It was just about the last thing I expected on a short visit to Montreal last October: a Chinese Garden. In Europe we’ve been used to Chinoiserie for over 300 years but while some examples are genuine imitations [if that makes sense] most are really just, at best, bastardised forms of Chinese architecture and design, whilst at worst they are comical misuses of the form and details…. and none of them are gardens.
I should say at the outset too that I knew nothing about Chinese gardens, and even now I still only know next to nothing. After all, while we have plenty of Japanese gardens in Britain I can’t think of a single Chinese one.
When I was writing this, obviously without access to the British Library, I turned to Maggie Keswick’s The Chinese Garden which I bought shortly after it came out in 1978 [how to make yourself feel old!] She grew up in China and was a regular visitor as an adult, visiting many historic gardens there, and did huge amounts of research. The book is full of insights into what for most westerners is an unknown world.
Let me quote from the preface: “Whoever heard anything special about Chinese gardens? Even in the East they are something of a lost art form; in the West the words seldom conjure up any image at all – or if they do it is likely to be one of a Japanese garden with its exquisite arrangements of moss and stone, its manicured pines and dry streams, and above all, its sense of being so perfect in itself … Chinese gardens are not like this.” How true that is, so be prepared for a surprise or two…
The photos are my own unless otherwise stated. The other thing to remember is that obviously I am not an expert on Chinese culture, particularly its mythology which appears to be extremely complex, so I have had to rely on secondary sources which where possible I have referenced. Anglicization of Chinese is also prone to immense difficulty so I hope I haven’t made too many errors.
Like a good tourist I went to Montreal’s wonderful botanical garden, but like a bad tourist I didn’t do any research beforehand so the first time I realised the Chinese Garden existed was when I saw the signposts shortly after entering. It’s almost completely invisible behind screening hedges and trees, but there’s a giveaway: an array of colourful red lanterns and other “sculptures” in the form of birds and animals dotted around in the flower beds and lawns.
Inwardly I groaned because they reminded me instantly of the inflatable monstrosities that have been inflicted on several historic gardens in Britain recently, most noticeably at Chiswick which I railed about on here. But I gritted my teeth my teeth and carried on. Was it going to be more frowns of incredulity that anyone could do this? Or was this going to be something different?
The sight of this massive pitted and eroded rock, the wizened pine tree and the surrounding sea of bright yellowy-green sedum was slightly more reassuring…
As the path turned through the trees and the first pavilion appeared the doubts began to disappear.
We were, the information panel said, ” about to enter an authentic Chinese garden designed to resemble the private garden of a mandarin in Ming-era [14th to 17thc] southern China
Two lions act as guardians of the garden’s entrance. The female, on the left, has a paw placed on a cub, while the male rests a paw on a ball symbolising prosperity. The gate leads to an entrance courtyard, a place of transition between the outside public world and the inner private one. It has 13 windows in its walls offering glimpses back to the world outside, each one unique in either its design or shape.
On one side of the courtyard, amongst many other things, are 3 large irregular standing rocks symbolising the Sanxing or Three Stars of Chinese culture and mythology. As with with the mythology of the Greek or Roman world or Christian saints, each has a variety of symbols and associated objects and creatures. On the left is shouxing the Star of Longevity who decides the day upon which each person will die. He is more commonly seen as an old man with a large bald head, holding a peach, the fruit of immortality. The middle rock represents fuxing, or the Star of Happiness who is usually depicted as a 6th century mandarin, while on the right the rock stands for luxing, or the Star of Happiness who offers prosperity and status.
Moving through and then leaving the entrance court, the path crosses a zig-zag bridge allowing glimpses through to the main part of the garden beyond…
…before reaching the Friendship Hall which is the largest of the garden’s buildings, and mainly used for exhibitions.
Like the entrance court it is built in the style of the Ming dynasty with a single large space, surrounded by an exterior colonnade. They sit under an imposing roof that has two dragons, with upturned tails, holding up the ridgepole, and guardian lions on each corner.
Next to it are a small range of building fronting onto the walled Springtime Courtyard which is entered through a four-petalled “door” symbolizing an apricot blossom. Inside is an extraordinary open-air collection of bonsai – except that it turns out they are not bonsai but penjing.
Meaning literally “landscape in a pot”, penjing has existed since at least the 2nd c, but really developed as a sophisticated art form during the Tang dynasty (618-907). It’s thought to have been Japanese diplomats and students from the 6thc onwards who introduced it to Japan where it was refined and simplified as bonsai.
As I discovered penjing is slightly more complicated than just merely keeping the trees miniaturised. There are several categories all inspired by the rules of traditional Chinese landscape painting and all aiming to eliminate everything but the essential nature of the tree and the landscape. One form concentrates on just a single tree but another, more interestingly, make a rock or rocks their focus, and then incorporates trees, grass, moss, water or even model buildings to create a complete landscape. The examples here were gifts from the City of Shanghai, following the 1980 Floralies festival held in Montreal.
Just outside the courtyard is a small hill topped by the Green Shade Pavilion. This is a gazebo-like structure known as a ting, designed as a place to sit, take a rest and admire the view .
And what a view it is.
I’ve deliberately avoided saying up until now that the whole garden is arranged around a large lake. Known as the Dream Lake, it’s home to a changing and very colourful collection of lanterns illustrating Chinese folk tales. In 2019, the 27th year of these lantern festivals, the theme was fishing and fishermen.
Coming down from the ting and beginning the walk round the lake the visitor encounters several figures of fishermen. Fish, fishing and fishermen play a significant role in Chinese mythology, perhaps stemming from the story of the Great Flood, thought to have been a real event from about 1900BC.
