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Oriental Water Gardens - The Differences Between Japanese And Chinese Gardens

By Our Water Garden Expert, Dennis W Lilee

Most people have either come across an authentic Japanese garden, or at least a garden in that "style". Especially as such gardens have become so trendy of recently. The next trend, for the real garden fashion lovers amongst you, I predict to be Chinese gardens. But what is Chinese garden and how does it differ from a garden that comes from Japan?

Whilst both can be described as oriental, they are, in many respects very different from each other. They may well be composed of essentially the same elements, a recreation of the natural world, using water, stone and plants, for the object of meditation. However they do come to this end, from quite different philosophical directions. The Japanese garden derives from the ancient Shinto religion as well as Zen Buddhism. Whereas gardens from China, are heavily influenced by Fen Shui and qui (or chi). They are both a portrayal of a rather stylised version of the local environment. So you might think they ought to be similar, but they do in fact look very different. If fact to some western eyes, the classic Chinese garden may look a little strange, or certainly very unusual.

In China, Fen Shui isn't a recent trendy phenomena. In fact records of the Fen Shui masters and their practises, go back as far as the 3rd century AD. In the 12th century Emperor Hui Tsung built a massive rock garden near Loyang called Gen Yu. His justification for all this was that the throne lacked heirs and that the garden (built under instruction of the Fen Shui masters) would have the concentrated the beneficial forces to help with this.

The rocks used in the construction of Chinese gardens are of a knobbly volcanic appearance.Other features include, pavilions, bridges, summer-houses, a patio umbrella and covered galleries, with plants and flowers taking a quite minor role To the western eye, more of a look of an abstract garden sculpture, rather than the more conventional western rockery, or the elegant look of a those used in a Japanese garden.

Classical Chinese gardens may also appear to some to be very "architectural", in that they are composed of walls within walls,courtyards surrounded by yet smaller courtyards. Other features include, pavilions, bridges, summer-houses, a patio umbrella and covered galleries, with plants and flowers taking a quite minor role. Unlike most western gardens, even water gardens, where plants often predominant.
Plants in Classical Chinese gardens had not only to be beautiful in themselves, but have historical, symbolic or literary references or associations. Later influences from Japan and Zen Buddhism allowed the inclusion of old carefully pruned specimen trees and shrubs, Bonsai. These old specimens were vessels of good qui and so became much revered. Now, as to who would have built these gardens in China, apart obviously from the emperors, many much smaller gardens where commissioned by wealthy city merchants. These were built as "secret" gardens, surrounded by high white walls, separating a place of peace and contemplation from the hustle and bustle of the city life outside. The walls had high windows to allow the qui and the light to flow in, rather than the curious gaze of any passers.

These relatively small gardens were intended to be an interpretation and minature version of the whole of nature, with mountains represented by artfully placed or piled rocks, lakes and rivers by hand made pottery, or stone, water bowls. The intricate paths, walkways and bridges representing the equivalent of journeys through the mountains and valleys. So not surprisingly when the first western eyes saw one of these very private gardens, they failed to understand the significance of it's features and dismissed it as rather strange, or certainly felt unsettled.

The Japanese garden, at least to our modern eyes, we probably feel more at home with. The artful placing of a carefully selected stone here and there, a subtle small pool with a stone lantern in the centre and a few carefully displayed tree or shrub specimens. Even a Japanese Zen gravel garden, containing one or two large stones surrounded by a bed of gravel carefully raked in to soothing patterns, may not be to everyone's taste, but at least most of us can have some appreciation of what the gardener or landscaper was trying to achieve.

Perhaps if we take a little more time to understand the fundamentals of a Chinese garden, this kind, or style, will become the next gardening craze.
I'll leave you with that thought.







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