The artistry of a Chinese garden shines

Special to The Times

The idea of marking a world within a world is rooted in the rich, energetic white wall at the new Chinese garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Called the Wall of Colorful Clouds, or Jing Yun Bi, the undulating soft-white wall seems to breathe with life. Its shadowy surface is luminescent, reflecting the light like a pearl. Its dark roof line plays and jumps like summer lightning. Fretwork windows recessed in deep frames punctuate the wall, adding even more depth and shapeliness.

Step inside, and The Garden of Flowing Fragrance, or Liu Fang Yuan, seems to invite you to take a deep breath and lay down the sharp-edged psychological weapons of modern life. Over the last two months, crews have been planting trees, shrubs and flowers, some of which have just started to bloom this week, as if in anticipation of the garden's dedication Saturday and public opening Feb. 23.

Chinese garden plants have been cultivated for millenia. Unlike in many Western gardens, this garden doesn't have horticultural novelties or showy displays. Traditional plants and trees here refresh with their presence but also carry cultural and spiritual meanings.

"One plants a Western garden, but builds a Chinese garden" is an often-used expression in writings about these gardens. For visitors accustomed to thinking of gardens as collections of plants, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, modeled on the elegant, contemplative 16th and 17th century classical scholar-officials' gardens in the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, is a composition of pavilions, courtyards, bridges, rocks, plants, pathways and water.

Although the garden speaks to the visitor through the senses -- echoes of rushing water, fragrances of blossoming trees, views of mountains -- it also addresses the mind. One thing stands for another; it's the idea of seeing the concentrated essence of things.

Maggie Keswick wrote in her influential book "The Chinese Garden" that they are "cosmic diagrams revealing a profound and ancient view of the world and man's place in it." The models for the Huntington's were not only places of contemplation; they were sites of parties, assignations, festivals and political intrigues.

Ming gardens dance with ancient Chinese traditions of art, culture, philosophy and religion. They also illustrate the profound influence of landscape painting on garden design.

"This garden is all about composing a painting," says the garden's curator, June Li, as she stands in the Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts, built well below the garden by a stream tumbling down from above. "This view recalls many landscape paintings, where a thatched-roof pavilion is perched by a stream."

In landscape painting, Li says, mountains represent the eternal, and water represents change; together they make up the harmonious balance of the universe, where man is present and doesn't dominate. "There are a lot of Taoist ideas in a garden," Li says of the Chinese religion and philosophy. "Taoism put man in nature, where Confucianism talks about man's place in nature," she says.

In the world of Chinese art centuries ago, artists were "painting pictures of gardens which were themselves illustrations of paintings," author Keswick writes.

Inside the four-season Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the wall provides a canvas for painterly compositions of plants and rocks. Walls in any Chinese garden recall unwinding scroll paintings, where images are connected by mist or clouds; "gardens with white walls simulating mist became a three-dimensional walk through a landscape scroll," Keswick writes.

Among the stunning compositions poised against the garden's wall is a vignette of elegant black bamboo and three striking "bamboo rocks," slim, vertical rocks echoing the shape of the plants. Nearby is a lovely winter-fruiting Nandina, commonly known as "heavenly bamboo" for its resemblance to the real thing; it is coveted for Chinese new year celebrations.

Bamboo is one of the fabled "three friends of winter," along with the pine and the early-blooming plum (Prunus mume, which is more of an apricot), the most celebrated plant in Chinese art. The three plants symbolize the best qualities of the human character: courage, unity and tenacity. At the Huntington, the trio is celebrated with a Pavilion of the Three Friends, along with carvings and calligraphy.

The garden is planted with scores of young trees in the Prunus family: numerous species and cultivars of flowering cherry and plums including many cultivars of P. mume.

Exquisite, painstakingly shaped Japanese black pines are works of art, such as the one at the threshold to the garden in the "celestial cave." The calligraphy above the entrance reads: "Another World Lies Beyond." The idea of the celestial cave as the entrance to a perfect world refers to a 4th century poet, Tao Yuanming, and his prose poem "Peach Blossom Spring."

The plant palette of the garden is subtle and elegant. Looking north across the lake in the Huntington garden from the Terrace That Invites the Mountain, the visitor, perhaps with cup of tea in hand purchased from the garden's tea shop, will see spring color in the young early-flowering peach trees on small islands in the lake.

The Confucian scholar in his garden retreat was intent on impressing his fellow elites with his erudition and connoisseurship. Wen Zhenheng wrote his mid-17th century "Treatise on Superfluous Things" as a manual for the wealthy to avoid errors in taste. ("Train a boy to the exclusive service of tea so that the whole day may be spent in pure talk, the chilly night in sitting in a dignified attitude, which cannot be dispensed with.") Wen also offered advice on garden plants. People often match red camellias with white magnolias, he warns, and "[they] make a dazzling show. This is rather vulgar."

Among the other plant pleasures of late winter: camellia, forsythia, gardenia, primrose jasmine, mahonia and lilac. In bloom now at the main gateway into the garden is Camellia japonica "Red Tulip." (Not to worry, it is nowhere near a magnolia.)

Ultimately, a garden, often the most ephemeral of arts, is a container for all life and culture.

"This site has perfect feng shui," says James Folsom, director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, looking up at mist-shrouded mountains. "Our relationship to the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, the source [as traditional Chinese thought would have it] of cold and energy, is crucial. This view will always define the garden."

Ultimately, "this garden is about seeing," Folsom says, "and will be as open to your experience as you are. It is always different, from day to day, as you are always different when you come to it. We hope it will be here for hundreds of years."

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Further reading

For more information on Chinese gardens, try:

"The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture," Third Edition, by Maggie Keswick, Harvard University Press, 2003

"The Craft of Gardens," by Ji Cheng, translated by Alison Hardie, Yale University Press, 1988

"Gardens of China," by Osvald Siren, Ronald Press Co., 1949 (Check a library; black and white plates of gardens taken in the 1920s and '30s.)

"Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China," by Craig Clunas, University of Hawaii Press, 2004

"The Gardens of China" by Peter Valder, Timber Press, 2002

"The Garden Plants of China," by Peter Valder, Timber Press, 1999

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