Traditional Chinese gardens showcase some of the most considered garden design techniques. Whether it be the scale of a neatly pruned pine tree or the positioning of a symbolic rock, Chinese garden design is not just sticking some temple statues and the odd bamboo into a pot. It's so much more. This guide will hopefully help you avoid such cliches and apply some of the Chinese design principles seen in my recent visit to Nan Lian in Hong Kong.

Garden Ninja recently visited one of the finest examples of Chinese gardens, the Nan Lian garden in Hong Kong. Set in the busy and sprawling Kowloon district it is a welcome relief from the excitement and exhaustion of the city. The gardens spread over 3.4 hectares and opened in 2006, though walking around them you would think they had been there for much longer. It got me thinking that this would be an excellent opportunity to provide my fellow garden geeks and readers to a Chinese garden design crash course!

The gardens at Nan Lian is based on the Tang dynasty Chinese garden design style and features large water features, rock formations, manicured trees and waterfalls. It is a delight to visit and once inside you can almost forget you’re in one of the busiest cities in the world. Well apart from the skyline high rises peaking through every now and then. It demonstrates the core tenants of Chinese garden design and is an excellent example to help you on your search for a Chinese-themed garden.

The towering skyline is used as a backdrop to the naturalistic chinese garden styling

Chinese gardens should balance a strong sense of nature and discovery, so it’s not just a case of putting some bamboo in a pot and adding a dragon statue. Chinese garden design is far more refined. This guide will help explain some of the foundations to ensure you avoid a mismatched design. By sticking to a more traditional set of design principles you will end up with a far more cohesive and authentic Chinese garden.

A good place to start is with the traditional Chinese garden design principles, these have been established over centuries of practice at the art of garden design. The Chinese have always treated garden design as an art, simiarly to other mediums such as painting, poetry and scripture. These principles are summarised below.

4 areas of traditional Chinese Garden Design

  1. Man (and woman’s) effort to imitate nature
  2. Art of borrowing and interaction
  3. Art of extension and contrast
  4. Aesthetics of resonance

1. Man’s effort to imitate nature

Chinese gardens are trying to imitate nature. Whether this is using rocks to symbolise mountains or carefully pruning trees in scale with the garden. The principle is that nature is the driving influence of the art of garden design. Taking the lead from mother nature, starting with the plants and topography of the Chinese countryside and then applying those features to your garden design. So you’re looking for nature to be the prominent and obvious inspiration such as curvilinear design or using plants for the structure as they would look in the wild.  The hard landscaping and buildings should then be designed to sit sympathetically within this version of ‘nature’.

You barely notice the fence or glass panels as they are sympathetic to the overall natural design features of the waterfall and manicured trees

The scale is key with this imitation of nature. A good example of this would be where you see a garden that has plants that are either too big or too small for the plot. They either look lost or overpowering. If you get this sense in a garden it’s become the scale is wrong.

Chinese garden design relies on imitating nature by using a scale that is sympathetic to the space you’re working with, not too small or too big. In garden design elements such as specimen trees, plants and rocks must be to scale in your garden. Whilst it is a good rule to have a few larger items in a garden rather than lots of small ones, there is a limit to the size of these. The scale can be established by the size of any buildings, structures or existing trees in the garden. By applying this to any garden design you can avoid that twee or overwhelming reaction from the garden.

2. Art of borrowing and interaction

You may have heard me discussing borrowed views in other articles and Chinese garden design also relies heavily on this well-established principle. It wants to take in surrounding vistas and views and incorporate them into the garden design. Why do this? Surely you want to hide off other views and neighbours? The Chinese don’t fight against other views they utilise them and it’s a key skill in any design. Whilst fencing away other views may be your first port of call, working with them or softening them can actually make your garden feel bigger. The Nan Lian garden does this excellently with the high rise apartments that could overshadow the garden. However, the design and layout make it look as if these have been incorporated and thus softens them.

The imposing skyline almost disappears into the vista

3. Art of extension and contrast

Given the fact that you will be recreating nature in miniature the third design principle is all about discovery and journey in the garden. The principle is to encourage people to wonder ‘what’s around that corner’ or ‘what is over there?’.  So by using careful placement of features such as rocks or buildings in the distance, then you can develop this extension to guide your visitors around the garden design.

Stone is used to provide a informal path; giving drama to the garden wondering where it leads to!

