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The Chinese Garden

The Chinese Garden

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the Chinese garden tradition in landscape design.

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Tutorial

An overview of Chinese gardens.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about the Chinese garden.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the appearance of Chinese gardens by comparing them to Western gardens, and identify examples of Chinese gardens.

Key terms are listed below. The first key term is lake tai rocks, stones from a large freshwater lake in Eastern China thought to have been formed as the result of a meteor impact 70 million years ago. Taoism, a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, way, path, or principle.

Feng shui, a Chinese practice in which the elements of a space are arranged in a way that maximizes the flow of energy. Yin and yang, contrary, yet interconnected and interdependent forces in the natural world. And the sa-lo-kwai-chi, the quality of being impressive through disorderly grace. The big idea for today is that Chinese gardens explore opposing forces of yin and yang, the male force of rock countered by the female energy of water.

So we'll be looking at a time period known as the Ming Dynasty. Now the history of China is broken up into dynasties in which one familial line had a succession of rulers. The gardens that we're looking at today come from the 16th century, but have been altered throughout the many years as they've changed ownership. We'll be traveling to Suzhou, China today where both of our gardens are located.

So Chinese gardens like this where retreats for high-ranking officials or the wealthy. These wouldn't have been accessible to the average person. It's important point out the influence of Taoism at this time, specifically, with how it relates to the design of these gardens.

Taoism taught that humans were intimately connected to all aspects of nature. Gardens were a way of bringing people closer to the forces of the universe, both spiritually and materialistically. Now what you might notice in this garden titled The Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets is how these differ from the typical Western style garden, particularly the designs of places, like for Versailles in France and English style gardens that emulated Versailles.

In Chinese gardens, there is a distinct a lack of interest in flowering plants. They use plants, but they are typically sparse and leafy, like bamboo. They were designed around the concept of sa-lo-kwai-chi, or the quality of being impressive or surprising through careless or unorderly grace.

So essentially, what this boils down to is an intentional effort to appear unorderly. And these gardens are not natural occurrences. They are contrived and in a way that emphasizes the lack of order in nature while at the same time creating a state of harmony with the forces of nature.

A practice called Feng shui. Now it isn't as apparent as it is in Western-style gardens, but these are carefully designed works of art. Chinese gardens explore the idea of the balance of opposing forces of yin and yang, such as the male force of rock balanced by the female energy of water. Rocks, in particular, were very important components of Chinese gardens. These gardens use rocks from nearby Lake Tai, which were irregularly shaped.

To emphasize the idea of careless or unorderly grace, artists and craftsmen would actually shape the already irregularly-shaped rocks to appear even more irregular. The Chinese thought that these rocks embodied irrational forces that could be brought under control by their strategic placement within the gardens and the placement of other elements within the garden. It's a really interesting example of organized disorder. Its intended appearance is the result of very careful, deliberate planning, not unlike the attempts of Renaissance artists, for example, to hide strokes of their paintbrushes so that the overall effect was more naturalistic.

The contrast with the overt geometry and restraint of nature found in Western gardens, like those of Versailles, is easily identifiable. However, in both cases, the gardens represent the adaption of nature to a human ideal and provided an environment where people could reflect and relax in the peace of the outdoors.

Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the appearance of Chinese gardens by comparing them to Western gardens? And identify examples of Chinese gardens.

Once again, the big idea for today is that Chinese gardens explore opposing forces of yin and yang, the male force of rock countered by the female energy of water. And that is it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "The Chinese Garden"

Key Terms

Lake Tai Rocks

Stones from a large freshwater lake in Eastern China thought to have formed as the result of a meteor impact 70 million years ago.

Taoism

A philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao meaning 'way', 'path' or 'principle'.

Feng Shui

A Chinese practice in which the elements of a space are arranged in a way that maximizes the flow of energy.

Ying & Yang

Contrary, yet interconnected and interdependent forces in the natural world.

Sa-lo-kwai-chi

The quality of being impressive through disorderly grace.

Citation

Image of China Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:China_edcp_location_map.svg; Garden of the Master of Fishing Nets; Creative Commons (ChinaTraelSavvy.com): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Master_of_Nets_Garden_2.jpg Lingering Garden; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Liuyuan.jpg Orangerie; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Orangerie.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Lake Tai Rocks

    Stones from a large freshwater lake in Eastern China thought to have formed as the result of a meteor impact 70 million years ago.

  • Taoism

    A philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao meaning 'way', 'path' or 'principle'.

  • Feng Shui

    A Chinese practice in which the elements of a space are arranged in a way that maximizes the flow of energy.

  • Yin & Yang

    Contrary, yet interconnected and interdependent forces in the natural world.

  • Sa-lo-kwai-chi

    The quality of being impressive through disorderly grace.