BY Lori Murray , Texas Superstar Specialist
On the afternoon of our second day in China we visited the Summer Palace in Beijing. I was especially eager to see it because I was sure it would have a garden. The crowds were dense so I cautiously made my way through the compound all senses on alert. I saw several beautifully decorated buildings, I saw numerous huge limestone rocks and sculptures, I saw a koi pond, a lake, and lots of smaller elaborate structures, but I couldn’t help wondering, WHERE is the garden??? Pretty soon I was on a path along the lake and out in the open, but I still didn’t see any plants on display for my pleasure. I was SO disappointed!
It was only later that I realized that, in fact, I had walked THROUGH the garden, but I didn’t recognize it as such because I was expecting it to be like an American or European garden and the crowds had made it impossible for our guide to explain the unique features we should expect.
The first gardens in China date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC). They were large tracts where the king and his nobles hunted or they were gardens of fruits and vegetables. As time passed, the large-tract gardens of emperors built to impress were joined by smaller gardens of lesser nobles, scholars, poets, merchants, and philosophers. There gardens were built for meditation and reflection; they were places to escape the outside world.
The typical classic Chinese garden is walled. It features ponds, rock formations, trees and plants as well as many many structures, all linked by winding paths. In researching I later learned that the most famous gardens in China during its last dynasty (the Qing Dynasy 1644-1912) were the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace, symbols of luxury and refinement – and I had been in one and failed to appreciate it!
When you and I visit a garden we expect to tour a myriad of flowers and plants displayed – and often labeled – for our pleasure. This is not so in China. The classical Chinese garden is not designed for a tour. It’s made for reflection in a miniature landscape that expresses the harmony that should exist between man and nature. A typical garden is quiet and removed from the bustle of the world. It has four elements: water, rocks, architecture, and plants. (Notice that flowers and trees come last.) The plants are symbolic and carefully chosen. There are winding paths and a sense of tranquility. The garden is carefully composed so that as a person moves from structure to structure, around ponds and rocks, he views a series of scenes. Often a garden will take advantage of a distant view it can spotlight from a certain angle. The garden is not meant to be seen all at once, but discovered at different viewpoints and at different times.
Looking back at photos of the Summer Palace garden, we can see that the elements of the garden were there. The palace borders a lake and the paths to the Marble Boat are open to the boats on the water, especially the popular dragon boats that symbolize the power of the emperor.
A huge lion sculpted of limestone is on guard. There is a koi pond and a place for viewing it, and the palace’s outbuildings are intricate and appealing. Flowers and trees bloom as if in nature and the lovely buildings enhance the sense of tranquility.