164th Meeting – December 1997

Japanese and Chinese Gardens: A comparison

A talk and presentation by David Engel

Your Convenor writes: While no summary was written for this talk at the time, on 23rd September 2000, David gave a slide lecture entitled “Chinese and Japanese Gardens Compared” at The Siam Society in Bangkok. It covered mainly the same material as used in his earlier INTG talk. The Siam Society talk was written up almost word for word as delivered, and keyed to numbered slides that were projected as the talk went on. Here is the full text of the Siam Society talk, unfortunately without the slides.

Lecture at the Siam Society – Chinese and Japanese Gardens, on September 23rd 2000, in Bangkok.


·        My Background in Gardens: Japan Study

·        My China experiences in the early 80s



Three thousand years ago, whenever the emperor of China needed to get in touch with nature, he would go hunting in the unspoiled fields and forests. It was the closest he came to the idea of a garden. Similarly, in Japan the concept of a garden had yet to enter its culture.

The first suggestions of a cultivated garden appeared in China during the Spring and Autumn Period (8th to 5th centuries B.C.E.). During the T’ang and Song dynasties (7th to 13th centuries) gardens had assumed an informal, loose look. Finally, during the Ming and Qing periods, the so-called classical garden reached its present highly structured form. In the Qing novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, descriptions of the classical garden are interwoven within the story, clearly illustrating its integration of architecture, landscape design, horticulture and calligraphy.

But already by the 8th century, about five hundred years before the Ming and Qing, China’s sophisticated innovations in architecture and landscaping, had reached Japan to be eagerly adopted by the imperial court. A vibrant picture of a garden, inspired by T’ang examples, appears in The Tale of Genji, the famed novel by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady at the Heian court of 10th century Japan: “Prince Genji, by a judicious handling of knoll and lake, found it necessary, here to cut away a slope, there to dam a stream. To the southeast he raised the level of the ground, and on this bank planted early flowering trees. At the foot of this slope, the lake curved with especial beauty, and in the foreground he planted a border of plants that are at their best in springtime; while here and there, autumn beds were cleverly interwoven. The stream above the waterfall was cleared and deepened. And, so that the noise of the cascade might carry further, he set great boulders in mid-stream, against which the current crashed and broke. Along the stream he planted purple irises, and a wall of pine trees so that one might have the pleasure of seeing them when their boughs were laden with snow.” 

Such an unaffected and lavish style of landscaping flourished, of course, mainly within the exclusive ruling classes of the time – in China, the T’ang Court, and in Japan, the hedonistic, esthetically attuned Heian court. Eventually, over time, new historical forces and shifting cultural values caused gardens also to change. Now, gardens in more subdued and evocative forms began to show up in the domains of mandarins, feudal lords, and religious orders, and in the family compounds of affluent merchants, scholars and artists. Gardens became scaled down to accommodate private life and the rituals and routines of the temples. And despite differences in styles, designers in both China and Japan sought to instill in their gardens a contemplative mood, to evoke their own idealized visions of nature.

Before considering the differences in their gardens, consider first the common ground – the values and traditions shared by both China and Japan. Most obvious was the awesome deference towards nature. The wide-ranging idea of Nature is represented in both languages by the same two character word composed of the characters for “self” and for “being or essence”, (in China pronounced zi-ran; in Japan: shizen).  To my mind, this compound word symbolizes the simple reality of creation – in a word – Nature.

Another compelling influence was Taoism. Unlike Confucians and Buddhists, Taoists, essentially optimists, accept and appreciate things as they are. They seek the bright side in a world of suffering. The Song allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters points up the difference between the three doctrines: Sakyamuni, Confucius and Laozi once stood before a jar of vinegar – the symbol of life. Each dipped their finger in to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour; the Buddha called it bitter; and Laozi pronounced it sweet.

Linked to its basic optimism, Taoism particularly encouraged primitive simplicity, the return to nature, escape the world of fancy and wonder. In both China and Japan, to find such a world, to attain the longed-for contact with uncultivated nature amidst its vast and sublime landscapes, one looked to the mountains. They represented the last refuge. Li Bo, the poet of the T’ang Dynasty, in his verse, typically expressed such irresistible yearning:

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain: I smile and make no reply, for my heart is free of care. As the peach blossom flows downstream, and is gone into the Unknown, I have a world apart that is not among men.

Likewise in Japan, during turbulent periods of civil war, Buddhist priests, following the example of Chinese hermits, retired to the mountains to lead lives of solitude and contemplation. The Japanese poet Saigyo wrote:

Deep amid the hills let me sip the pure water of clear mountain rills while gathering chestnuts that have fallen here and there.

Such examples of the austere and untouched way of life of recluse hermits and poets exerted a profound influence on artistic taste, architecture and gardens.

Bonsai, bonkei – miniature mountain scenic arrangements

Finally, Taoists advocated the exercise of suggestion in art. In leaving something unsaid, the artist offers to the observer a chance to complete the idea. A vacuum is there to be entered and filled up to the measure of one’s aesthetic emotion. Accordingly, Taoism became the strongest force in the later development of Zen, the most individualistic of all the sects of Buddhism, which, in turn, influenced garden design in Japan.

But from earliest times in both China and Japan, no matter how determinedly one resolved to get away, it was only the exceptional man who, in fact, could escape the lowlands of daily existence to reach seclusion in the uplands of absolute nature. Consequently, in order to even approach that ideal place of going beyond one’s daily experience, a substitute was devised, a symbol, an idealized representation, making it possible to at least imagine that, in fact, one had escaped to the far away heights. Gardens became the refuge. 

But how could this be accomplished? Chinese and Japanese artists and garden makers studied actual mountains.

The occurrence of oscillating, reverberating scale in both Chinese and Japanese gardens.

And so in a garden, in reduced scale, were contrived basic features of the wild landscapes – rocky peaks, hills, valleys, streams, waterfalls, and ponds – nature created in abstraction, evoking vaster, distant landscapes outside a garden wall. Though not a faithful copy of nature, in both China and Japan, gardens became its subjective interpretation, more idealistic than realistic. Some were built to suggest actual famous seashore or mountain landscapes, particularly those described in poetry or depicted in paintings.

Evocative gardens with their solid, immovable rockery signaled both timelessness as well as fleeting time, marked by the growth and dying back of plants, falling leaves, the passage of seasons, shifting shadows on a wall. Thus both Chinese and Japanese gardens call to mind the sense of the infinite duration of time, as well as the transitoriness of life.

But regardless of their early common origin, gardens in China and Japan soon developed along separate lines. Theirs arts found nourishment in different soils and climates among peoples of dissimilar culture, history and geography. Overlying their shared affinities, the apparent differences between Chinese and Japanese gardens strike the eye immediately.

Upon entering a Chinese garden, you see at a glance that it provided, above all, a setting for daily life. It accommodated an array of activities for all ages within the Chinese extended family. An enclosed, protected world was created, a physical expression of the overall concept of home, a dwelling place. The house became closely joined to the walled courtyard, forming a unified domestic structure. Within the paved garden courtyard children played, while old folks dozed, and adults entertained friends. And then exiting the walled courtyard, one entered a transitory space, a stroll garden that linked several houses of the extended family. Within that naturalistic setting in hidden recesses, away from the family, you could find solitude.

These very concrete and mundane uses reflected the Chinese pragmatic, and undoctrinaire, view of a garden. While garden features, symbolizing parts of a natural landscape, were designed to uplift the spirit, one also could feel free to express a more earthy side of life – the Taoist influence – without the stifling constraints of Confucian precepts. The garden’s worldly quality expressed a realistic acceptance of human nature, far removed from the more abstract, anti-nature and idealistic Japanese idea of a garden. And so Chinese gardens were made for the physical presence of man.

In contrast, the domestic Japanese garden is viewed mainly from the house, or from a set point. Placing people in the scene disrupts illusions of scale. Today, the garden in Japan, no longer a setting for light-hearted pleasure, as in Heian times, has become a traditional complement to both domestic and spiritual life, an honored place set apart. Like the Chinese garden, enclosed behind walls and fences, and with its rooms facing into it, the garden has taken shape as a somewhat exalted creation, a thing to be viewed and appreciated from the perspective of a building, rather than to be physically occupied. Regarded as something fragile and precious, it is approached often with a touch of reverence. In fact, the evocation of that sense of spirituality and idealism, when carried to extreme, can inhibit relaxed enjoyment of its naturalism. Happily, the cooler heads of artists and free-minded scholars dismiss such gravity. Laozi and the early Zen masters would have laughed at such unnecessary seriousness.

Nevertheless, even in the face of the Japanese tendency to exaggerate the garden’s shadowy spiritual depths, the overwhelming sense of compression, the search for the minimal, and the stripping away of the non-essential are what immediately strike the mind.

Contrarily, the more down-to-earth Chinese, placing less importance on the viewer’s imagination, are more concerned with the explicit, the concrete. A real water feature in a Chinese garden is not left to the imagination. By contrast, a forceful example of Japanese insistence on using imagination lies behind the walls of the Zen temple at Ryoanji – its kare-san-sui (dry hill/water) composition of fifteen rather unremarkable rocks arranged asymmetrically on a raked, finely graveled “ocean”. From the hojo porch you gaze down on a puzzling scene. Are they islands dotting the Setonaikai, Japan’s Inland Sea? Or is it just an asymmetric composition composed to evoke a meditative mood? In the end, each viewer interprets it as fancy dictates.

