The Great Gardens of China| History · Concepts · Techniques
By Fang Xiaoffeng
Published by The Montacelli PressCopyright 2010ISBN 978-1-58093-303-2257 pages
Book Review by Bob Borson, AIA
I started off this book review with an in-depth analysis; explaining how the book was broken down and how the author discussed the origins and evolutions of Chinese gardens and how they shaped the aesthetic beliefs that many Chinese still subscribe to. Proud of how amazing that report was, I stood back, admired my spectacular vocabulary and asked a good friend of mine – who is also an architect – to read my review and let me know just how amazing he thought it was:
“You sound like your trying to sound smart”.
Because I actually am smart, I realized that he had a point. As a result, I decided that I am going to take book reviews in a slightly different direction. My focus is going to be far more direct and try and let people know why they should read the book – not summarize and prepare a mini-cliff notes version of the book which in turn will make these reviews much, much shorter … starting now.
Let me start off by saying that ‘The Great Gardens of China‘ is a beautiful book. Literally every single page has a montage of photos on it of beautiful Chinese “intellectual abstractions” – but to stop short and let you think that this is a pretty coffee table book would be an injustice to the author.
The book is broken down into three basic sections (other than beginning, middle and end):
Origin and Evolution (The beginning)
The shortest section in the book – only 37 pages long, this section was interesting but I would have a hard time finding the right environment to bring up my new found knowledge. The beginning of the book essentially discusses several Chinese Dynasties and how the prevailing thought at the time impacted garden design and organization. Since the Chinese view gardens as an art form where educated people could express there thoughts and feelings, over time, just as interpretations changed, so did the gardens.
Aesthetics and Landscaping (The middle)
The middle section of the book is used to explain and illustrate the components of the Chinese garden element by element. This portion of the book was very interesting in that the author described all formal elements typically found in Chinese gardens, their role, importance, evolution and impact. Reading through this section allowed me to better understand the Chinese garden as a whole rather than a kit of parts, or in this case, elements. I was surprised to learn that Chinese gardens are quite formulaic (maybe I shouldn’t have been). A good example of this is explained by the Author:
“In ancient times, a xie denoted a building that stood on a high terrace, or a waterside structure in a garden, hence the name shuixie, or water terrace. Almost all Chinese gardens have water features although the areas of the water bodies differ from each other in size. Consequently, the xie has always been one of the most popular architectural forms in gardens.”
“In a private garden, a xie is usually not very large, because its size must comply with that of the body of water. By contrast, the size of a xie in an imperial garden must be large enough to match the expansive water views.”
In this case, the size of the xie is dictated by the body of water it addresses – the decision of one directly effecting the size, layout, and orientation of the other.
Highlights of Classical Chinese Gardens (The end)
The last section of the book is an in quick look at 16 classical gardens with a brief introduction of the relevancy and notable attributes of the garden. This is portion of the book really serves as a photo tour through the gardens and the text really just a primer to set the period, relevance and major contributions of each garden. While this portion is intriguing and the photos pleasant to look at, the value of this section cannot be appreciated without having learned the relevancy and specifics of the elements within these gardens. Among my favorites that were featured are:The Imperial Garden in the Forbidden CityThe Summer Palace (formerly named the Garden of Clear Ripples – Qingyi Garden)The Humble Administrator’s Garden – absolutely amazingThe Jichang Garden
and my favoriteThe Yuyuan Garden
If you want a pretty picture book of Chinese gardens, this book will meet your needs. If you are looking to gain a better understanding of the elements within a Chinese garden and the role they play within the larger frame, that is where the true value of this book reside. The simple presentation and explanation of the elements within a Chinese garden make this a worthwhile addition to your library.