The Landscape Guide

Scholar Gardens

Chinese civil servants used to be chosen on grounds of birth. Confucius believed they should, instead, be chosen by competitive examination. This led to the development of a class of scholars. They were educated in philosophy, literature, music, poetry, calligraphy and painting. Since four of these arts turned on nature, it was a 'natural' development for scholars to turn to gardens. But their interest was not in growing vegetables (peasants' work) or in horticulture. It was in making symbolic places befitting their scholarship. The made places in which to meditate - on a highly intellectual representation of nature. In the sticky heat of the representation of woods, water and mountains helped the scholar to meditate on cooler and fresher places.

Rocks were a vital component of scholar gardens, objects of reverence and study. They brought mountains into towns. Small rocks were used to rest calligraphy brushes upon. Large stones were placed in gardens, often grouped to suggest the mountain peaks which featured in landscape paintings or placed by water to suggest the Isles of the Immortals. The Chinese word for ‘landscape’ is shanshui, meaning ‘mountains and water’. The most famous garden stones came from Lake Tai (Tai Hu) between Suzhou and Wuxi.

It seems probable that scholars led the way in developing this type of garden and that their design ideas were followed by emperors. A careful re-creation of the garden type has been made at the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Canada.

Mi Fu (or Mi Fei 1051-1107), took a rock as his ‘brother’ and used to visit it and bow to it each day. He created the "Mi style" of ink-wash landscape painting and was a great calligrapher