Equally, within a domestic setting’s more limited and familiar space, the Japanese homeowner may be quite satisfied with his own kare-san-sui garden. For the Japanese mind, the idea of water – its abstraction – can be as fulfilling as water itself. To imagine, through a spurt of concentration, that one sees water is a Zen exercise that appeals to the Japanese temperament. But if water is made a feature of the landscape, the homeowner will usually be satisfied with the slow trickle of water dripping from a bamboo spout into a stone water basin.

The Chinese, on the other hand, see in water far more than its surface charm. For them it is a clear symbol of the duality of the Tao. A precept, attributed to Laozi, asserts: “There is nothing softer and weaker than water, and yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong surfaces. For this reason there is no substitute for it.”

For the practical Chinese homeowner, instead of laying out a kare-san-sui terrain, upon which it is forbidden to tread, it was far better to pave part of his courtyard garden in an attractive mosaic pattern as a site where children could play. In contrast, the Japanese child learns early in life that the garden – usually his father’s special province – is no place for games.

In short, to experience all the elements of a Chinese garden, one must live in it, move through it, and physically occupy it – a four-dimensional experience.

The domestic Japanese garden, on the other hand, generally can be grasped best from one or two restricted positions within or close to the house. Even in larger stroll through gardens the viewer’s freedom to roam is subtly controlled by confinement to a path from which evocative views enfold in progression. There is none of the paved or swept open spaces of Chinese courtyards where one can wander at will, strolling randomly to view features from several angles and ranges.

In both Japanese and Chinese gardens, certain charming or picturesque views are composed to be enframed by doorways, gates and windows, but only in Chinese gardens do man-made elements tend to impart an ornate atmosphere which Japanese garden builders avoid. Chinese gardens convey the impression of skilled artifice, its rockery evoking a magical, and slightly fabulous landscape of dreams. The eye is struck immediately by the range of embellishments, intricate elaboration of surfaces, the repletion of themes developed and refined in pavements, coping, walls, gates, windows, lattices and grillwork. Architectural detailing is complex. Woodwork is often painted. The weight of architecture and artifacts seem to predominate over natural materials. But while plants and rocks may seem to play a lesser role, they are always sensitively combined with and interwoven into the walls and pavements.

The Japanese, on the other hand, cultivate plainness in gardens. Simplicity, even austerity, is admired. Decoration plays only a minor role. This is not to imply, however, that Japanese are not concerned with surfaces. It is only in tone and texture where Japanese and Chinese tastes differ. While both value an antique quality, the Japanese prize rougher surfaces and textures, less colour, bare, aged wood – shibusa (astringency) and sabi ( the sign of age and wear and tear). A clear illustration of these preferences in ceramics is appreciated by comparing the plain, neutral patterns and earth tones of a raku pottery cup, used in the Japanese tea ceremony, with the soft elegance and refinement of a Sung pale blue or green lung-chuan bowl or a zhun-yao cup.

The weight of architecture in a Chinese garden is further accentuated by the overwhelming use of masonry – bricks, stone, pebbles, stucco, plaster, tile – in walls, coping, grillwork, pavements and gateways. Rarely do wood or bamboo fences partition garden spaces. The masonry walls – indissoluble, protective barriers of a Chinese garden – are built to keep outsiders from entering or looking in, while the enclosure of a Japanese domestic garden is more intended to hide from view distracting, outside elements. In contrast with the Chinese use of solid and opaque enclosures, the Japanese divide up interior garden spaces with lattice-like screening – wood and bamboo fences – permitting air and light to pass through, as well as using growing plants in sheared hedges as space dividers. In Chinese gardens such hedges are rare.

The two garden traditions further differ in the way the ground is dressed. In Japan the groundcover may consist of one or more of a mix of lawn grass, moss, low herbaceous or woody shrubbery, stone paths, gravels, pebbles, or steppingstones. Rarely is soil left exposed.

But in the classic Chinese garden the predominant groundcover in courtyards is a pavement of brick, pebbles, tile or stones set in mosaic patterns with a scattering of rock edged beds for shrubs, trees and rockeries. In the more naturalist stroll areas that link the houses with the garden, aside from paved and covered pathways, the ground may simply be exposed in bare stretches of swept earth interspersed with patches of mosses, grasses, vines and low-growing herbaceous plants.

However, in situations where distant picturesque mountain views are visible from within, both Chinese and Japanese do borrow, in a sense, the outside scenery, incorporating it into the overall garden composition. shakkei

In both China and Japan rocks are used in profusion as one element of garden scenery – symbols evoking natural landscape features. But an essential difference exists between the two, not only in the rock material itself, but also its source, composition, texture, colour, shape, siting, arrangement and interpretation.

The rocks of a Chinese garden are of two types: one, basaltic, of igneous origin, solid boulders, angular, bulky, tan to yellowish beige in colour, termed huang-shitou. The second type, more ubiquitous and unique, are sedimentary rocks, calcareous, gray limestone, usually plucked from the shores and bottoms of lakes and rivers. They are termed tai-hu, named after Lake Tai from which, in the past, many were dredged up. Their convoluted surfaces, often pierced, showing the effects of hydraulic forces, convey a plastic feeling as if they are malleable. Obvious contrast between the two types of stone prohibits combining huang-shitou and tai-hu rocks in the same rock grouping.

The Chinese garden builder pieces tai-hu rocks together, deftly fitting one on top of the other to form a craggy cliff or a rocky shoreline. Pigmented mortar cunningly hides the joints. And, whenever an unusually evocative rock is set in a garden, its symbolic presence may require that it stand alone, often on a pedestal or plinth, like a work of monumental sculpture. Eventually, such a free-standing rock may assume a life and personality of its own, becoming a familiar character, a ‘friend of the family’, at times biomorphic, the mimetic image of a legendary deity, an old man, a lion or a dragon.

In sum, the rocks of a Chinese garden act as both abstract and actual transitional links between elements of pure nature and the garden’s architecture. They are valued for their bizarrerie of shape and for their capacity to suggest remote and mythical places. They impart at once both the impression of the concrete solidity of matter as well as the plasticity and mutability of things – a fine example of Yin/Yang – reminding the viewer of Laozi’s teaching that the softest things can overcome the hardest.

Contrasted with the Chinese metaphysical perception of rocks, the Japanese idealization starts and finishes on a more down-to-earth level. In Japan the most sought-after garden rocks are the dense, solid, metamorphic granites. Simple, uncomplicated forms, not pierced or weirdly contorted, they convey a sense of permanence and stability. A rock in a Japanese garden is prized for its evocative power by itself, to symbolize a hill, cliff, waterfall, or rocky islet. Aside from its unyielding form, a characteristic highly esteemed is the rock’s finish – the texture, tone and colour of its surfaces – the more signs of age, the better. Rather than Chinese cosmic allusions to heaven, rocks in a Japanese garden, as a minimum, symbolize the bare bones of the earth. For the Japanese, no matter how precious or rare the rock, it still must usually serve as one element of a larger suggestive grouping. They provide solidity and a sense of timelessness as a counterweight to the dynamism of the plants.

In the two garden traditions, plants are also treated differently. The Chinese use shrubs and trees naturalistically, pruning and thinning them, but avoid forming them into massive, compact shapes. There is so much bulk in the masonry walls, structures and rockery that plants are used mainly for their profile and colour. Aside from a scattering of blooming trees and shrubs, colour plays a subsidiary role with occasional annual flowers set out in pots. In addition, salvia and seasonal peonies and chrysanthemums are sparsely dispersed in raised beds retained by rockery.      

The Japanese also train trees and shrubs to emphasize their natural branching structures, but contrary to Chinese practice, some shrubs may be sheared into compact hedges, or into dome-like or blocky shapes that became living, transitional architectural forms, linking pure nature with man-made structures. Or, they may serve as symbolic elements – hills and mountain ranges – seen often in the sheared, undulating hillocks of azaleas and hollies. The flowers of a sheared shrub have little design significance as compared with the strongly defined shape of the shrub itself. Flowers play a minor role, where, instead of colour, stress is placed on line and form. An occasional accent of colour, however, may be introduced here and there among rocks, a naturalized bed of irises, or chrysanthemums, spring flowering trees, crape myrtle, or the red berries of an ardisia, cotoneaster or viburnum. But in every instance these flowers are integrated into the basic naturalism of the garden.


Comment: In China, up until 1949, the traditional classic gardens were still privately held. Today they are under the care of the municipal authorities. Suzhou, the city renowned for its gardens, had during Ming times 271 private gardens. By 1980, 69 sites still remained. Today, 17 are open to the public.

Now a final comment: design is not static. Even in China garden styles change. A hundred years from now the classical garden will be preserved as a museum piece. But I believe a new type of classical garden will develop. In Japan too, garden styles are evolving. But most important, what are some of the lessons to be learned from each of these great garden traditions?