The Landscape Guide

Ming dynasty Garden Design (1368-1644)

Of all the imperial gardens the best known to Europeans are those of the eighteenth century. At that period news was coming in from every side, and there were continual fresh accounts either of complete gardens or of particular beautiful things in them. The Manchu emperors had laid them out to the west of the capital, but in the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, and to which the Chinese ascribe the highest development of their garden art, the summer palaces and gardens were on the south side. Yuen-ming-yuen, the Round Bright Garden or Garden of Heaven, the summer palace of the emperors, is on a large, rather steeply ascending plain, which would make the construction of a garden less difficult. Father Attiret, who gives a specially detailed description of this garden, says that the artificial hills put up there reach a height of twenty to sixty feet, and that there are an immense number of little valleys between the hills. The bottom is filled with clear water in canals which make pools and lakes in all directions. Highly decorated boats float on the water, and some of them have little houses on the top. Paths paved with pebbles wind about the place; they lead close up to the water, and then turn off again and go still farther. Every valley has its own house, of one story only, and with small surroundings, but considerable enough for the accommodation of the emperor and his suite. They seem to stand on the rocks like fairy dwellings; and fairy steps lead up to them, looking quite natural, Some of the houses are made of cedar-wood, others stand on pillars, and are finely painted. “Astonishment increases when one is told that within this magnificent territory there are actually two hundred such palaces.”

The different buildings are invariably separated by water or by artificial mounds. Many sorts of bridges, frequently winding, and often supplied with white marble railings, beautifully divided and carved, lead across the waters. On those bridges which command a specially fine view there are pavilions; others have triumphal arches. One of the largest ponds measures almost half a mile across, and in the middle lies a real treasure, an island that might be called a rock, rough and very steep. A palace is built on it, and small though it is, it actually contains no fewer than a hundred rooms. The architect selected this particular spot so that the eye might cover at a glance all the beauties of the park, which on a walk could only be revealed one after the other. From this point there were visible all the mountains that closed in here, all the canals that poured their waters here, all the bridges near and far, all the pavilions, and the arches of triumph; all the little groves that show green either between the palaces or in front of them, The banks of canals and lakes were most varied in kind; some had stone quays, and galleries, in some cases the paths were covered with shells. Here and there were pretty terraces with steps leading up to the palaces. Above there were higher terraces with buildings like an amphitheatre, surrounded by groves of flowering trees. Between the rocks flowers bloomed everywhere; and beyond there were thickets of wild trees which will only grow on quite uncultivated mountains, very tall, and the abiding-place of shadows. At Yuen-ming-yuen there was also the European part, with water-devices hitherto unknown in China, and living but a short life there. Round about the walls of this princely seat there were a great number of dwellings made by the artist and architect, and work was going on continually for the garden and the palace. And near this imperial summer-house there were a great many others.

The monarch had a great affection for “the Hill of the Wide View,” which was quite near; he would have liked to make his residence there, but etiquette forbade him to live in the home of his predecessor. According to the descriptions we have, this garden was laid out in a simpler style, and deserved its name; for the buildings were set up in terrace form on a high hill, whose base ended in a great lake scattered over with innumerable small structures. In the case of other places, their very names stir our imagination, as, for example, Shang-chuen-yuen, “ Garden of Everlasting Spring,” and Tsing-ming-yuen, “Garden of Lordly Peace.” As we have said before, the Manchu emperor was fond of travelling; and every year he went on a seven days’ journey to the fine hunting-seat—Jehol. At each stage there was a palace, provided with everything necessary, and surrounded by a garden. Lord Macartney visited him at Jehol, and found its gardens incomparable. He praises a green valley full of huge ancient willow-trees, which reached down to the bank of the great lake. They crossed over it, between the water-lilies, to the small palaces on the shore, until their way was checked by a bridge that their boat could not pass under; behind the bridge the lake appeared to lose itself in the blue distance. The palaces each contained a large room with a throne, and were adorned with European works of art. The ambassador especially observed that the valleys could be planted with northern oaks and with the most tender plants of the south, although this palace was in a wild, inhospitable part of the country.

The Chinese had public gardens also. We have already spoken of the house for entertainment on the island of Hsi-hu, The rich salt merchants had presented the emperor with an exceedingly handsome Summer Palace at the town of Yang-Shou, between the rivers of Kiang and Hoang-ho, and this was a highly decorative addition to the town, and made a public promenade. Although it took three-quarters of an hour to walk through it, everything was open to the public. A person going in stood on the bank of the great lake at the particular central point which gave him a view of the whole. He could sit down in one of the little tea-pavilions which were on the shore in great numbers, and gaze at the spectacle of pleasure-boats on the lake, or look right across over the heads of merry groups to the hills covered with buildings. The top was brightened by the emperor’s palace, and from here the best view of all was obtained.

The gardens at the temples were also open to the public, but their importance for garden art in Eastern Asia was first clearly recognised not in China but in Japan. Still, in the surroundings of Chinese temples we sometimes find to-day very old and very beautiful trees, which in many cases were planted at the time of the foundation of the temples. The fantastic style of architecture and the gay colouring in the temples fit well into garden surroundings. The pagodas with their irregular wavy roofs almost look like trees frozen rigid. The important pagoda of Lung-hua at Shanghai (Fig. 564) is in the midst of ancient trees.

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The wonderful building of the pagoda at Fatshan (Fig. 565) shows the corner of the temple behind which it stands.

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The trees by the temples are just as inviolable as those which the Chinaman plants about the graves of his fathers, for the Oriental trait of reverence is particularly widespread and very deeply rooted. Every Chinese family, except the very poorest, has its family grave, which is sacred to it; and the surrounding of trees has often grown to be a park. In a country so thickly built over, where every foot of open land is used for cultivation, these sacred groves are almost the only preserves for trees.