In the Garden


In China, walled gardens—in imperial palaces or in the urban homes of scholars, officials, and merchants—have long been viewed as both extensions of domestic space and a means of escape from it. Designed for contemplating a carefully constructed version of the natural world, they offered respite from familial and professional duties. Gardens were also favored sites for literary gatherings, solitary study, and other leisure activities.

Many gardens were created based on the idealized landscapes found in Chinese paintings—some were even designed by painters. Gardens’ close connection with landscape painting is clearly reflected in one of the leading principles of garden design: the inclusion of a path that guides the visitor through a series of carefully composed scenes of architecture, rocks, and plants. As gardens grew in cultural prestige—spurred both by their sophisticated designs and by the high-powered literary salons conducted within them—a gentleman’s garden became as much a part of his identity as his personal style or pen name.

This group of paintings and objects captures the life of the Chinese garden. Some scenes portray gatherings set in gardens; others depict open landscapes that can be read as gardens based on the activities they host. Also included are paintings that depict small scenes composed of rocks, insects, and flowers, drawing on the iconography of the garden to represent human virtues such as fidelity and humility. Together, the paintings demonstrate the rich connections among nature, gardens, culture, and art.


Rocks with pitted surfaces and contorted shapes are known as scholar’s rocks because they were especially admired by Chinese gentlemen of the elite scholar-literati class. Thought to embody a scholar’s uncompromising character, such rocks, often large in size, were placed in gardens to be admired and contemplated. Among the many varieties of scholar’s rocks, Taihu rocks were farmed from Lake Tai in Jiangsu province. The perforated surfaces of the stones were formed by drilling the limestone and then immersing the stones in a lake, where water, waves, and sand eroded them—sometimes over hundreds of years. When harvested, the perforations often appeared to be natural, and the rocks resemble miniature cosmic mountains, with heavenly grottoes and fantastic peaks.

With the growing importance of garden culture during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), gardens became synonymous with their owners, and paintings of gardens or flowers often served to reflect virtues such as humility or diligence. Such paintings stretch beyond representations of nature and were often said to embody the human spirit. In this painting’s inscription, mallow, or hibiscus, flowers are likened to a lady with a pure heart:

Leaves are like cut-outs of jade.
Flowers strive to outshine gold.
They are without a trace of makeup.
Just with their hearts toward the sun.

According to legend, in 1088 a group of sixteen famous statesmen, literati, and artists gathered in the Western Garden of Wang Shen, an imperial son-in-law. The scholar and artist Mi Fu (1052–1107) purportedly wrote an account commemorating the occasion, and Li Gonglin (d. 1106) is said to have painted a scene of the gathering. Regardless of whether this event indeed took place, it entered the cultural imagination and became both a model for later literary gatherings and a theme in painting. Here, the scholar Su Shi is seated at one table, practicing calligraphy, while Wang Shen and others look on. At another table, Li Gonglin paints a scene taken from literature. Behind them, Mi Fu stands with a brush in hand, inscribing a stone face, and across a bridge a Buddhist sits in a bamboo grove engaged in a discussion on Nirvana.

Hua Yan was noted for injecting a splash of whimsy into otherwise traditional compositions. In this painting, the red bird seems to be an amusing addition to a standard garden scene. However, the bird might also be a symbol for the fallen Ming dynasty. The family name of the Ming emperors was “red,” and most viewers would have immediately made a connection between the red bird in the painting and the previous dynasty. The inscription on the painting comes from a “wine-drinking” poem by the late fourth–early fifth-century poet Tao Qian:

The fall chrysanthemums have lively colors.
I pluck the petals that are wet with dew,
And float them in this Care Dispelling Thing
To strengthen my resolve to leave the world.
I drink my solitary cup alone
And when it’s empty, pour myself another.
The sun goes down, and all of nature rests,
Birds fly home chirping toward the grove.
I sit complacent on the east veranda,
Having somehow found my life again.

Bamboo has long symbolized gentlemanly virtue in China. The hollow center represents humility, the straight stalk embodies rectitude, and, as an evergreen, the plant is seen as persistent and used as a symbol of longevity. These interpretations made bamboo a popular choice in garden design: large bamboo stalks could be used to create a secluded niche or to line a pathway. In this painting, bamboo is shown in various stages of growth, from young shoots to tall stalks crowned by branches and leaves. The bamboo is rendered in ink outlines (shuanggou) filled with mineral colors. This technique might derive from a style said to have been developed by the Song painter Huang Quan (ca. 905–965) and practiced by earlier Yuan dynasty painters such as Li Kan (1245–1320).

Although Jiao Bingzhen served in the Imperial Astronomical Observatory, the emperor commissioned several paintings from him. His painting style was noted for its European influences, especially Jiao’s mastery of visual perspective and close study of nature. However, this painting was not done from observation. The pale blue blossom in the foreground is freesia, a flower neither native to China nor known to bloom in this color. It is thus likely that Jiao’s depiction follows a European seventeenth-century black-and-white engraving.

Scholar’s rocks were collected for their fantastical shapes and forms. Seen as miniatures of immortal mountains and heavenly caves, they were imbued with cosmic properties. Lofty and unchanging, rocks were also believed to embody human characteristics. In gardens, such rocks divided space, added texture to a vista, and provided a focus for contemplation. A high official and loyalist to the lost Ming dynasty, Ni Yuanlu committed suicide in 1644, when the capital of Beijing fell to rebel forces. These five rocks, part of a larger set and painted on satin, might express personal attributes that Ni admired or symbolize a circle of close friends.