The Secret Garden In Portland Cultural Studies Essay

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The city of Suzhou is renowned as "city of gardens" or "Venice of China". Because of the mild weather and plentiful water of Suzhou makes the city as the essential environment for horticulture and building gardens. During the Ming Dynasty, there were a lot of nation's leading poets and painters were gathering in the city for the creation of their art works, and their works had brought great influence for constructing the classical Chinese gardens1 since Chinese gardens are constructed as the combination of landscape, poems, and paintings; that is the reason why classical Chinese gardens are also called Chinese scholar's gardens or poetic gardens. There are hundreds of classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou and the gardens are famous for not only their beauty and distinction but also the representation of the clearest indication of Chinese garden design.2 There are six most representative individual gardens, Cang Lang Ting Yuan, Shi Zi Lin Yuan, Wang Shi Yuan, Liu Yuan, Zhou Zheng Yuan, and Yi Yuan, which illustrate the most of the tradition and the concept of Suzhou gardening design.3

As you walk around the downtown Portland, it is hard not noticing that there is an area surrounded by whitewashed walls and trees, which makes you wonder what it is actually behind the walls and the trees. The secret place is called Lan Su Yuan, a classical Chinese garden. The garden is hidden in the downtown business district with all the busy people, which makes the garden even obscurer and wonder why the garden is built in the downtown. However, once you find this wonderful place, you will be appreciating the garden is in the urban area not in rural. The garden is like the oasis in a desert; people can be rested and freshened after visiting it. Lan Su Yuan is a garden that imitates the tradition and concept of Suzhou style private garden that built during the Ming Dynasty.4 The garden was opened in September 2000 and was designed by Kuang Zhen Yan of the Institute of Landscape Architectural Design in Suzhou.5 The name of the garden has a story behind it; Portland and Suzhou became sister cities in 1988,6 and that was how the garden was named by the combination of part of the name of two cities, Lan for Portland and Su for Suzhou. Thus, the exact translation of Lan Su Yuan in English is Portland Suzhou Garden. In addition, the meaning of the name in Chinese is "Garden of Awakening Orchids,"7 and Orchid is one of the four symbolic flowers that a classical Chinese garden has to have, which blossoms in spring the beginning of the four seasons. While the garden was under construction, the majority of the plants were imported from China to the United States. The plants we are seeing today are the offspring of the originals and some of the plants are over hundred years old.8 The authenticity of the garden is highly accomplished which almost can fool us, that the whole garden was actually imported from China, by the wonderful landscape of its architecture and horticulture.

Chinese tradition, culture, and aesthetics are deeply influenced by Confucianism and Daoism. Thus, the creation of Chinese poetry and painting are indeed based the concept of Confucianism and Daoism so as of course the design of classical Chinese gardens. Confucian aesthetic concepts emphasize the beauty of artificial art that is assembled by natural beauty meanwhile Daoist aesthetic concepts emphasize the natural beauty is superior to the beauty of artificial art. As the time goes by, artists and garden designers have found that Confucianism and Daoism are complementary, and both of the aesthetic concepts can be merged. The discovery also becomes Chinese traditional aesthetic view of natural beauty and the foundation principle of designing and constructing classical Chinese gardens.9 Hence, an excellent Chinese garden design has to have the combinations of natural and artificial beauty in harmony no matter which concept is more adopted. One of the fundamental traits of classical Chinese garden aesthetics is the dualism of Yin (negative) and Yang (positive). Yin and Yan are also the fundamental elements of Dao. A garden design based on this concept is mainly seeking the harmony between Yin and Yan, hard and soft, active and passive. Meanwhile, the assessments of Confucian aesthetics are established on ethical value.10

The way of creating Chinese landscape paintings is another aspect that influences classical Chinese garden design. While an artist is creating a landscape painting, he is not just replicating the nature; he must have Yi (intention). When his intention and the nature scenery are in harmony, the scenery and his thoughts will be blended into the landscape painting; hence the painting will be unique with its own characteristic. This kind of state is called Yi Jing (artistic conception). Yi Jing is also one of the indispensable elements of designing classical Chinese garden.11 During the classical period in China, painting and poetry were always discussed together by artists. Quoting to an old Chinese saying, poetry has painting in it and painting must also have poetry in it as well. That is how an outstanding poetry or painting should be. An excellent gardening design should achieve this level of conception to reflect its beautiful scenery can also mirror the essence of poetry.12

The whitewashed walls surrounding Lan Su Yuan has its own meanings and functionalities.13 Bamboos are the common plants that usually plants alone with the walls. During the clear weather, the shadows of bamboos caused by the sunlight or the moonlight will be reflected on the walls, which mirror words in poems or pictures in paintings. The whitewashed walls usually were constructed with black roof tiles and woodwork decorations. The combination of white, black, wood, and green from leafs creates one of the essential color patterns in Chinese gardens. The rooftop of the walls is usually undulated, and sometimes the beginning of the roof may add a head and the ending of the roof may add a tail, which makes the roof looks like a dragon.

