Five Elements

Throughout China’s vast history of gardens, three basic styles of gardens have emerged:  expansive imperial gardens, temple gardens situated to take advantage of the natural scenery, and private walled gardens.  It was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in Suzhou (Portland’s sister city), that private gardens reached a height of refinement and sophistication.  Lan Su Yuan is grows out of this historic tradition of Suzhou-style walled gardens.

While gardens in the West are planted, the Chinese have long thought of building one.  Rather than imitate nature, architects and horticulturalists of Chinese gardens strive to recreate an ideal landscape in miniature.  The natural elements: rock mountains, lakes, and trees, along with their qi, or energy are brought together in harmony with architecture and poetry.  Chinese gardens are designed to stimulate one’s intellect and spirit while wandering in Nature in an oasis of tranquility.

The Chinese word for landscape--shan shui--literally translates as “mountain water." A common phrase for making a garden, again translated literally, is “digging ponds and piling mountains.”


Lake Tai rocks are prized for their shape, texture, and the holesthat run through themStone is the hard skeletal structure of the world.  What most often intrigues the first-time visitor to our Chinese Garden are the strangely-shaped standing stones; these are the highly prized Taihu stones.  Formed of limestone brought up from the bed of Lake Tai, only 30 kilometers west of Suzhou, they demonstrate the soft force of water as it wears away hard stone over many years.  You will find Taihu stones piled into false mountains, set up as monolithic abstract sculpture, and lining the edge of the Garden’s lake.

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 its surface marks of the hammers and chisels of stonemasons who hand-cut these stones for use in the Garden.  Another form of stone is seen in the tall slender “shoot stones”, so called because of their resemblance to bamboo shoots.  For this reason, these stones are often planted near groves of bamboo.  Riddled with holes, their origin is the subject of endless scholarly debate among Garden guides.  Lastly, water-worn 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.

Download more information about stone - Rocks Reading Level 1 (PDF, 188K)
Download more information about stone - Rocks Reading Level 2 (PDF, 176K)
Download more information about rocks - Rocks Reading Questions Level 2 (PDF, 120K)


Lake Zither in the Garden holds nearly 30,000 gallonsIn the Chinese Garden, the solidity of stone (yang) is balanced by the softness of water (yin).  When opposites--yin yang--are in balance, there is rejuvenating qi energy. As the circulatory system of the world, water 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 Zither Lake.  During the Ming dynasty, water also had several practical purposes as protection against fire, for the irrigation of plants and crops, and as a source of fresh fish.  Water also helps regulate humidity, and both purifies and cools the air around it.

Download more information about water - Water Reading Level 1 (PDF, 157K)
Download more information about water - Water Reading Level 2 (PDF, 172K)
Download more information about water - Water Reading Questions Level 2 (PDF, 83K)


In a Western garden, flowers are often chosen for their color, fragrance, and blooming times.  In a Chinese garden where “what is concealed is equally as important as what is revealed,” plants have an additional value as cultural symbols.  For instance, pine, flowering plum, and bamboo are collectively known as the Three Friends of Winter; during harsh weather, the plants display needle, flower, or leaf, thereby demonstrating the scholarly virtues of strength, courage, flexibility, and integrity.  The lotus in the lake present the essence of purity, as they grow in the mud and are cleansed as they emerge through the surface of the water.

Lotus symbolize rebirth through the life cycle of bud, blossom, and seed podPlants serve other purposes as well.  Some are edible—such as bamboo.  Other plants, such as ginkgo, have medicinal properties.  The hardy banana is often planted under the eaves of the roof and serves to amplify the sound of rain dripping from the roof tiles unto its large leaves. 

Trees are said to provide deep roots for 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. Efforts were made to locate local specimens of full-grown trees and plants, over 90% of which were originally indigenous to China.  Generous donations from nurseries, private collections and gardens around Oregon provided Lan Su Yuan with botanicals that bring a timeless quality to the Garden.

Download more information about plants - Plants Reading Level 1 (PDF, 231K)
Download more information about plants - Plants Reading Level 2 (PDF, 162K)
Download more information about plants - Plants Reading Questions Level 2 (PDF, 102K)


Western visitors are often amazed and confused by the number of buildings found in Chinese gardens.  It is important to remember that Ming dynasty gardens were part of the extended living space for the adjacent family home.  Therefore, the placement of the principal buildings was the most important element in the layout of a garden in order to achieve a harmonious integration of architecture within the natural world. Suzhou gardens are often referred to as ‘living landscape paintings’ in which Tao, or the Way, overwhelms even the people inside.

To make the Garden appear larger on the inside of the Garden walls than could be imagined when standing outside, many forms of buildings have traditionally been used.

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, often in a zig-zag design
Shuixie—a waterside pavilion, half extended out over 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
Download more reading about architecture - Architecture Reading Level 1 (PDF, 161K)
Download more reading about architecture - Architecture Reading Level 2 (PDF, 164K)
Download more reading about architecture - Architecture Reading Questions Level 2 (PDF, 96K)

Literary Inscriptions

In Chinese tradition, garden landscape without poetry is not complete, and Lan Su Yuan is graced with a wealth of poetic inscriptions.  Traditionally, the owners of such gardens were scholar officials in the Ming imperial court.  Poetry writing and recitation, along with an extensive understanding of classical texts, were essential requirements for successful passage of China’s rigorous civil service examinations.  Discovering poetic inscriptions engraved into rocks, framing doorways, or above gateways have long enhanced the natural wonders of the Garden and added another level of intellectual pleasure to everyone’s experience. Poetic inscriptions reveal deeper meanings of the Lake Tai rocks, moving water, symbolic flowers, and elegant architecture.

Download more reading about poetry - Poetry Reading Level 1 (PDF, 155K)
Download more reading about poetry - Poetry Reading Level 2 (PDF, 160K)
Download more reading about poetry - Poetry Reading Questions Level 2 (PDF, 120K)

Listen to the Fragrance: Literary Inscriptions in Lan Su Yuan by Charles Wu offers translation and commentary of the Garden’s poetry and is available in the Garden Gift Store.

Portland Classical Chinese Garden

NW 3rd & Everett Portland, OR 97209 503.228.8131