In my youth I thought Chinese and Japanese gardens were very similar. Over the years I have learned how wrong I was. Both concentrate on bringing the gardener – and visitors – into nature. With the Chinese it is a wilder nature, intended for strolling, visiting and sharing with friends. For the Japanese the garden is more stylized with carefully pruned trees and shrubs that can be admired from inside a sheltered spot. There are many ways in which they differ, some are easily perceived while others are more subtle.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California has a Japanese garden, built about the time the Huntington opened in 1928, and a Chinese Garden that was installed in 2008. These two gardens, right next to each other, give the visitor a chance to experience each type of garden, to feel the differences even if we don’t have a vocabulary for describing them.
On our visit my husband and I began with the Japanese garden. The first section was a dry garden, which is probably familiar to most of us – an area with raked gravel representing the waves of an ocean while stones, large and small, represent mountains, islands, and other features. One does not walk in this garden. You sit on a bench, or from the platform of your teahouse and you meditate and admire.
Past the dry garden we walked into a courtyard filled with a display of bonsai specimens. Creating a bonsai is a serious art among the Japanese and this courtyard is the site of the Golden State Bonsai Federation. The display of dwarfed trees with graceful limbs and twisted trunks and roots are chosen that most suit the season. The rotating collection now includes hundreds of bonsai.
The central part of the Japanese garden includes a historic Japanese house where the owners might once have sat to view their garden. Now that house overlooks two small hills separated by a shallow valley with streams and ponds and a moon bridge. Winding paths provide a stroll with ever changing views.
A teahouse stood off by itself where a tea ceremony could be performed, or where one could just enjoy the view of the garden. Often teahouses are built in a more distant wooded part of the garden, but for this public garden it was built where we could admire the teahouse and the view.
A path between walls of bamboo takes you to the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance which was completed (so far) in 2008. More features are in a planning stage. Once through the bamboo pathway way we came out onto a wild hillside scattered with tormented white stones punctuated with holes. We immediately recognized the highly prized Taihu stones from LakeTai. While they look very odd to us westerners they are considered works of art made by nature.
We entered the garden through a decorative opening and walked down a covered walk and into a paved courtyard circled with a few green plants and more Taihu stone this time inscribed with a few words of poetry. This is another Chinese tradition, to inscribe a poem or bit of wisdom on stones in picturesque places. They feel gardens are an art and that art should include other arts including the literary.
Beside the courtyard was a large pavilion, the Hall of the Green Camellia filled with tables and chairs where visitors could relax and visit for a while, but no tea was served here.
The pavilion sat on the edge of a large pond and looked across at another pavilion, while a smaller rendition of Empress Cixi’s famous marble boat was moored off to the side.
While Japanese gardens are more for looking at, Chinese gardens are for being in and enjoying with family and friends. There are covered walkways and pavilions and courtyards. There tend to be more buildings and pavilions in a Chinese garden and the paths are paved, while Japanese paths tend to be covered with gravel, moss or other groundcovers and there are fewer structures.
Stone and water are essential to these gardens, and the plants are mostly trees and shrubs. Flowers play a minor role, a role that is often more metaphoric than purely decorative. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any flowers in these two gardens, but I did see two of the three Friends of Winter, pine and bamboo. The plum tree is the third Friend, but he was not showing himself to me that day. The Chinese honor the pine and bamboo and plum because they thrive even in the bitterest winter proving themselves resilient and strong, persevering in adversity, inspiring us all to do the same. Pine and bamboo are evergreen so it is easy to understand their place in this trio, but the plum is the very first tree to bloom as winter draws to a close.
The lotus which grows out of the mud of a pond to bloom bright and unsullied is a symbol of purity, and peonies are symbols of nobility.
The Four Gentlemen are four plants that denote the seasons. The orchid is for spring, bamboo for summer, chrysanthemum for fall and the plum, again, for winter. There are many Chinese paintings that depict a scholar or official who has retired from the stresses of life in the rich court for life in his mountain top hut to care for his chrysanthemums.
Chinese and Japanese Gardens are both beautiful. Whether you enjoy parsing the traditions and philosophies of the two countries that lead to the creation of stunning gardens, or just want to enjoy the view the Huntington Botanic Gardens will give you great pleasure.
Between the Rows October 3, 2015