Monday, May 24, 2010

A Classical Chinese Garden

On my recent trip to Portland, I had plenty of free time during the day to do some sightseeing while Daughter was busy with classes.  I took advantage of Portland's excellent and inexpensive mass transit system to visit some of the places I had marked in my guide book, including the Lan Su Chinese Garden. I have visited several Japanese gardens in the past few years, but I was curious--what did a Chinese Garden look like?

Unlike the beautiful  Portland Japanese Garden, which is situated on more than five acres of hilly woodland in Washington Park, the Lan Su Chinese Garden takes up just one city block in the heart of Old Town Portland.  Busy pedestrians passing by would have no idea what treasures lie beyond the surrounding walls.

Completed in 2000, the garden is touted as the "most authentic Chinese garden outside of China."  Most of the materials came from China, and 54 artisans from Portland's sister city in China, Suzhou, lived in Portland for ten months while they completed the structures crafted in China. Over 400 plant species and cultivars found in traditional Chinese gardens are featured here.

According to the garden's website, a traditional Chinese garden is designed to engage all one's senses and contains five elements.  The first element, naturally, is plants.

Many representations of Bonsai were present, including this rhododendron. Notice the ornately carved wooden panels behind the Bonsai--element 4, which we will get to in a few moments.

The second necessary element is rocks.  This unusual rock is a Lake Tai rock, which is formed underwater, with the flow of water creating its unusual shape.

Intricately laid rock mosaic pathways are meant to be seen and felt.

Water is the third element of this classical garden.  This waterfall combines three of the elements: water, stone, and poetry.

A large pond is at the center of the garden where reflections in the water represent the principles of yin and yang, the two life forces that connect to bring peace and harmony in life.  These first three elements--plants, stone, and water--combine in Chinese philosophy to rejuvenate one's qi, or energy.

At this point you may be wondering, just what is the difference between a Chinese garden and a Japanese garden?  I wondered the same thing.  An expert could probably point out many significant differences, but to my uninitiated eyes, there seemed to be only a few.  A traditional Japanese garden contains the same first three elements, but the Chinese add two more necessary elements for a complete garden: architecture and poetry. Even the names of a structure or area had poetic names; this building is called "Painted Boat in Misty Rain."

Buildings are an important component in a Chinese garden, and I think it is in their architecture that you really see the distinct differences from a Japanese garden. Unlike the simple, clean lines we associate with the Japanese style, these structures feature very ornate lines and embellishments.  The curved lines of this roof are typical of all the buildings; the style is not simply decorative, but also in many cases symbolic. The drip tiles seen here have 5 bats on each representing the five blessings--long life, good fortune, good health, a love of virtue, and a painless passing.

Another aspect of the architecture is the use of doors and windows which "form views within views, creating the illusion of infinite space."

These openings create the perfect opportunity for a photographer, with a ready made frame for all kinds of lovely views.  

The final element of a Chinese garden is poetry.  You can see the poetry engraved on the ceiling and the columns here in the Scholar's study, but poetry was written everywhere, including carved into the stone of the waterfall pictured above.  There was only one problem with these poems--I couldn't translate them!  A few were translated into English in the guide book given to visitors, but for the most part they were an enigma to me.  Still I appreciated the idea that the Chinese valued poetry so much that they considered it an essential part of their gardens.

Located behind the zigzag bridge--a traditional element in Japanese gardens, too--was the teahouse.  A brief rest and some refreshments sounded good to me, so I stopped in.  The teahouse served only snacks, so I chose some coconut tartlets, which were quite tasty.  And, of course, I thought I would have some tea.  But what kind of tea?  There were pages of choices with detailed descriptions, a larger selection than the wine list at a five-star restaurant . . . not that I've ever been to a five-star restaurant:)

My usual Lipton's green tea wasn't on the menu, so the selection process took some thinking.  In the end, I decided on a white peony tea, which seemed appropriate since a peony festival was to begin the next day at the Garden. The tea was served in a gaiwan, a container that looked like a two-handled soup bowl with a lid.  The waitress demonstrated the proper method of drinking tea from the vessel--holding the lid at an angle to push the tea leaves away while sipping from it.  I was a little uncomfortable about this until I noticed the other patrons gingerly drinking their tea in the same way.

To add to the authentic atmosphere, a musician began to play a guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument that looks somewhat like a zither.  Now I wish I had purchased one of his CD's--it would have been the perfect background music for practicing my Tai Chi!

As I sat sipping my tea and discreetly removing the occasional tea leaf from my mouth, I faced the open windows overlooking the garden and drank in the serenity of this peaceful oasis in the middle of the city.

I had planned to visit the Japanese Garden during this trip as well, but unfortunately didn't have time.  But I'm so glad I found the Lan Su Chinese Garden.  If you are ever in Portland, I highly recommend a visit here for a unique experience.

Engraved on one of the wooden panels seen above was this appropriate quote:

"Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic: truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest."

--Wen Zhengming (1470-1559)


  1. funny....I am glad I am not the only one, who ends up with tea leaves in her mouth!! We are all human, are we not?

