The Landscape Guide

Tang (or T'ang) Dynasty Garden Design (618-907)

Although the love felt by the Chinese for artificial hills became famous in the Han Dynasty, we know that in the gardens of Western Asia the Assyrians and Babylonians also showed a liking for them. At the beginning of the great period of Chinese art, under the T'ang Dynasty, we find in the lyrics, with their depth of tenderness and feeling, certain hints and allusions which prove without question that the art of gardening, together with that of painting, attained a very high standard. But just as in painting no original work of the period has come down to us, so there is no really intelligible picture of a garden earlier than the one which we get in a poem of the eleventh century, the noteworthy description of the garden of Hsi-Ma-Kuang in the year 1026. Hsi-Ma-Kuang was a great statesman, and (as a later emperor says of him) “he was a benefactor to his own age because of his wisdom, his philanthropy, and the mildness of his rule.”

He has described his own estate in graphic language:

Other palaces may be built, wherein to escape from grief or to subdue the vanities of life. But I have built a hermitage, where at my leisure I may find repose and hold converse with my friends. Twenty acres are all the space I need. In the middle is a large summer-house [the word in the French translation is salon, but apparently it is one of the separate buildings] where I have brought together my five thousand books, so as to consult the wisdom therein, and to hold converse with antiquity. On the south side there is a pavilion in the middle of the water, by whose side runs a stream that flows down from the hill on the east. The waters make a deep pond, whence they part in five branches like a leopard's claws; numbers ofswans swim there and are always playing about. At the border of the first stream, which falls in cascades, there stands a steep rock with overhanging top like an elephant’s trunk. At the summit stands a pleasant, open pavilion [Fig. 553] where people can rest, and where they can enjoy any morning the red sunrise. The second arm is divided after a few feet into two canals, which twist and turn about a gallery, bordered by a double terrace, The eastern arm turns backward toward the north, beside the arch of a pillared hall, which stands in an isolated position, and is thus made into an island . The shores of this island are covered with sand, shells, and pebbles of different colours. One part of it is planted with evergreen trees. There is also a hut made of straw and rush, just like a fisherman’s hut. The two other arms seem alternately fleeing and pursuing, for they follow the turns of a flowery meadow, and keep it fresh. They often over- flow their bed, and make little pools, which are edged with soft grass; then they escape into the meadow, and flow on in narrow canals, which disperse in a labyrinth of rocks that hinder their course, confine them, and break them. Hence they burst forth in foaming silver waves, and so pursue their proper course. There are several pavilions on the north of the large summer-house, scattered about here and there; some of them are on hills, one above the other, standing like a mother among her children, while others are built on the slope; several of them are in little gaps made by the hills, and only half of them can be seen. The whole region is overshadowed by a forest of bamboos, intersected by sandy footpaths, where the sun never penetrates. Towards the east there is a little level of irregular shape, protected from the cold north wind by a cedar wood. All the valleys are full of sweet-smelling plants, medicinal herbs, bushes and flowers. In this lovely place there is always spring. At the edge of the horizon there is a copse of pomegranates, citrons and oranges, always in flower and in fruit. In the middle there is a green pavilion to which one mounts by an imperceptible slope along several spiral paths, which become narrower as they get near the top. The paths on this hill are bordered by grass, and tempt one to sit down from time to time, so as to enjoy the view from every side. On the west one walk of weeping willows leads to the bank of the river, which comes down from the top of a rock covered with ivy and wild flowers of all kinds and colours. All round there are rocks piled anyhow, with an odd effect rather like that of an amphitheatre. Right on the ground there is a deep grotto, which gets wider the farther one goes, and makes a kind of irregularly-shaped room with an arched ceiling. The light comes in through a somewhat large opening hung round with wild vine and honeysuckle. Rocks serve as seats, and one gets protection in the blazing dog-days by going into the alcoves and sitting there. A small stream comes out on one side and fills the hollow of a great stone, and then drops out in little trickles to the floor, winding about in the cracks and fissures till it falls into a reservoir bath. This basin has more depth when it reaches an arch, where it makes a little turn and flows into a pond, which is down at the bottom of the grotto. This pond leaves only a little footpath between the shapeless rocks, which are oddly heaped together in piles all round. A whole family of rabbits is established among them, terrifying the fishes in the lake, and in turn terrified by them. What an enchanting spot this hermitage is ! The second pond has little sedgy islands on it, the larger ones full of birds of every kind, and bird-houses. The way to get from one to the other is by the big stones that stick out of the water, or by the small wooden bridges that are scattered about, some of them arched, some in straight lines or zigzags, according to the space that has to be filled up. When the water-lilies near the bank are in full flower, the pond seems to be wreathed in purple and scarlet, like the edge of the southern sea when the sun rises. Pedestrians must make up their minds either to go back the same way they came, or to climb up the rocks that close in the place on every side. Nature intended that these rocks should be approachable from one end only of the pond. They seem to be fastened together where the waters have opened up a thoroughfare among the willows that stand between them, breaking through on the other side, and forcing their way with a roar. Old fir-trees conceal the dip, and nothing can be seen among their top branches but stones that have become imbedded in a groove or in some broken tree- trunk. Leading up to the summit of this rocky wall there is a steep, narrow stairway; and this has been chipped out with a hatchet; the mark of blows is still visible. The pavilion which is set up here as a resting- place is quite simple, but is remarkable for its view of a wide plain, where the River Kiang follows a serpentine course in the rice-fields.