4. Aesthetics of resonance

Now, this final design point is quite tricky to explain and would probably be more reserved for the die-hard Chinese design followers. It’s a real head-scratcher so bare with me! It’s about resonance, as in bringing an image or memory to mind whilst in the garden. Confused, yes it’s quite abstract which can be a struggle to articulate. The aesthetics of resonance requires the careful placement of items to invoke a feeling of maybe a landscape, artwork or memory in the visitor.

In a Chinese garden design, it may be the arrangement of rocks to symbolise a significant mountainscape in nature or planting to enrich the imagination, maybe to lead to a daydream of a painting or poem. It’s a very tricky and abstract concept to articulate easily, so I think I will leave it there. I’m told the Nan Lian garden has the aesthetics of resonance though in my limited experience I can’t say it was obvious!

What’s the difference between a Japanese and Chinese garden?

Now, this is a very contested argument so I must caveat it in that both styles are actually very different and that I don’t want the Chinese garden mafia or Japanese zen ninjas coming for me. At first glance, you may think they both look similar but there are some clear differences.

  • Japanese gardens are more symbolic and controlled, to the point of absolute control of nature!
  • A Chinese garden is more about discovery, journey and even though it may be very manicured, there is less focus on the minute details.
  • In Japanese gardens even a wooden walkway will be positioned with the groove in a certain direction, with an exacting wood stain and finish.
  • In a Chinese garden, the wood may be more natural and blend in more with the surroundings. In a Japanese garden, it is obvious that its there for a reason.

Many may argue with my definitions but I think its a good starting point for debate! Why not comment below?

Focal Points in Chinese Garden Design

In the Nan Lian garden, the main focal point is the octagonal pavilion which stands in the middle of the octagonal lotus-shaped pond. It is described as a symbol of absolute perfection and fulfilment in all aspects of life, and blessings to all visitors and painted gold you can’t miss it. It actually takes your breath away when you see it, which really supports its success as a focal point.

It provides an absolute focus point to the garden and is made using traditional wooden joining, where the beams all self-support themselves. Incredible craftsmanship and worthy of a visit for this alone! A focus point is always a valuable addition to any garden design, there is no point having a path that leads nowhere. You can even use multiple focus points to navigate people around the garden.

Perfectly pruned and manicured trees and shrubs surround the golden structure

Pruning in Chinese Garden Design

Pruning is fundamental in this style of garden to help replicate nature on a miniature scale. Shrubs and trees are pruned to show their true perfection. Branches are trained, fading flowers snipped out, unruly lateral shoots are removed, bark cleaned and scrubbed. It’s all about putting your best foot forward and displaying nature to its finest.

It’s high maintenance and high impact. To show the lengths that the curators of the Nan Lian garden go to have a look at the pictures below. In the highlighted circles you may be able to see the training wires used on young shrubs and trees to train them into specific shapes. These wires are used to ensure that laterals, or side shoots, grow out perfectly horizontally, ensuring even spacing in the trees ultimate shape. This is man controlling nature to the extreme!

See if you can spot the well hidden training wires

Other areas of the garden I saw were being pruned meticulously by hand by the curators. Keeping the shrubs in a state of perfection. By nipping out new growth they are controlling the ultimate height of the plants and making sure that all the energy and hormones are sent from the top new growth back down to the rest of the plant ensuring it keeps a fuller bushier appearance, without ever getting leggy of straggly. It’s a sight to behold and makes me feel incredibly lazy with my ‘as and when’ pruning regime of my own shrubs.

Can you see how each type of tree is roughly the same height and shape? It’s no accident!

If you thought the pruning regime was intense you should watch the curators as they delicately wash and clean the rocks in the garden. They do this to keep them looking pristine and to ensure they stand out. Moss or pollution are not allowed to take home on these carefully placed rocks. When you look at them the veins and mineral strands are so clear to see. Which again draws your attention to the detail and nature of the garden.

Chinese Garden Design

Bonsai excellence at Nan Lian

Summary

So there we have it, a quick guide to Chinese garden design. My trip to Hong Kong was a real eye-opener to see some of the styles and practices demonstrated in true Chinese Garden Design. Nam Lian was one of the calmest places in hectic Hong Kong and best-preserved gardens I’ve seen. It’s probably not the kind of detail that most gardeners can follow in the Uk, without giving up work and becoming neurotic over their garden. However, the principles are really interesting and can be applied to turn your garden into a much more authentic Chinese garden.

Fancy your very own Chinese style garden? Why not get in touch or comment below to see what Garden Ninja designs can do for you? Why not post pictures of your own Chinese garden design to my Facebook page?

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