    I prefer chinese gardens to japanese style. They do seem more poetic in every sense of the word. They are very similar to the gardens I visited in Thailand.
    They do have a spirituality about have to be there to absorb the wonderful atmosphere these gardens create.

    I love this post Rose, tku for sharing.....

  2. Rose girl .. That was absolutely stunning. Each picture that came up with your descriptive dialog was perfection. I felt like I was almost there with you.
    I also would be hard pressed to understand the difference between the two types of gardens .. but now I have the idea and it seems to me (nothing against the Japanese style of course) that the Chinese style is so much more thought provoking and detailed !
    One of the elements that struck me was the " 5 bats" how perfect is that for a Halloween gal ? : )
    Seriously that was such a beautiful tour .. and to think people are passing by that have no idea what a treasure lays inside ?
    I giggled at your tea drinking girl .. that was cute ! : )
    PS .. The poetry aspect was amazing and seemed to be second nature .. it just had to be there !

  3. Great lesson Rose. I know nothing about what makes a garden Japanese or Chinese. Nice to read a bit about it.
    I am not a big fan of bonsai, but that azalea is sure stunning.

  4. I never really thought of Chinese gardens versus Japanese gardens but once I saw this title the subject sure piqued my interest. Glad you explained the differences. I enjoyed the serenity of drinking tea at the tea house and also the three elements together boosting energy. We gardeners need this for sure:)

  5. Thanks for taking us along on your visit Rose. That looks like a wonderful place to visit.

    Like you I was wondering what the difference was between a Japanese and Chinese garden.

    Looks beautiful!

  6. Good morning, Rose. You found a lovely spot! I am always so pleased when I find something both unusual and beautiful. I'd love to tour it and maybe someday I will have the chance.

  7. What a treasure right in the heart of Portland. Do you know this is the first time I've ever read about the differences between Chinese and Japanese gardens? Wonderful descriptions of a wonderful place.

  8. Thank you Rose for the fantastic tour. I'm up in Portland all the time but I haven't taken the time to visit the Chinese garden in several years. You described and photographed it perfectly. The Portland Japanese Garden is pretty spectacular but in a completely different way - I love the Zen Garden there. Happy you had a good visit in that lovely city.

  9. What a marvelous experience Rose. It is a good thing you toured this garden. We sure can't find anything like it around here. I have often wondered about the differences between a Chinese and Japanese garden. I love the idea of poetry in the garden. I have often thought of having a poem carved into a rock. I just can never decide which poem. I have thought about one of my poems but nothing ever seems worthy of such a presentation. ha... maybe now that I have said it out loud in public I might get it done.

  10. I love the Chinese gardens..... some how there is more colour and they are not as stark as the Japanese ones...... but I do like both.
    You are lucky to be able to see them.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  11. I really don't know much about Chinese gardens, so thank you for this great tour! It looks like it was a lovely place and cool experience!

  12. Wow, what a great post, the photos and the text and the organization are laid there perfectly, and at the end i already seem to know you! Wonderful. Actually i just followed your comment at Autumn Belle's. Rose you should see my Clerodendrum too, of different species. But that garden is really awesome and the landscape architects and designers were able to capture the Chinese culture, and able to convey its serenity and purpose. I haven't seen that kind of garden though i have been to China a few times. But their nature setting is just like that in a bigger scale, they just mimicked a smaller one. thanks.

  13. Peony tea? How cool! The garden looks wonderful--you can't have too much poetry in a garden, and I love all the windows/viewing spaces.

  14. Talk about a window with a view!!! Absolutely gorgeous. What an amazing experience, thank you for taking us along. I love the fact that even though we can't read the characters, the poetry becomes another element of artistic expression.

  15. I have only been to Japanese gardens~This was a delightful treat. You give great garden tours~Informative and filled with lovely photos. The Lake Tai rock was incredible. I've been wanting to visit Portland and now I have another reason to go~ gail

  16. Hi Rose, you asked about palustris in an earlier post -- palustris is a rose, Rosa palustris scandens. Many think it's a hybrid of some kind with the native R. palustris.

  17. Thank you, dear Rose. I have never had the pleasure of visiting a Classic Chinese Garden ... the photo tour was thoroughly delightful.

  18. Cheryl, I don't know which I like better, the Chinese or the Japanese garden. But the Chinese style seems warmer and more poetic, I agree. I really enjoyed just sitting here and soaking in all the atmosphere.

    Joy, I agree the Chinese style seems more detailed. The more I studied it and my photos later, the more differences I saw. I'm glad you enjoyed the bats:)

    Janet, Neither of these styles fits my own gardening tastes, but I do enjoy visiting them. It's always fun to see something different, and I do enjoy learning about other cultures.

    Tina, I just spent a few hours in the hot sun out in the garden--I could use something to restore some qi in me right now:)

    Susie, It was a beautiful place!

    Marnie, There was just a small write-up about this garden in the guide book, but the person sitting next to me on the flight out also recommended it. I'm so glad I went!