The prose poem here quoted ends with a description of the writer’s occupations in the country, the visits of friends, a laudation of solitude, and a farewell to his beloved garden, because his life was devoted to his fatherland, which summoned him into the town. Hsi-Ma-Kuang belongs to the Sing Dynasty, that is, to the period of Chinese history when every art reached its highest stage of development—to the classical age, in fact, which is comparable with the epoch of the Renaissance in Western Europe. Poetry and painting were both at their best. “A picture is a painted poem” ; and paintings show the poetic  temperament in the same degree as poetry exhibits the spiritual elevation of the artist. Gardening, however, is only one branch of landscape painting. Nothing that concerns our art of gardening so surprises the Asiatic mind as our eagerness to hang landscapes on our walls, while yet we never arrive at making round our houses such pictures as are composed by the actual works of Nature.

Perhaps we ought to detect in the peculiar reverence which is shown by the Chinese for stones and mountains an early state of religion, and also the fundamental reason for the changes they wrought in the garden. Martini, in his Chinese Atlas, speaks of the peculiar Chinese superstition with regard to mountains: “They investigate the psychology of a mountain, its formation, its actual veins, just as astrologers examine the heavens, or chiromancers the hand of a man.” If the Dragon (which means the flowing water, the bringer of all good fortune) is seeking the mountain for its dwelling-place, then it is indeed the bearer of good things, and there will they set the graves of their ancestors and their sacred shrines. In Eastern Asia mountain, rock, and stone enjoy the reverence which is given to trees in Western Asia and many parts of Europe. The first visible and practical sign of this reverence which we find in gardens is the creation of artificial mounds. Since certain natural hills were honoured as particularly propitious, it is easy to understand that people would make artificial hills where they lived, on their own lands. The garden might be small, and in that case the hill must have proportional dimensions. In the pictures there are examples of mountain shapes, in sixteen formal designs, and these portray the possibilities which tradition has accepted, in marks that to us are hardly intelligible when we look at mere pictures. It is probable that plans of a like kind were worked out when hills were artificially made in gardens. 

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How strange some of these were is shown by the elephant’s-trunk shape in an overhanging rock (Fig. 553) in the garden of Hsi Ma-Kuang, so frequently copied in Chinese gardens and also in Chinese pictures. Beside the mountains are stones, which form one important characteristic of Chinese gardens.

Delatour, who attempted to explore the very foundations of Chinese garden art at the beginning of the nineteenth century, tells us that he has in his cabinet a collection of several hundreds of drawings of stones, of all kinds and colours (Fig. 555).

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 He says that they are mostly in one piece; but some of them are like pyramids and pieced together; some are like obelisks; and several are broken up in irregular shapes. When they are like rocks, water flows through the crevices, and they are all of different sizes. Frequently they are set on a wooden base, and then are usually close to some building or in the foreground of a small garden, where their peculiar shape may serve as table or stool for the great ladies whose whole life is spent in the garden (Fig. 556). They are very often of light blue, made of a stone which is hewn in Southern China. The important towns have large shops where these stones are for sale, and the best of them fetch a high price.

Water acts as the veins and arteries of the mountain, and is essentially important, partly in itself, and partly in connection with the course it takes, the hollows it scoops out, and the lakes in which its streams are collected. When the Chinaman makes artificial hills and mounds in his garden, he is also making the bed of an artificial lake. Hsi-Ma-Kuang lets the overflow (in his chief garden) run down into the lake from the hills on the east, for the course from east to west is lucky; and probably the five streams “like a leopard’s claws” have the same sort of significance. Martini says that any lake which is fed from nine sources is considered to be lucky, and thus we have the lake of Kiu-Lung, the Lake of the Nine Dragons. The art of the Chinese, like their feeling for Nature , is at bottom a profound sentiment beyond anything which shows on the surface. Symbolism is essential to it; and however accurate the observation of natural features in individual objects may be, this symbolism is its sole inner significance. The cultivation among the Chinese of a religious tradition in matters of art is often hard for us to understand. Among a host of pictures by a famous Chinese artist, there is a drawing of flowers painted by the Emperor Kienlung, and on it the following words are written: “ In a happy hour of summer there came into my hands the picture of Ku-Kaichih, and inspired by him I have sketched in black ink the spray of tree-orchid to express my admiration for the deep feeling and inner meaning of the picture.”