The designs of the doorways and window grilles are strongly influenced by paintings and poetry.13 The shapes of the doorways are usually designed like flower petals, moons, or vases. The patterns of the window grilles are designed like small transparent sea shells as the panes on the grilles.

The way of arranging and organizing pavements in Chinese gardens is designed with its own characteristic.13 Since pavements are less significant than the main architecture, they are constructed by wasted materials such as chips of stone, broken tiles, pebbles, and fragments of porcelain. The pattern design of pavements is usually symmetrical polygons or quatrefoils and the materials add colorful mosaics patterns into pavements. Asymmetrical pattern design of pavements also exists and the most common design is the broken ice pattern.

Stone is one of the inevitable elements of designing a Chinese garden. The stones or rocks are carefully picked to ensure the qualities and the shapes. The best and the most beautiful rocks are from Great Lake in Xiaoxia Bay, and the colors are various, white, greyish-black, and blackish-grey. The value of the rocks is assessed by their size and height. If the rocks can be manipulated as artificial hills, rockeries, or pavilions, they are particularly in higher value.14 Those rocks are called Lake rock; they are picked from the bottom of lakes, and they have been washed and scrubbed for hundreds of years so their shapes became porous, spare, and grotesque, which make them precious.15 There are mainly two ways of rock designs. One is to use the rocks to construct artificial hills, and the other way is to create a rockery display. The purpose of the artificial hill is to simulate the beauty of natural mountain views such as summit, cliff, gorge, ravines, and cave.16 There are various types of rockeries. If the rock is big enough and in a right shape, it can be presented singly as a sculpture. Others are like desk decorations and monolith.17

After the discussion of the mountain and rocks, water is always the next theme to be thought of in Chinese garden design. The major concept of a classical Chinese garden design is pursuing the balance between natural beauty and artificial art in harmony. Yin and Yan is the most common theory to be applied to the connection of mountain and water. Obviously, mountain represents as Yan, strong, hard, optimistic, and upright. By contrast, water is represented as Yin, fragile, soft, and dark.18 Commonly in most of Chinese landscape paintings are depicting the beauty of mountain and water so as the goal of designing a Chinese garden that creates a natural scenery to appreciate its spectators.

When we are in the nature, the first thing that pleased our eyes is plants. Thus, no garden is completed without plants. Plants have a special functionality in Chinese garden design, which is hiding the buildings that gives them a flavor of mystery. The most common flowers in Chinese gardens are Lotus, wisteria, plum, laurel, begonia, jasmine, and chrysanthemum. Trees are bamboo, pine, juniper, cedar, willow, maple, sterculia platanifolia, palm, musa, and elm.19 However, there are five major plants that every Chinese garden must have are pine, bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum since these four represent the nature transitions with their own special meanings. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum represent the four seasons in the nature; orchid represents spring, bamboo is summer, chrysanthemum is autumn, and plum is winter. The four together are called "The Four Gentlemen" since the implication of orchid is honesty, bamboo is virtue, chrysanthemum is pride, and plum is hope (promise of coming spring). Pine also has its own implication that is intelligence. Pine, bamboo, and plum are called "Three Friends of the Cold" because pine and bamboo are evergreens and plum blossoms in winter. There is another special plant that I have to mention in this section is Nelumbo Speciosum (lotus). 20 In Chinese we call it Lian or He Flower. The pronunciation of Lian sounds like the Chinese character, unite and He is like the word for harmony even though they are written differently. The implication of the lotus is friendship, peace, and joyful union. Hence, this flower is essential for the decoration of Chinese gardens.


1 Johnston, p.94

2 Tsu, p.38

3 Johnston, p.96

4 Lan Su Chinese Garden. (1 June 2010)

5 Hinshaw, p.89

6 Lan Su Chinese Garden. (1 June 2010)

7 Hinshaw, p.90

8 Lan Su Chinese Garden. (1 June 2010)

9 Hu, p.9-10

10 Hu, p.11-12

11 Hu, p.26

12 Hu, p.34

13 Inn, p.26

14 Sensabaugh, p.19

15 Inn, p.27

16 Tsu, p.49

17 Tsu, p.55

18 Keswick, p.178

19 Inn, p.28

20 Keswick, p.192