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Chinese Gardens

       In the densely populated urban centers of China, enclosed gardens have long been an integral part of residential and palace architecture, serving as extensions of living quarters. The preferred site for hosting literary gatherings, theatrical performances, and imaginary outings, gardens were often designed following the same compositional principles used in painting. And as idealized landscapes, gardens often drew inspiration from literary themes first envisioned by painters. Not only were painters often recruited to design gardens, but as gardens came to be identified with the tastes and personalities of their residents, artists were also called upon to create idealized paintings of gardens to serve as symbolic portraits intended to reflect the character of the owner.

Scholars’ Studios and Retreats

       Gardens have a long history in China, and famous gardens of the past—commemorated in painting and poetry—often provided inspiration to later garden designers. Fisherman’s Lodge at Mount Xisai (ca. 1170) by Li Jie (ca. 1124–after 1191), who combined literary and pictorial references to two Tang-dynasty garden estates in his imaginary depiction of his own retirement home. He adopted a blue-and-green palette and created a naïve evocation of historical precedents as a way of demonstrating his scholarly credentials and disdain for mere craftsmanship. The amateur monochromatic sketches of buildings convey their ideals of unadorned simplicity. Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) illustrations of the Garden of the Humble Administrator (1551) provides another example—Wen’s austere depictions were less about the actual garden than about the rectitude and modesty of the owner. 

Literary Gatherings

       One of the primary social functions of gardens was to serve as settings for literary gatherings, where like-minded friends might celebrate the season, enjoy music, or view rare antiquities, and then compose poems to commemorate the event. Such social gatherings are called Yaji (雅集, Graceful Gatherings). There are several very famous social gatherings in Chinese history, one of which is the graceful gathering at the Orchid Pavilion. This was a party hosted by Wang Xizhi in AD 353 to celebrate the Spring Purification Festival. In the late 11th century, Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu, Li Gonglin, and several others had a gathering at the West Garden. All were heavyweights of the then literary and art circle and had their respective significant places in the art or literature history of China. In the mid-15th century, a party in the Apricot Garden involved nine of the most powerful officials in the realm who have gathered to enjoy painting, poetry, and other refined pursuits. The scholar-officials enjoyed such occasions, underscoring the fact that, for many centuries in China, status was primarily derived from one’s command of cultural accomplishments. 

Secluded Temples

       Buddhist and Daoist temples sometimes functioned as sanctuaries or resorts where harried city dwellers might find spiritual and physical sustenance, partaking of simple vegetarian meals, meditation regimes, lofty conversations, and strolls in the landscape. One fine example is Summer Mountains (ca. 1050) by a court painter featuring several such monastic retreats set within an awesome landscape. The painting’s orderly natural hierarchy, culminating in a towering central peak, was intended as a metaphor for the emperor presiding over a well-governed state. 

Pavilions and Palaces

       Landscape in China has always had a human dimension. Consequently, architectural elements, particularly pavilions, are a quintessential feature of both Chinese landscape paintings and gardens. In gardens, pavilions identify prime vantage points from which to view the scenery; they also serve as focal points within landscape settings.

       Royal palaces have always been likened to Daoist paradises. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, multi-paneled screen paintings as decoration became the vogue in the cosmopolitan city of Yangzhou. Imaginary views of famous palaces from previous dynasties were very popular. These paintings were celebrations of the grandiose materialistic lifestyle to which the high society of Yangzhou aspired.

The content on this page is based on an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.