The Portland Classical Chinese Garden

Between NW 2nd and 3rd and NW Everett and Flanders in Old Town/Chinatown, Portland Oregon, USA

Five Elements

China has three basic styles of garden: expansive imperial gardens, those in or near temples situated to take advantage of the natural scenery surrounding them, and private gardens. Suzhou, Portland’s Sister City, is called the “Garden City of China” and is famous for its private gardens.

In the west we speak of planting a garden, the Chinese think of building one. Rather than imitate nature, the Chinese gardener tries to recreate an ideal landscape in miniature with mountains, lakes, trees, and their qi, or energy, and to incorporate man’s place within nature.

The Chinese word for landscape, shan shui, means literally “mountains and water” and a common phrase for making a garden, again translated literally, is “digging ponds and piling mountains.” Water and stone are therefore important elements in the creation of a garden.

Stone

Stone is the hard skeletal structure of the world. It’s used in a garden in two important ways: as sculpture and as building material. What most often intrigues the first-time visitor to a Chinese garden are the strangely shaped standing stones--the most prized of all are Taihu stones. Formed of limestone brought up from the bed of Lake Tai, only thirty kilometers west of Suzhou, they demonstrate, over the course of many years, the soft force of water as it wears away hard stone. They line the edges of garden ponds, are piled into false mountains, and are set up as monolithic abstract sculpture.

Granite is used at the base of each wooden column, in bridgework, walkways, and courtyards. This light-colored stone is recognizable by the lines on it’s surface--marks of the hammers and chisels of stonemasons who hand cut these stones for use in the garden. Another form of stone are the tall slender “shoot stones,” so called because of their resemblance to bamboo shoots, and, for this reason, are often planted near bamboo. Riddled with holes, their origin is the subject of endless scholarly debate among garden guides. Lastly, waterworn pebbles, in combination with bits of quarried stone, broken pottery, and roof tiles set on edge, are used extensively in walkways and paved courtyards in a wide variety of patterns.

Water

When opposites are in balance there is rejuvenating qi energy, and so the solidity of stone should be balanced by the softness of water. Water, as the circulatory system of the earth, also brings vital energy to the garden and to its visitors.

Like a mirror, the ever-changing effects of sun and clouds enter the garden a second time through their reflection in the lake. A body of water has practical use in fighting fires, as a source of water for irrigation, and as a source for fresh fish. It also helps regulate humidity, and both purifies and cools the air around it.

Architecture

Western visitors are often amazed and confused by the number of buildings found in Chinese gardens. In fact, since gardens were part of the extended living space for the adjacent family home, the siting of the principal buildings was the most important element in the layout of gardens. And, since garden buildings were less restricted by traditional regulations concerning architecture, they could come in many forms--for variety, no two would be the same. Some garden structures include:

  • Fáng - a boat-shaped pavilion, also called a dry-land boat
  • Lang - a covered corridor or roofed walkway
  • Lóu - a two-storied building, occasionally used as living quarters by young, unmarried female members of the family
  • Qiáo - bridges
  • Shuixie - a waterside pavilion, half extended out over the lake
  • Táng - the main hall
  • Tíng - a pavilion, or literally ‘stopping’ place in which to rest
  • Xuan - a studio for painting or calligraphy, enclosed in a small quiet courtyard

Literature and the Arts

The owners of such gardens were scholars, among the best-educated in China--poetry writing and familiarity with the classics were two of the requirements for early Chinese civil service examinations. Guests they brought to their gardens were also among the elite of society at that time, and poetry added another level of intellectual pleasure to their experience of the garden. Today we might be tempted to call writing on walls or stones graffiti, but for the Chinese scholar they were decorative “conversation pieces” meant to spark discussion among their guests.

The garden was a place for many other activities as well--enjoying chess or other games, listening to or playing musical instruments, watching theatrical performances, creating paintings in ink on paper, or tending miniature potted trees.

Plants

While flowers are lovely, and varieties have been planted so something is in bloom in each season in the garden, many plants are chosen as much for their fragrance as for their color. In a western garden flowers often play a primary role--and so what we see is very important. In a Chinese garden what we don’t see is equally important, as everything contains hidden symbolism, including the plants. Flowers represent the four seasons, the lotus signifies purity, the pine antiquity, the bamboo uprightness, and so on. Plants serve other purposes as well, some are edible or have medicinal properties, and the hardy banana is planted under the eaves in order to take advantage of the sound of rain dripping from the roof and falling on their large leaves. Trees are said to give the age of a garden, and the designers of Lan Su Yuan wanted our garden to be a hundred years old when the gates first opened to the public. Rather than plant a tree and wait for it to grow, they went to the extra effort to bring in full-grown trees into the garden. And, in tribute to the generosity of local garden nurseries and the community, most of the plants in the garden were contributions. Thanks in part to a long historical association among pacific rim countries, many local sources were found for rare specimens of native Chinese plants.

By combining the five elements of stone, water, architecture, literature and the arts, and plants, we can experience within the garden the essential balance between humanity and nature.