    Sweet Bay, The garden really is hidden in the middle of the city. Thanks for explaining the palustris for me--I thought they looked like roses, but this was a new term to me:)

  19. Rose this tour must have been some experience! Life affirming gardens I'm sure.I love the the five blessings--"long life, good fortune, good health, a love of virtue, and a painless passing."
    Comforting words for the soul.
    thank you for sharing this experience with us. Namaste..anna

  20. Ooo, wish I had been there with you, that looks SO fab. Beautiful details, fantastic photos, thank you :)

  21. What a wonderful and interesting tour. Thanks for sharing this pretty garden, I've learned so much about the Chinese style. The tea souns like the perfect way to end a perfect day. :)

  22. Hi Rose.
    Thank you for your comments on my trip to the Shetlands.
    I have just seen your one of the gardens and what a peaceful place to be, and I love the photo's they are great.

  23. The funny part is...I have walked past this garden and did not have the opportunity to go in. I was visiting Portland for my brother's wedding. I am so glad I got to see the inside, VIA your blog post. Thanks!

  24. What a really beautiful place, Rose. The sense of calm and serenity shines through and I could feel myself relaxing as I read and looked.

    I loved the big stone, it looked like it had been carefully sculpted by hand. I was also very taken with the five blessings, I don't know whether the Chinese list them in order of priority but personally I would always put good health first, as long life and good fortune are not worth much without it.

    Did you enjoy the tea (apart from the leaves :) ) ? I have never heard of that type at all.

    A thoroughly enjoyable post and beautifully illustrated! I'm so glad you went there and then shared it with us. Thank you, Rose.

  25. The Chinese garden was interesting to see – I see similarities with the Japanese ones. Thanks for the explanation on their differences. Beautiful images! You clearly had a wonderful vacation. I blogged about the other Portland today.

  26. Oh Rose, the beauty of this place, and your descriptions of it nearly bring tears of joy to my eyes and my heart! Your have perfectly explained the meanings of the elements. While it is all amazing, it is the paving with the inlaid stones that puts this garden on my bucket list. I love that it is smaller and in the middle of town, a perfect oasis of contemplation, tea leaves and all! :-)

  27. Fantastic! What a wonderful day you had. I began to feel quite envious. I'm going to do a Google search, now, in case there is a garden open to the public, over here, which has been done in a Chinese or Japanese style. You never know. Thanks for sharing your visit with us.

  28. Thanks so much for the tour and your good descriptions. I learned a lot! It does look very restful. I always think of Japanese gardens as not having flowers. Did this Chinese one have them? Must have if there was going to be a peony festival.

  29. Amy, How neat that you get to Portland so often. I really think it is a beautiful city. The Japanese Garden is awesome with so much natural beauty, but the Chinese Garden was interesting in its own way.

    Lisa, I've thought about making a little poetry garden...but I have so many plans in my head I don't know that I'll ever get half of them done. You should definitely put your poetry on a stone!

    Maggie, Yes, the Chinese gardens are more elaborate and warmer I think than the Japanese gardens. But I love them both.

    Rose, I love visiting different places like this.

    Andrea, How exciting to see a real Chinese garden; I'd love to see a bigger one.

    Monica, I thought peony tea was appropriate, too:)

    Morning Glories, Most of the windows had views like this--I could have added another 10 pictures of these views alone to this post.

    Gail, Thanks; there is so much to see in Portland!

    Joey, Thanks; this was a first for me, too.

  30. Anna, Both the Chinese gardens and the Japanese gardens seem to have more of the spiritual in them.

    Suburbia, I would have loved to have had you join me!

    Racquel, The tea was delicious, and the setting was perfect.

    Chris, Thanks for stopping by, and welcome to blogging!

    Rosey, That is funny. Unless you see the entrance, a passerby might never know this garden was here.

    ShySongbird, Good point--good health is a top priority. The tea was delicious, though I can't say it tasted like peony. Of course, I've never tasted a peony:)

    Sarah, I had to read the brochure and their website to be able to explain the differences between the two. To me, I just saw more decorative details in the Chinese style.

    Frances, so glad you enjoyed this. If I worked in the heart of Portland, I would make a point of dropping in mid-day or after work just to de-stress. A wonderful haven!

    Mean Mom, So good to hear from you again! I hope all is well with you. I'm sure you must have a Japanese style garden somewhere in your area--their style is quite popular here in the U.S.

    Jean, This garden had the most amazing rhododendrons and azaleas! There seemed to be a lot more flowers than in a Japanese garden...funny, but I didn't take a lot of photos of the flowers.

  31. Portland has so many wonderful gardens. I loved the Chinese garden as well. It is fun seeing it again from another's perspective. It is an oasis in a concrete jungle.

  32. Sounds like an idylic garden visit Rose. And white peony tea . . . how romantic!

    Thank you for sharing your Chinese garden visit.

  33. I like both styles actually, but in the different way

    I find Chinese garden look breathtaking and adventurous, while Japanese garden look simple but very beautiful.


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