The Chinese Garden

Updated on April 14, 2019
Elyn MacInnis profile image

Elyn lived in China with her family for 30 years, soaking up the history and culture, having fun, and making many friends.

What makes the Chinese garden Chinese?

Photos of most of the elements of a Chinese Garden can be found here on this page. Most Chinese classical gardens have these elements, and they are part of what makes the Chinese Garden Chinese.

*Moon gates and special Carved windows

*Fascinating Stones, usually from Lake Tai

*A Pond, usually with golden carp

*Rock Gardens - sometimes like a maze

*Rooms with different functions:

- like libraries

- rooms for playing music,

- rooms for studying religion, like Taoism or Buddhism

- my favorite: secret caves for special meetings

*Pavilions for enjoying nature

*Pagodas, and other places to drink tea in all weather

Perhaps you will get to China some day, and can visit these gardens in person. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these Chinese garden photos I have taken through the years and learn a little about the philosophy and structure of a Chinese Garden.

The photos taken on this page were taken over the last 30 years by Elyn MacInnis.

Master of the Nets courtyard
Master of the Nets courtyard

The Chinese have been forming their idea of "Garden" for hundreds of years

A Chinese garden is full of symbolism, and is meant to be a representation of the universe, and at the same time a miniature presentation of vast natural landscapes, there in all their glory, yet so small they can fit into a tiny pocket of land as a part of an extended Chinese family's sprawling house complex. It is the setting for huge family gatherings, especially during holidays, the place where people went for contemplation, where scholars, poets, and government officials met to discuss important topics, and a place for peace and relaxation.

It is hard to imagine until you have been in a few. If you don't observe carefully, you might think that all Chinese gardens are similar, with the same ideas - central pond, rock piles, corridors, latticed windows, old trees, and many buildings. But there is a lot of expression within the "rules" themselves, each garden has its own delightful aspects that people from all over the world appreciate to this day.

They say it takes 300 years to cultivate a garden. Think about that.

In the Center - a Pond or Lake

A body of water - a lake or pond - is critical to a Chinese Garden. It is both practical as well as an important philosophical statement.

The practical reasons are that it provides humidity and a cooling oasis in the center, as well as water for the plants and fish.

It is also there for philosophical reasons. Water is Yin in Taoist theory, the soft, yielding. The Lake Tai stones at the edge of the pond are Yang, the solid, unyielding. Together there is The Whole, the Yin Yang that describes all life, that balances your Qi energy, and gives vitality to all who visit the garden.

The water also provides beautiful reflections, can be a mirror for beautiful ladies anxious to have a glimpse at what their face looks like, can be used in case of fire, and can also be used to water the trees and plants throughout the garden.

In the earliest days of creating gardens, the name for this process was "cultivating a pond," instead of "creating a garden," and that also gives us some insight into how important a pond is to a Chinese garden.

Chinese gardens also have Strange Stones - That come mostly from Lake Tai

Chinese garden rocks and pond
Chinese garden rocks and pond

Lake Tai stones are full of holes.

Everyone likes strange and unusual things. Stones from Lake Tai are very unusual, and are prized in China for their amazing holes, nooks and crannies. The holes occur when the limestone at the base of Lake Tai is eroded in certain spots, creating holes. It takes thousands of years, and that is another interesting piece about these rocks.

The philosophy of having stones,

Stone is hard, and makes a good accompaniment for the soft water of the pond in the center of the garden. In fact, it is the soft flowing water of Lake Tai that makes the holes in the limestone under water, and creates these amazing stones. They are often piled up into stone mountains, many times layered, so that you get the illusion that you are in the mountains, looking at the craggy rocks layered in the distance.

Chinese people love strange stones. and they get great delight in imagining what the stones could portray. A chicken, a layer of clouds or mountains, a tortoise, two birds talking? The rocks have a kind of freedom that is delightful.

Lake Tai Rocks layered - Doesn't this look like a pagoda in the distance mountains? It really isn't far at all.

Lake Tai rocks
Lake Tai rocks

The Golden Carp - flashes of light in the deep water

Carp are beloved. Who doesn't enjoy feeding the fish? A good Chinese garden has golden carp in the central pond. Carp can be food for the family, and in some gardens there are special pavilions with the exact purpose of watching the fish.