This power of suggestion in Chinese art made it possible for garden artists to gratify that desire which was the main thing for the owner, i.e. to possess some copy of a famous landscape of his own country. Great admiration was felt for the Hsi-hu (Western Lake). To enjoy its beauty, nothing more was needed than a lake and one or two islands, with pavilions on them connected by bridges, and mountains by the shore with buildings on the top. Some kind of stone, native to the place; some kind of plant which would especially stir up memories (and before all others water-lilies, which are very plentiful at the Western Lake) (Fig. 557)—these things are quite enough. 

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Through them the spectator, on the veranda at his house or in some special pavilion, can summon to his sight the whole beloved view of the beautiful landscape. For the rest, the artist is allowed an entirely free hand, and he can fill in objects, great and small, according to his own fancy, with such means as he has.

Besides the imitations of well-known landscapes, original pictures were painted, in which was an attempt to express some mystical or imaginative fancy that was in the mind of the artist. The French engraver found on his Chinese original, which he carefully copied, the words “Garden of the Thousand Snow Tracks” (Fig, 558), and the grouping of artificial mound, numerous pavilions, zigzag steps, stream with waterfall and bridge, trees and stones, really ex- presses this idea in a definite landscape.

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For traditional feeling acted as a help, or even as compulsion, prescribing the three main elements, viz, hill and stones for the first, lake and stream for the second, pavilions and other erections for the third. The overhanging rock, with its pavilion at the top from which Hsi-Ma-Kuang admires the red hues of the rising sun, has its appointed task to perform in a Chinese garden. We shall see later how in Japan too, where literature on the subject is instructive and convincing, tradition and original art were closely connected.

The Chinaman is not familiar with the idea of going for a walk. Well-born ladies were incapable of walking very far, because of their compressed feet, which were never allowed to grow. They spent their lives largely in the garden. Chinese women are so fond of flowers that they wear them in their hair even after they have grown old and grey, and this applies to the lowest class; but as they never walk in . the fields, interest in wild flowers does not exist. In the gardens the flowers are not set all together in beds, but arranged in groups like flowering shrubs, especially lilies of various kinds, and peonies.

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 The little picture (Fig. 559) shows a rose climbing on a trellis, but we ought perhaps to see European influence in this, though the pine-tree on one side is really Chinese, and so are the foliage plants on the other side and the finely decorated vessel with a stone standing up in it shaped like a flower. All this, combined with trees in flower, which are very highly thought of in Eastern Asia, gives to their gardens an appearance of wonderful colour; and when the season no longer allows of it outdoors, the effect is helped by plants in pots.

The Chinese enjoy their gardens sitting down, and hence the many pavilions—a feature which always strikes the European first. They approach these places of rest by winding paths paved with coloured mosaic tiles. Every pavilion has its fixed purpose of enlivening a particular scene, or providing a rest at some special view-point, or showing the garden in the varying light of different times of day, like the one turned to the morning sun at Hsi-Ma-Kuang’s garden. Pavilions play a prominent part in lyrical poetry as meeting-places for all social parties (Fig. 560).

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To feel the whole charm of Chinese garden life we should read the little poem The Porcelain Pavilion, by Li-Tai-pe:

In the middle of the lake we made 
Is a porcelain house all green and white.
Thither we walk on a bridge of jade 
Arched like the back of a tiger. 
In this pavilion sit our friends, 
In garments light, and drink their wine, 
With merry talk, or writing verse. 
Their heavy headgear they discard, 
And turn their sleeves a little up. 
And in the lake the little bridge appears, 
A crescent moon of jade, turned upside-down; 
So standing on their heads our friends are seen 
In lightest garments clad, and drink their wine, 
In a porcelain house. 

