The first plant life on earth dates back to around 470 million years ago. Human beings appeared somewhere in the region of 100,000 years ago. 1500 years BCE the Chinese started making gardens according to precise philosophical principles. A Chinese garden, although imitating natural landscapes, would consist of a series of spaces suited to different uses at different times of day. Features such as gates, rocks, waterfalls and ponds were less literal than metaphysical and symbolic; the garden a representation of the cosmos, inner and outer wholeness.
I wonder why I’ve been surprised in Sydney to see how strong the connection is with China: after all in Australia our far east is their near north. There is also a large Chinese community in the city, currently gearing up for the Chinese New Year celebrations, the beginning of Spring (in China, that is, here we’re moving towards the end of summer, although it’s hotter than any summer I’ve ever known – only one of the reasons why a traveller might be a little disorientated…)
The Chinese influence on gardening has been a thread I’ve been able to bring with me as I’ve journeyed south. In Singapore it was impossible to ignore the New Year celebrations – everywhere decorated with red and gold, often involving mandarins and pineapples, considered auspicious fruits because of their colour. Shops, bars, restaurants and hotels were all lit up, like a hotter version of Christmas.
At the Gardens by the Bay, in Singapore, among the gardens representing the various ethnicities of the population (Malay, Indian, Chinese and ‘Colonial’), the Chinese Garden, while beautiful, was almost theatrical – a set piece dependent on the judicious placing of weathered stones as much as the planting. A long canopied seating area allowed you to sit and view it, a living tableau.
Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception.
Tan Twan Eng – The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)
Here in Sydney Botanic Gardens there is an Oriental Garden, with two temple arches, lions and lanterns and many varieties of bamboo, among other native Chinese plants. A large sign proudly announces the sponsorship of HSBC Bank – evidence of the strong financial links with Asia, which has buffered the country from our current economic challenges in the West.
The Full Moon this weekend will see the start of the Year of the Snake. It’s a well-omened year according to the Chinese – they see the snake as a dragon in waiting. It’s meant to be a good year for change, for the shedding of skins and new beginnings. A Chinese Garden – like any garden anywhere perhaps – is as its best at its simplest, its most essential: the perfection achieved when you can’t take anything else away.
In the 3rd century CE Shi Chong created the Garden of the Golden Valley where he would invite literary friends to walk, eat and drink, take in the scenery. Their Poems of the Golden Valley marked the beginning of the long and venerable tradition of writing poetry in and about gardens.