A king emerged afterwards named Fuxi who taught his subjects how to domesticate animals, how to fish and how to cook. At first he fished with his hands, but having watched a spider catching insects in its web, Fuxi invented a fish trap. Made from bamboo it took the form of a funnel-mouthed basket that was easy for fish to enter, but difficult for them to get out. They could then be taken straight to the market in the basket. The lake has many other figures engaged in other sorts of fishing
(Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 1983, Yang, Handbook of Chinese Mythology. 2005, & Mythopedia ]
Further round the lake is the Stone Mountain, which incorporates a grotto and waterfall. It was constructed from local rock and is only non-Chinese structural element in the garden. Mountains have a special significance in Chinese mythology. They hold up the sky and are thought to be supernatural places, especially in Taoism, where they are believed to be the home of the Immortals. These were 8 legendary figures with the power to grant a long or even eternal life to those who encountered them.
This idea of eternal life was obviously an attractive proposition to early Chinese rulers, and Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the a united China (221-207 B.C.), decided to try and attract the Immortals to his garden by building an immense artificial mountain in his garden. He is of course better remembered for the Terracotta warriors who were buried in his mausoleum, but its good to know he also a garden fanatic!
High up to one side of the mountain sits the Tower of Condensing Clouds, a 14 metre-tall structure resembling a pagoda, a building traditionally used for housing relics or sacred Buddhist writings.
Paths lead from there into a woodland area and then the rest of the botanic gardens, or you can take in the view down over the lake and the Friendship Hall on the other side. Of course you can also see more of the lanterns.
The largest one – the multi-coloured writhing shape on the left above- can be better seen in the image below, taken from the Friendship Hall with the mountain and the Tower in the background.
It is a mythical fish-like creature: He Luo Yu, first recorded [as far as I can see] in an ancient, but much revised and rewritten text, Shan Hai Jing or Classic of Mountains and Seas probably dating originally from the 4thc BC. The book is an attempt to record the geography of China, but it has other sections including the earliest attempt to compile a complete mythology of the country too.
One part describes a collection of fabulous beasts, one of the most of spectacular of which is the He Luo Yu. The He Luo Yu was born in a tributary of the Yellow River and has one fish-like head and no less than 10 bodies. It had the power to transform itself into a bird, was terrified of thunder and barked like a dog. But if you think that’s bizarre remember the words of one of the reputed authors: “A thing is not strange in itself; it depends on me to make it strange.”
Further round the lakeside walk, at the opposite end to the ting is the little Pavilion of Infinite Pleasantness [seen on the right above] named for a mention in a 9thc poem by Bai Juyi that describe an emperor’s melancholy as he stood before a deserted pavilion where his lover once lived.
The garden’s last building is the Stone Boat, which despite its name seems almost to float on the water.
It’s a much smaller and simplified version of the Marble Boat in the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing. The original dated from the Ming era, but was destroyed by British troops during the Opium Wars. It was re-built in 1893 by the last great empress of China, Cixi, who effectively controlled the country for nearly 50 years until her death in 1908.
Montreal’s Chinese Garden was first planned in 1986 as part of a cultural friendship pact between the city and Shanghai. Almost cancelled because of the Tien’an Men Square massacre in 1989, it was finally created between 1990 and 1991 by Le Weizhong, director of Shanghai’s Institute of Landscape Design and Architecture. Apart from the stone for the mountain all the other elements were built or sourced in China and then shipped over to be assembled on site by 50 Chinese craftsmen using traditional methods such as bamboo scaffolding. This involved suspending both building regulations and health and safety rules. Although the workmen were paid twice their home salary for working overseas construction still cost 8 million Canadian dollars, although it would apparently have cost 12 million had they been paid Canadian wages.
There is an account of the Chinese Garden’s very early history in Ann Armstrong’s 1997 MA thesis on the Montreal Botanical Gardens
The garden covers 2.5 hectares [just over 6 acres] and according to theBotanical Garden’s website “contains more than 200 varieties of perennials, 50 of aquatic plants, 15 varieties of bamboo, 4 of annuals, 160 of shrubs and approximately 100 varieties of trees.” Many of these were chosen for their symbolism, and so can “read” by the knowledgable visitor. There are, for example, many magnolias, which traditionally represent wealth, as well as being the emblem of Shanghai itself whilst the Scots Pine(Pinus sylvestris) represents longevity and the struggle for survival, and the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) implies high social status and wealth.
I suppose what I began to appreciate is that the visitor shouldn’t judge the Chinese garden by the standards and rules of European style gardens. There are no lawns or formal geometrical layouts and structures. Instead Chinese gardens play havoc with perspectives and Western conventions, and if you don’t understand this – and our eyes and brains are conditioned to see things by our own norms which makes that difficult- you lose out by not recognising what is meant.
The underlying principles of the whole design are contrast and harmony, particularly between yin and yang – the underlying male and female attributes of the universe. This is clearest in the contrast and harmony between water which symbolises the feminine yin principle, and stone, its yang or male counterpart. They are opposites, but linked as the two main elements of the whole. The garden’s harmony derives from the way the contrast between the smooth, even, horizontal lines of the water and the jagged and rough vertical lines of the rocks also complement each other. Plants and architecture all carry metaphorical or symbolic meanings too which contribute to the harmony in similar ways so that overall the garden becomes a three-dimensional interpretation rather than just a copy of nature.
So, while it may be difficult for western audiences to “read” what’s happening going round the garden it has certainly paid dividends for me thinking about it all in retrospect. I only wish I’d known enough to be able to do at the time.
And as a final thought… I’m sure you’re wondering if the lanterns are ever lit. The answer is a resounding yes…
If you want to know about about Chinese gardens in general the best place to start is Maggie Keswick’s book, The Chinese Garden, [revised 3rd edition now available], and for this garden in particular check the website of the Montreal Botanical Garden.