The writing of verses is an essential part of Chinese hospitality. They have a favourite game, which was afterwards transported to Japan, in which a wine goblet is made to float on a stream, and anybody whom it passes must either compose a verse or drink a great draught of wine. There are two pictures dating from the Ming Dynasty which show garden fêtes of this sort in the second half of the fourteenth century. The first depicts the garden of Villa Kin-Kou at Honan, founded by Shi-Tsung between the third and fourth centuries in the Tsin Dynasty. Shi-Tsung was a high official in the family of the emperor. He is seen in the picture at the side of his beloved lady, for whose sake he ruined his career, in the company of pleasure-seekers and wine-bibbers. The second picture shows a garden fête given by the poet Li-Tai-pe himself, who is holding a festival, together with his three brothers, in the garden of Villa Tau-li, which was famous at the Tang capital, Tsi-Nan-Fu. This work was an illustration of a poem by Li-Tai-pe: “Any night," he says, “when lovely flowers smell sweet and a light breeze blows cool, is a gift from Heaven for our delight. Nothing better can we do than be happy, light the candles, lift the wine-glass, and write poems. But he who is no poet must drink three glasses, as once of old was done in the garden feast at Kin-Kou.” Both pictures give only the foreground of the garden beside the house; we have also bridges, and flowering trees, and pine-trees with tables set out below them.

Hsi-Ma-Kuang also mentions the number of pavilions that were scattered about his grounds. All the ambassadors who later on gained admittance into the imperial gardens relate that they were entertained first in one pavilion, then in another, as the emperor might happen to be dining in this or that. Every large garden in China comprised the most diverse arrangements, and each place was designed for the enjoyment of its own peculiarities as a place of rest. The first view was as a rule to be seen from the house, or might open out to the visitor as he approached, like that described by Hsi-Ma-Kuang: a larger or smaller lake, according to the size of the estate, always provided the centre-point of the open, smiling valley. If large enough, it had one or more islands, all decked with small summer-houses. It was approached either by a path of flat stones or by a bridge. According to its length, the bridge is either constructed of flat rectangular stones, or is of wood with a balustrade to it, and in that case it takes a zigzag course. If the lake is large and deep enough for the owner to indulge his love of boating, the bridges have arches, made of all sorts of different materials, under which the boats can pass (Fig. 560). But, however varied lake or bridge might be, the Chinese were always mindful of the original pattern for every Chinese lake, the Western Lake (Hsi-hu). There they found bridges, between the roads that led across the lake, which house-boats could get under. These boats were hired by the day for whole families. Very often there is a pavilion in the middle of a bridge, or a "Gate of Triumph" at each end. There were gates of this sort at both ends of the bridge leading across to the imperial palace at Cambalu, told of by Marco Polo.

The garden of Hsi-Ma-Kuang, which in its simplicity seemed to mirror the taste of that quiet man of learning, had its library as the central feature. The chief part of the garden was treated very simply. There is nothing said about an island in the lake, but there was a stream flowing down from the eastern hills to form the cascade, which in the east part of the chief garden was quite indispensable. Also, to north and west, hills encompassed the banks, falling back a little in the middle and so making the view more open. The eye was attracted onward to half-hidden ravines and bamboo groves, and farther still to the horizon and the little woods of flowering pomegranate trees, citrons, and oranges. From the middle of these rose the spiral hill with its green pavilion.

In Chinese scenery smiling landscape must contrast with something terrible, such as overhanging threatening rocks, deformed trees apparently broken by the force of a storm, dark hollows, foaming waterfalls, or buildings which look partly like ruins and partly as though they have been destroyed by fire. With these accessories the effect of the terrible is produced. The hermitage of Hsi-Ma-Kuang has a gentler look, due to its quiet lake with encircling rocks. In some of its features it partakes of the romantic and idyllic, which comes out strongly in the little island with the fisherman’s hut. The poet conducts us to the hermitage by way of dark cool caves. In the artificial hills and rocks of all gardens of any size, there were hollows and even actual rooms, often made at great expense. Martini also speaks of this: “ In the beautiful gardens of China I have seen artificial hills in which have been cut most skilfully hollowed recesses, rooms, and stairs, even ponds, trees and other objects, where art really was a rival to nature. This is done to get rid of the heat of summer in the cool of such caves, when men want a place for study or for a fete. Still more beautiful is the place where the labyrinth is made, for although the area is not extensive, you can walk about there for two or three hours.” The chief aim, however, of Chinese architects was to find some central point where all these minor pictures, which were enjoyed separately, could be seen in one comprehensive view. Hsi-Ma-Kuang does not emphasise this point particularly, but probably for him the view on the top of the hill, whence he could also look down on the level of his own river, the Kiang, was the chief attraction.

