With the only un-interrupted cultural development in the world for 4000 years, China has a great heritage of magnificent gardens and garden building techniques. Unfortunately, few people in the western world are aware of this treasure. As China is prospering again under the current economic boom, its gardening traditions are generating new interests worldwide. A few years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese gardens in North America. Now two high profile ones are under construction at the Huntington Library in Southern California and the National Arboretum in Washington D.C.. However, from what I have seen so far, the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is still the best Chinese garden in North America.
The Chinese-American population in Portland is really small compared with other large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But Portland has one great advantage: its sister city in China is Suzhou, a city about 50 miles west of Shanghai that has the best classical private gardens in China. Founded around 600 B.C., Suzhou used to have many canals and rivers crisscrossing the whole city, earning the nickname “Venice of the Orient”. Suzhou has always been one of the most afflunent cities in China, and together with another city Hangzhou are called “Heaven on Earth”. The following are two garden scenes from SuZhou:
This undulating covered corridor is in the western part of the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou. It feels like wave surfing when one walks through its whole length. The pavillion in the center is a fishing spot by design.
This is a scene from my favorite garden in Suzhou, The Art Garden. I especially like the curvy stone bridge near the pavillion and the flat bending stone bridge close to the high walls. Both are hovering right above the water in harmony, yet preserving excellent visual contrast with their different styles.
The private gardens in SuZhou were built as part of the residences for well-to-do scholars and bureaucrats. They are all done in naturalistic style without formal central axis in the layout. Fancy rock work and large ponds are ever-present. Since these gardens were all designed for large families with many separate outdoor activity areas to be enjoyed under all weather conditions, they are heavy on hardscapes with numerous forms of pavillions, covered corridors, and halls. The Portland Classical Chinese Garden is a very authentic scholar’s garden made by craftsmen from Suzhou. When one visits its grounds, the diversity and intricate decorative details of all its buildings are too striking to miss.
It is interesting to compare Chinese gardens with the well-known Japanese gardens, which were greatly influenced by Chinese garden during the Tang and Song dynasties but later developed its own unique styles such as the Karesansui (Withered Mountain and Water or dry landscapes). Like Chinese gardens, Japanese gardens also use natural stone and pond extensively while avoiding central axis and formal layout. However, in Japanese gardens most areas are designed as stylized scenes from nature. Visitors can admire the scenes from a respectful distance, but are usually not supposed to get close. This sense of reverence probably has to do with the stronger influence of Buddhism in Japan, where many famous traditional gardens are indeed temple gardens specifically designed for meditation. Chinese gardens, on the other hand, are all about secular enjoyments, or outdoor living in today’s terms. All areas are connected and accessable via covered walkways that encourage exploration of the garden even in inclement weather. There are buildings imitating boats to take in the summer breeze, halls for drawing/painting, and pavillions for playing chess. In fact, Chinese aesthetics regards the elegant visitors of a garden as an essential part of the scenary.
Many western visitors might feel that traditional Chinese gardens do not have enough greenery. The plant palette is usually limited to a small selection with cultural significance. The most commonly used ones are peonies, azaleas, camellias, bamboos, pines, bananas, osmanthus, water lotus, Prunus mume, etc. This is in great contrast with the amazing plant diversity in China, which has the most number of native plant species among all countries in temperate climate regions of the world. In this regard, the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is blazing a new trail by applying the highest level of modern plant design and horticultural practices to compliment the fabulously crafted hardscapes as well as showcase the lesser known Chinese plants to gardening enthusiasts. In my opinion, this is an innovative practice that adds to the charm of Portland Chinese Garden without diminishing its authenticity. The plant list with over 600 entries can be found at an online database accessible at the Portland Chinese Garden’s web page.
Here are some photos from my two visits to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. To see a mini slideshow for each group, just click on any of the thumbnail images, which will bring up an image window — the navigation buttons “next” and “prev” are located on the upper right and left of each image. Enjoy!
The first group shows the wide variety of doors and windows:
The second group is a sample of the exquisite pebble mosaic pavings found in the garden:
The third group shows the sculptural Taihu rocks and exotic plants:
The final group is a selection of garden scenes and architectual details: