Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Chinese Gardens and Collectors’ Rocks

According to historical records of the Zhou dynasty, the earliest gardens in China were vast parks built by the aristocracy for pleasure and hunting. Han-dynasty texts mention a greater interest in the ownership of rare plants and animals, as well as an association between fantastic rocks and the mythical mountain paradises of immortals. Elaborate gardens continued to be built by members of the upper classes throughout China’s history.

A smaller, more intimate type of garden, represented by the Museum’s Chinese Garden Court, also developed in China. Gardens of this kind are associated with scholar-gentlemen, or literati, and have been celebrated in Chinese literature since the fourth century A.D. Paintings, poems, and historical books described famous gardens of the literati, which were often considered a reflection of their owners’ cultivation and aesthetic taste. The number of private gardens, especially in the region around Suzhou in southern China, grew steadily after the twelfth century. The temperate climate and the great agricultural and commercial wealth of the region encouraged members of the upper class to lavish their resources on the cultivation of gardens. During the period of the Mongol conquest in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, many literati in this region found official employment either disagreeable or hard to obtain and therefore devoted themselves to self-cultivation and the arts. The garden became the focus of an alternative lifestyle that celebrated quiet contemplation and literary pursuits, often in the company of like-minded friends.

Traditional Chinese gardens were meant to evoke a feeling of being in the larger natural world, so that the occupant could capture the sensations of wandering through the landscape. Compositions of garden rocks were viewed as mountain ranges and towering peaks; miniature trees and bushes suggested ancient trees and forests; and small ponds or springs represented mighty rivers and oceans. In other words, the garden presented the larger world of nature in microcosm. Masses of colorful cultivated blossoms, flowerbeds of regular geometric shape, and singular vistas (such as the formal gardens at Versailles) were all avoided, in keeping with the goal of re-creating actual landscapes. Instead, the many aspects of a Chinese garden are revealed one at a time. A garden’s scenery is constantly altered by the shifting effects of light and the seasons, which form an important part of one’s experience of a garden and help engage all the senses, not just sight.

One of the most important considerations in garden design is the harmonious arrangement of elements expressing different aspects of yin and yang. The juxtaposition and blending of opposites can be seen in the placement of irregularly shaped rocks next to smooth, rectangular clay tiles; soft moss growing on rough rocks; flowing water contained by a craggy grotto; and a dark forecourt that precedes entry into a sun-drenched central courtyard.

Rocks have long been admired in China as an essential feature in gardens. By the early Song dynasty, small ornamental rocks were also collected as accoutrements of the scholar’s study, and the portrayal of individual rocks, often joined with an old tree or bamboo, became a favorite and enduring pictorial genre. By the fourteenth century, depictions of gardens almost always included representations of a fantastic rock or “artificial mountain,” and scholars’ rocks often supplanted actual scenery as sources of inspiration for images of landscapes.

Sculptural garden rocks, with distinctive shapes, textures, and colors, have always been treasured as focal points of Chinese gardens. By the Tang dynasty, three principal aesthetic criteria had been identified for judging both garden stones and the smaller “scholars’ rocks” displayed in literati studios: leanness (shou), perforations (tou), and surface texture (zhou). These criteria led to a preference for stones that were vertically oriented, often with a top-heavy shape; riddled with cavities and holes; and richly textured with furrows, dimples, or striations.