Moon Gates and Latticed Windows - The place to look through and see the view on the other side

Chinese garden window lattice
Chinese garden window lattice

The view of the view of the view. This is a common feature of a Chinese garden. If you look through the frame of a door, you may find a window just inside the door, which looks through into a garden, giving you a vista of layers upon layers of scenery. It is a reminder of how complex and layered our lives are, and also how complex our universe is. At any rate, make sure you think of layers and appreciate them.

Traditional window pattern with bamboo in the background

Chinese garden art architecture history
Chinese garden art architecture history
Chinese garden window design
Chinese garden window design

Wonderfully shaped doors - this one has a meaning - Moons, gourds, and all sorts of openings

Chinese garden door
Chinese garden door

Whoever thought to make a door in the shape of a gourd?

I can imagine a moon - but a gourd? It isn't as strange as you might think. The gourd is a symbol for long life. Surely this door was created when someone reached a ripe old age and this symbolic shape was created instead of a regular shape. Even if no one made it to 80, gourds could be seen as a wish that someone would live a long life, a blessing every time you walk through the door. Nice idea!

Why is the gourd a symbol of long life? Because the God of Long Life, who has a head shaped like a peach, carries a gourd on a stick over his shoulder that has the "elixir of long life" in it. This comes from one of China's many tales from thousands of years ago.

Moon Gate

Moon Gate
Moon Gate
God of Loingevity
God of Loingevity

Just so you know what the god of longevity looks like...

See his head shaped like a peach? That's how you know.

In a Chinese Garden, patience is critical - In the back gardens at the Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou

A garden is an exercise in "cultivating temperament." It takes time to find the right parts.

If you have an inscription hanging over a door, you need the right person to do the calligraphy, hopefully an Emperor, and you have to wait until the right moment and the right connections to ask for it. You also have to wait for the plants to grow. A good garden is not something that happens overnight, but matures and deepens its beauty as years go by. When you make a garden you are not just doing it for now, but are anticipating the future, and imagining the generations to come.

In a Chinese garden you are also expected to build on what was there before you. Sometimes new ideas arise, and if it is well received by people, you will suddenly find it in many local gardens. This is not so much copying as it is improving.

What happened in Chinese Gardens? - All sorts of things!

Chinese garden art architecture history
Chinese garden art architecture history

Moon Festival celebrations for one! Many Chinese celebrations of were held out in the garden. Extended family, friends, and important people all might have been invited to be part of celebrations. There would be tables full of food for the guests and offerings in honor of the moon. Everyone would sing songs, write poems, drink wine, eat mooncakes filled with sweet lotus seed paste, and have a good time being with each other.

Gardens were also places where lovers could meet. In the 1980s and 90s, gardens like the "Couples Garden" were still a meeting spot for lovers. If you poked your head around any corner, there you could find couples enjoying themselves, often kissing. Chinese homes are very crowded, often with grandparents sharing the space. With no room to your own, what would you do if you had a boyfriend or girlfriend? Several hundred years ago it was the same - lovers often found a private spot where they could meet in the garden for a quick talk, and maybe a smooch.

Gardens were also a place where people eased their hearts, and spent time in contemplation. People still do that in gardens very naturally.

Gardens were to enjoy. They were planned so that no matter where you looked, there was a new view and some new delight for your eyes.

The painting above is a segment of the painting "Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden". Ink and color on silk by Leng Mei from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and is in the public domain.

And Chinese Gardens were places where scholars gathered

Chinese garden art architecture history
Chinese garden art architecture history

Just as gardens were a place for contemplation, they were also a place where poets and writers, officials and philosophers gathered and discussed their latest theories and philosophy. They also discussed deep philosophy and complex matters of religion. In order not to be bothered, they often created hidden rooms where they could discuss their ideas in private. The picture below is of a secret room in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou.

What kind of architecture did they plan around the garden?

Chinese garden corridors
Chinese garden corridors

Corridors for one! In the Suzhou area, it rained a lot. If household help needed to carry food to the master and mistress of the garden, it was helpful to walk along corridors instead of having to walk through the garden in the rain. Corridors are critical to garden architecture in Suzhou, south of the Yangzi River.

Why have pavilions in a Chinese Garden? - You'll never guess!

Moon viewing pavilion in the Couple's Garden, Suzhou
Moon viewing pavilion in the Couple's Garden, Suzhou

They are for looking at the scenery, writing poetry, drinking tea, listening to the sound of the waterfall, painting, and enjoying the rain without getting wet. AND - my favorite, gazing at the moon, especially the full moon in September during the Mid Autumn Moon Festival.

Each year my husband and I find a place where we can sit out at night and gaze at the moon when it is full. Sometimes people say the moon looks fuller on the night after the official full moon.

This little room at the edge of the garden was built here specifically for gazing at the autumn moon, with a clear view to the moon's position during the Moon Festival.

Here is what Su Zhi, one of China's most famous poets, wrote while looking at the moon:

People have sorrow, joy, parting and coming together

The moon can be shady, clear, full or dim.

This has been so since the beginning of time.

May we all be blessed with longevity.

A thousand miles apart yet we see the same moon

Aren't the roofs beautiful?

The Chinese Garden roof
The Chinese Garden roof

Roofs in most houses in China (not apartment buildings) are made of roof tiles. This picture will help you get a closer look at them.

Looking in the back corners of a classical Chinese Garden. Things have changed a little in the 2000s.

Chinese garden art architecture history
Chinese garden art architecture history

My favorite book on Chinese Gardens

The Craft of Gardens: The Classic Chinese Text on Garden Design
The Craft of Gardens: The Classic Chinese Text on Garden Design

Originally published around 1631, this book is a classic. Usually books that old are not extremely useful to us now since the writing is so dense compared to our modern languages. But the incredibly talented translator, Allison Hardie, and the project leader, Maggie Keswick, have added notes, forwards, and introductions that have made the text delightfully understandable. If you love gardens, you will love this book.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

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      • RhondaAlbom profile image

        Rhonda Albom 

        6 years ago from New Zealand

        Wonderful gardens. The "Moon Gate" reminds me of the garden we went to in Suzhou.

      • profile image

        sybil watson 

        6 years ago

        These gardens are beautiful, and I loved all the details that you included. I have a good friend who is Chinese (from Hong Kong) who is married to a Japanese-American landscape architect, and their garden is a combination of both Chinese and Japanese and it's so peaceful and relaxing.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        How beautiful these gardens are now that I understand its meaning.

      • pericaluic profile image


        6 years ago

        nice lens

      • Scarlettohairy profile image

        Peggy Hazelwood 

        6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

        I visited my son in Beijing when he studied in China for a year. We visited some places with lovely gardens like this. Thanks for the detailed look at this age old practice and the meanings behind the features.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        I enjoyed looking at the photos you took of Chinese gardens as well as your explanation of the symbolism and function of the water, stones, gates and rooms. Thanks!

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        Such a zen experience to visit this lens again, I love it.

        Would love to visit these gardens in China personally. :)

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        I enjoyed your lens. I traveled to China in 2011 and plan to take another trip there in 2013. I will pay close attention to the gardens with the information you have presented here in mind. Thanks.

      • takkhisa profile image


        6 years ago

        Informative lens and i like the photography.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        Chinese gardens are beautiful. The architecture and plant choice is slightly different to Japanese gardens, which seem more controlled and open. Both are wonderful!

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        Chinese gardens are beautiful. The architecture and plant choice is slightly different to Japanese gardens, which seem more controlled and open. Both are wonderful!

      • ShineRita profile image


        6 years ago


      • Diana Wenzel profile image

        Renaissance Woman 

        6 years ago from Colorado

        300 years... to cultivate a garden. I find it very meaningful to think of this. Really appreciated this glimpse into Chinese culture. I want one of those secret garden rooms and moon pavilions. Oh, and of course, some koi in a pond.

      • Elyn MacInnis profile imageAUTHOR

        Elyn MacInnis 

        6 years ago from Shanghai, China

        @Diana Wenzel: I agree. I really love the secret rooms. They are very cool. Water in a garden is so soothing.

      • Smashbooks LM profile image

        Smashbooks LM 

        6 years ago

        Beautiful--thank you so much for this lens!

      • Sylvestermouse profile image

        Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

        6 years ago from United States

        Really beautiful with lots of great ideas and suggestions!

      • Allison Whitehead profile image

        Allison Whitehead 

        6 years ago

        Lovely lens. I find Chinese gardens very calming, even if it's just a matter of looking at pictures of them.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        I would love to have one.

      • JuneNash profile image

        June Nash 

        6 years ago

        I very much enjoyed this lens. Beautiful and interesting. I hope it helps to inspire me in my gardening through the years to come.

      • tonybonura profile image

        Tony Bonura 

        6 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

        Great lens. Beautiful pics. Loved it.


      • profile image


        6 years ago

        I also am fascinated with China and Chinese stuff!

        Great lens! :)

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        I'm so glad you created this lens, its one that I will return to. Very refreshing and relaxing. Blessed! :)

      • profile image

        coolmon2009 lm 

        6 years ago

        Beautiful place and nice lens

      • bilafond lm profile image

        bilafond lm 

        6 years ago

        Beautiful lens

      • Cari Kay 11 profile image


        6 years ago

        So beautiful! I would love a chinese garden! Blessed!

      • shahedashaikh profile image


        6 years ago


      • Alana-r profile image


        6 years ago

        So, so amazing, beautiful photos, and a great lens!

      • WriterJanis2 profile image


        6 years ago

        Very beautiful. I would love one of these. Blessed!

      • montanatravel52 profile image


        6 years ago

        Beautiful pictures, and I learned so much... thanks for a nice read!

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        If there is a heaven, it's here on earth. These gardens represent a part of the respect the best of us feel for the world and our place within it. Someday, perhaps our lives will be as timeless as these beautiful places.

      • JoyfulReviewer profile image


        6 years ago

        What a lovely and informative lens! ~~Blessed~~

      • Kumar P S profile image

        Kumar P S 

        6 years ago

        Great lens ! Thanks for sharing.

      • Kumar P S profile image

        Kumar P S 

        6 years ago

        Great lens ! Thanks for sharing.

      • roseannyoung profile image


        6 years ago

        Love the pictures, especially of the different ways that light enters the gardens!

      • Expat Mamasita profile image

        Expat Mamasita 

        6 years ago from Thailand

        What a lovely idea for a lens.....and a garden.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        This is an absolutely beautiful lens and so informative. As I move into my new home soon and have a yard that has overgrown and has to be tended, I am getting inspiration from this lens. Thanks. Blessed.

      • TheMinuteIdea LM profile image

        TheMinuteIdea LM 

        6 years ago

        Great lens, thanks for making it. I did not know there was so much history behind these gardens. It helps also to understand the chinese culture a bit more. Very insightful :)

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        great lens, very inspirational.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        great lens, very inspirational.

      • blessedmomto7 profile image


        6 years ago

        Beautiful pictures in your lens.

      • octopen profile image


        7 years ago

        Good lens very detailed.Would love to visit china

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        great post

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Absolutely beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

      • Srena44 profile image


        7 years ago

        great lens...

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Very good writing on Chinese garden, as a Chinese I don't know as much as you have understood !

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Yes I like and enjoy reading it, thanks.

      • Heroear profile image


        7 years ago

        so beautiful!

      • HealthfulMD profile image

        Kirsti A. Dyer 

        7 years ago from Northern California


      • AnObeseMan profile image


        7 years ago

        These gardens are fantastic looking. There is just something about them that draws me to the unique looks.

      • pheonix76 profile image


        7 years ago from WNY

        Beautiful lens! Thanks for sharing this with us and for teaching me about Chinese gardens. :)

      • IWS LM profile image

        IWS LM 

        7 years ago

        We visited one in Canada, it was very beautiful!!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Beautiful love that garden!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        This is a beautiful and well written lens. Very inviting.

      • Gypzeerose profile image

        Rose Jones 

        7 years ago

        Wonderful and beautiful. I emailed this to my sister who is getting a garden tours company going. blessed.........

      • DesignSpace profile image


        7 years ago

        This was a great lens, the pictures were beautiful and it was all very interesting!

      • rawwwwwws lm profile image

        rawwwwwws lm 

        7 years ago

        Beautiful lens!

      • Steph Tietjen profile image

        Stephanie Tietjen 

        7 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

        So beautiful and well-presented. I'd love a moon gate.

      • anne mohanraj profile image

        anne mohanraj 

        7 years ago

        Great lens!

      • GreenfireWiseWo profile image


        7 years ago

        Enjoyed the lens.

      • SheilaMilne profile image


        7 years ago from Kent, UK

        Blessings. :)

      • scrapquilter profile image

        Myreda Johnson 

        7 years ago from Ohio USA

        Interesting and well done lens.

      • Bulbs1 profile image


        7 years ago

        Great job.

      • bushaex profile image

        Stephen Bush 

        7 years ago from Ohio

        SquidAngel Blessings.