The garden of a minister was far surpassed by that of an emperor, both in size and in splendour. In all cases, whether the estate was large or small, the chief effort in a Chinese garden was to make the picture in the right proportion for the given space. Although it was practically never possible to repeat in its own dimensions the natural scene that was imitated, there was a constant endeavour to have the place appear more important than it was by a clever management of the perspective. It is said by Staunton, who was in the retinue of the English Embassy, that in one garden which he noticed there was a slight wall, which, looked at from a certain distance through the branches of a thicket, gave the impression of a magnificent house. The Chinaman, even in his own large garden, had to make a miniature copy of his model, and Staunton writes of the imperial palace at Peking:

It stands as the middle point of the Tartar town, which lies unregarded in the dusty plain; yet the walls of the palace coincide with every winding or contour which nature in her most capricious mood had imposed on the surface of the ground, but always in less degree. Hills, valleys, lakes, rivers, the bold precipice and the gentle slope, all are here, and not where nature placed them; but in their relative sizes they are so exact and in such perfect harmony, that (if the whole aspect of the surrounding country did not give the lie to this deception) any spectator would feel a doubt whether this was a natural site, or only a felicitous imitation of the beauty of nature. This world in little has been brought into being at the command of man and at his pleasure, but through the bitter toil of thousands.

Seeing that even a place of importance, like an imperial garden, must have its proportions reduced, the artists had to accommodate their work to really tiny places; and this was the reason why they imposed a limit on the growth of trees, but even dwarf trees, however small they were, had to keep every peculiarity of those that had grown to their full natural size. The native of Eastern Asia particularly admired the diversity of form, the queer irregularity, of trees in the open landscape, where he likes old willows, pines and firs, also cherry- trees; and these are commonly shown in the pictures (Fig. 561).

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 It almost looks as though the trees, if left to themselves, have a more varied form and significance in China than with us, just as his mountains are full of weird and curiously formed overhanging rocks. These landscape pictures, taken as a whole, are often scarcely to be distinguished from some particular large garden, for which they have doubtless served frequently as models (Fig. 562).

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The trees are of all sizes, from fully-grown specimens in the large gardens to dwarfish ones found with the little hills, valleys, and rocks of a tiny plot of ground; and to produce the miniature trees was the main occupation of Chinese gardeners. After the art of regulating the growth of trees was learned they went so far as to use dwarf trees in vases to decorate indoor rooms (Fig. 563). 
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Father Cibot says in his Essay that he saw trees, such as pines and cedars, only a few inches high; and to match the little trees there would be a miniature landscape in a vase, with everything set out in the right proportions. For a Chinaman a tiny landscape of this kind presents all the beauty of nature. Lord Macartney, the English Ambassador, says that the understanding of dwarf tree culture was a secret, and was very highly esteemed. One of the Chinese poets sings the praises of the art thus: 

It makes our nature cheerful, and fills the heart with love; it destroys ennui and evil passions; it teaches us how to change flowers and trees, and brings distant landscapes to our view: we need no journeying to behold the wave-beaten shores, and mountains, caves, and cool grottoes; we behold the course of the ages, but not their decay.

All this experience the Eastern Asiatic gets out of a little landscape which is only a few feet in area.

The peculiarities of trees are also brought out in the kind of avenues used, both as a grand approach to some temple and to form a straight line which guides the eye to some particular point, as does the avenue of willows in the garden of Hsi-Ma-Kuang. Houses in China, as elsewhere in Eastern countries, are adjacent to greater or smaller courts; and these, even in the humblest homes, give character to the garden by containing flowering trees and shrubs, or pot plants, which are liked still more. One passes through these courts before coming to the real garden, which is seen from the veranda at the house. Close to the house the pool often adopts the form of a regular basin; and here also the decoration is prettier and better arranged, with perhaps a lattice border and climbing roses, which remind us of the gardens of small European houses, or again with covered leafy walks, concealing the garden walls; these things are known and beloved by the Chinese as well as by us; but informality still persists, and groups of trees and stones accompany the road till we are close up to the terrace of the house.

In the immediate neighbourhood of the house the ever-present symbolism plays a great part in determining the decorations. In every plant and in every tree there is a meaning applicable to human life, and so everyone chooses the flowers for his own house to suit his private wishes. As in the building of a house, the laying out of a garden is subject to fixed laws, so as to propitiate the kindly deities, and keep away the bad ones. These laws are called Feng-shui by the Chinese, and by their guidance they attribute valuable powers to certain trees and plants according to their kinds. All men like to find a peach-tree before the door, because it is the symbol of immortality. Since the stork was said to promise a great age, this bird was naturally set there as a companion picture; and human forms, to represent genii, were made of the green wood, exactly as they were made in European gardens.