Gardens in Chinese Art

Freer and Sackler Galleries

Scenes from the Story of the Western Wing

Throughout East Asia, early gardens developed around royal residences, religious institutions, and academies of learning.

Gardens in East Asia

Although some of these famous old gardens still exist, many are only known through written sources and illustrations. Over the centuries, each region developed its own garden types, shaped by various artistic, cultural, economic, and personal considerations.

Immortalized in Art

Certain basic features, however, are common to most East Asian gardens and help define a distinctive regional aesthetic.
This scene, a small part of a larger album, illustrates an episode in a popular love story, which became the subject of a play titled The Story of the Western Wing.

Story of the Western Wing

While touring a Buddhist temple, an aspiring young scholar stumbles across two female lodgers, Oriole (Cui Yingying) and her maid Crimson (Hongniang), and he becomes immediately enamored with Oriole.
Having received a suggestive written response to his overtures, the young scholar scales the wall of Oriole's garden one night. There, Crimson waits to lead him to her mistress, who plans to scold the youth for his forwardness.

The Brash Scholar

Traditionally, private gardens in China were enclosed by walls or fences of some kind, and were an integral part of the immediate home environment. Small courtyard gardens, such as the one depicted here, and decorative plantings along open passageways figured prominently within the main living space, and many ground-floor rooms had easy access to an adjoining garden area of suitable scale and proportion.

The Small Courtyard

Chinese gardens endeavor to represent all aspects of the natural landscape, especially two of its most prominent features, water and mountains. While decorative rocks stand in for mountains, pools and streams are important architectural features as well. Here, a paved pool of indeterminate size is marked by a carved stone balustrade, while at one end a shallow set of stairs leads into the water.

Mountains and Streams

Tropical in origin, the variety of banana typically planted in Chinese gardens, Musa basjoo, always carries a hint of the hot, exotic south. With its broad leaves and bright red floral panicles, the banana was an ornamental favorite of Asian gardeners. In Chinese paintings, as here, the tree often appears—together with a large decorative rock—as part of the garden backdrop for a pensive young woman.

Banana Plants

Large free-standing rocks perforated and eroded into bizarre shapes are a common feature of traditional Chinese gardens, and serve as a form of natural sculpture in both dry land and water settings. Aficionados collected especially dramatic or visually intriguing specimens of all sizes and displayed them in various contexts within their homes and gardens, where they were seen as representations of mountains.

Eroded Rocks
Credits: Story

Exhibit Version

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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