      • siobhanryan profile image


        7 years ago

        Awesome-Angel Blessed

      • sunny saib profile image

        sunny saib 

        7 years ago

        Wonderful lens.. :)

      • redstanford lm profile image

        redstanford lm 

        7 years ago

        beautiful pictures and I really like the koi.

      • MJsConsignments profile image


        7 years ago from Central Ohio, USA

        This is an amazing lens. I've always enjoyed these gardens but now I know a bit about the "why". Blessed!

      • VeseliDan profile image


        7 years ago

        Great! I have chinese garden at my backyard. This lens looks great and you show us some great pictures, thank you for that. Blessed.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Great lens.

      • Rosaquid profile image


        7 years ago

        Gorgeous lens! Thanks.

      • Monica Ranstrom profile image

        Monica Ranstrom 

        7 years ago

        Beautiful lens. Thank you for sharing!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Love the lens. The Chinese garden is very symbolic and beautiful.

      • Michey LM profile image

        Michey LM 

        7 years ago

        yes! I like Chinese Gardner, I find all of them relaxing, full of vegetation, and healthy. Thanks for a great lens. Blessings!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        I have fallen in love with Chinese Gardens.. :)

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Beautiful ah! This is the legendary gardens in Suzhou?It is so beautiful!Thank you to share.

      • shineall profile image


        7 years ago

        Like your lens very much! thank you for sharing!

      • bwet profile image


        7 years ago

        wow.. impressive lens on chinese garden. love that you talk about all the features of a chinese gardne

      • Snowsprite profile image


        7 years ago from Cornwall, UK

        What a beautiful lens and garden. Congratulations on the purple star. Blessed.

      • manutara69 profile image


        7 years ago

        Thank you for creating an informative lens. I love the photo of the carp.

      • Ardyn25 profile image


        7 years ago

        I enjoyed learning about this...thanks!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Excellent lens - makes me think to quit everything right now and go visit such place! :)

      • tobydavis profile image


        7 years ago

        Fab lens - loads of info - and loved all the fantastic pictures - so much to see :-)

      • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

        C A Chancellor 

        7 years ago from US/TN

        Lovely lens! I visited a Chinese Garden in San Francisco but it wasn't nearly this elaborate.

      • dahlia369 profile image


        7 years ago

        Wonderful place, Chinese garden, and beautiful lens about it - thank you!! :)

      • VspaBotanicals profile image


        7 years ago

        OMG! Oh, my goodness, this is such a lovely lens! I felt at peace just viewing the photos. Thank you!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Awesome lens. I love the Chinese culture. Their artwork and architecture is some of the most beautiful in the world. Someday I want to go there. I also love the way they worship their elders unlike in the US. Their elders hold a respectful place in their society.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        A beautiful lens and I must say this is exactly the kind of garden I would love to have. *blessed*

      • jlshernandez profile image


        7 years ago

        I did not know too much about Chinese gardens until now. Thanks for sharing.

      • LiteraryMind profile image

        Ellen Gregory 

        7 years ago from Connecticut, USA

        I can see why this lens won a purple star, it's absolutely beautiful.

      • sukkran trichy profile image

        sukkran trichy 

        7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu


      • benny77 profile image


        7 years ago

        Very nice....thanks for sharing

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        How lovely! I would love to visit one.

      • athomemomblog profile image

        Genesis Davies 

        7 years ago from Guatemala

        Beautiful lens. I used to visit the Chinese Gardens in Vancouver and it was so peaceful there.

      • captainj88 profile image

        Leah J. Hileman 

        7 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

        Very educational and beautiful, thanks.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        Great lens. Chinese gardens are lovely.

      • JohnTannahill profile image

        John Tannahill 

        7 years ago from Somewhere in England

        You've done a great job with your words and photographs here.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        This was beautiful and inspiring for a garden yet to be at my home - thanks for sharing.

      • PlethoraReader profile image


        7 years ago from Silicon Valley

        I have been to Chinese gardens in several cities around the world (SF, Ireland, NY), but don't think I ever saw such a complete explanation to help interpret their key components. Thank you for sharing! Blessed!

      • Elyn MacInnis profile imageAUTHOR

        Elyn MacInnis 

        7 years ago from Shanghai, China

        @anonymous: I love moon cakes too. But not all of them! I like the ones from Guangzhou - lotus seed. Yum!

      • PNWtravels profile image

        Vicki Green 

        7 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

        Beautiful gardens and so interesting to learn about the traditions and philosophy behind them.


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