensional experience.
The domestic Japanese garden, on the other hand, generally can be grasped best from one or two restricted positions within or close to the house. Even in larger stroll through gardens the viewer’s freedom to roam is subtly controlled by confinement to a path from which evocative views enfold in progression. There is none of the paved or swept open spaces of Chinese courtyards where one can wander at will, strolling randomly to view features from several angles and ranges.
In both Japanese and Chinese gardens, certain charming or picturesque views are composed to be enframed by doorways, gates and windows, but only in Chinese gardens do man-made elements tend to impart an ornate atmosphere which Japanese garden builders avoid. Chinese gardens convey the impression of skilled artifice, its rockery evoking a magical, and slightly fabulous landscape of dreams. The eye is struck immediately by the range of embellishments, intricate elaboration of surfaces, the repletion of themes developed and refined in pavements, coping, walls, gates, windows, lattices and grillwork. Architectural detailing is complex. Woodwork is often painted. The weight of architecture and artifacts seem to predominate over natural materials. But while plants and rocks may seem to play a lesser role, they are always sensitively combined with and interwoven into the walls and pavements.
The Japanese, on the other hand, cultivate plainness in gardens. Simplicity, even austerity, is admired. Decoration plays only a minor role. This is not to imply, however, that Japanese are not concerned with surfaces. It is only in tone and texture where Japanese and Chinese tastes differ. While both value an antique quality, the Japanese prize rougher surfaces and textures, less colour, bare, aged wood – shibusa (astringency) and sabi ( the sign of age and wear and tear). A clear illustration of these preferences in ceramics is appreciated by comparing the plain, neutral patterns and earth tones of a raku pottery cup, used in the Japanese tea ceremony, with the soft elegance and refinement of a Sung pale blue or green lung-chuan bowl or a zhun-yao cup.
The weight of architecture in a Chinese garden is further accentuated by the overwhelming use of masonry – bricks, stone, pebbles, stucco, plaster, tile – in walls, coping, grillwork, pavements and gateways. Rarely do wood or bamboo fences partition garden spaces. The masonry walls – indissoluble, protective barriers of a Chinese garden – are built to keep outsiders from entering or looking in, while the enclosure of a Japanese domestic garden is more intended to hide from view distracting, outside elements. In contrast with the Chinese use of solid and opaque enclosures, the Japanese divide up interior garden spaces with lattice-like screening – wood and bamboo fences – permitting air and light to pass through, as well as using growing plants in sheared hedges as space dividers. In Chinese gardens such hedges are rare.
traditions further differ in the way the ground is dressed. In
But in the classic Chinese garden the predominant groundcover in courtyards is a pavement of brick, pebbles, tile or stones set in mosaic patterns with a scattering of rock edged beds for shrubs, trees and rockeries. In the more naturalist stroll areas that link the houses with the garden, aside from paved and covered pathways, the ground may simply be exposed in bare stretches of swept earth interspersed with patches of mosses, grasses, vines and low-growing herbaceous plants.
However, in situations where distant picturesque mountain views are visible from within, both Chinese and Japanese do borrow, in a sense, the outside scenery, incorporating it into the overall garden composition. shakkei
rocks of a
Chinese garden are of two types: one, basaltic, of igneous origin,
boulders, angular, bulky, tan to yellowish beige in colour, termed huang-shitou. The second type, more
ubiquitous and unique, are sedimentary rocks, calcareous, gray
usually plucked from the shores and bottoms of lakes and rivers. They
termed tai-hu, named after
The Chinese garden builder pieces tai-hu rocks together, deftly fitting one on top of the other to form a craggy cliff or a rocky shoreline. Pigmented mortar cunningly hides the joints. And, whenever an unusually evocative rock is set in a garden, its symbolic presence may require that it stand alone, often on a pedestal or plinth, like a work of monumental sculpture. Eventually, such a free-standing rock may assume a life and personality of its own, becoming a familiar character, a ‘friend of the family’, at times biomorphic, the mimetic image of a legendary deity, an old man, a lion or a dragon.
In sum, the rocks of a Chinese garden act as both abstract and actual transitional links between elements of pure nature and the garden’s architecture. They are valued for their bizarrerie of shape and for their capacity to suggest remote and mythical places. They impart at once both the impression of the concrete solidity of matter as well as the plasticity and mutability of things – a fine example of Yin/Yang – reminding the viewer of Laozi’s teaching that the softest things can overcome the hardest.
with the Chinese metaphysical perception of rocks, the Japanese
starts and finishes on a more down-to-earth level. In
In the two garden traditions, plants are also treated differently. The Chinese use shrubs and trees naturalistically, pruning and thinning them, but avoid forming them into massive, compact shapes. There is so much bulk in the masonry walls, structures and rockery that plants are used mainly for their profile and colour. Aside from a scattering of blooming trees and shrubs, colour plays a subsidiary role with occasional annual flowers set out in pots. In addition, salvia and seasonal peonies and chrysanthemums are sparsely dispersed in raised beds retained by rockery.
The Japanese also train trees and shrubs to emphasize their natural branching structures, but contrary to Chinese practice, some shrubs may be sheared into compact hedges, or into dome-like or blocky shapes that became living, transitional architectural forms, linking pure nature with man-made structures. Or, they may serve as symbolic elements – hills and mountain ranges – seen often in the sheared, undulating hillocks of azaleas and hollies. The flowers of a sheared shrub have little design significance as compared with the strongly defined shape of the shrub itself. Flowers play a minor role, where, instead of colour, stress is placed on line and form. An occasional accent of colour, however, may be introduced here and there among rocks, a naturalized bed of irises, or chrysanthemums, spring flowering trees, crape myrtle, or the red berries of an ardisia, cotoneaster or viburnum. But in every instance these flowers are integrated into the basic naturalism of the garden.
comment: design is not static. Even in