Our Event Venue - The Bonsai Gardens
Updated: Jan 15, 2018
We’re delighted to be hosting our first Tang Dynasty Salon at the Bonsai Gardens Main Hall this December. Located at the heart of the Chinese Gardens, this tranquil and picturesque spot seems to less well-known than the majestic bridges and pagodas that typify the garden in photographs. The place remains rather unvisited even on weekends, with the exception of occasional tourists or youths on a cosplay shoot. Ironically, this is the garden’s greatest appeal. With beautifully landscaped grounds devoid of crowds, the space offers visitors the rare possibility of quiet contemplation, transporting them into another world where nature, art and architecture unite in poetic harmony.
The Bonsai Garden was built in June 1992 and is the only Suzhou-styled garden in Singapore, housing a collection of over 2000 bonsais imported from China and other parts of the world. Gardens like this started to flourish in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and were constructed at a time of relative prosperity, when wealthy scholar-officials sought to create their own domestic spaces for creative production and artistic gatherings like poetry readings, or philosophical discussions. Many of them desired to separate themselves from the constraints of the court and aristocratic society, retreating into their own private gardens to receive from nature spiritual satisfaction and inspiration for their artistic endeavours. Out of these impulses emerged the philosophy that man could be a hermit not only in the mountains and forests, but also in the city - one might preserve the freedom of his artistic spirit by enclosing himself with nature in the evenings, even though he has to serve his highly formalised duties in the day.
One of the greatest influences on the development of these gardens was the famous 8th century poet Wang Wei, also renowned for his landscape paintings, and his garden Wang Chuan Villa, from which he gained inspiration as both poet and artist. Since then, poetry and landscape art have remained crucial influences in the design of scholar gardens. During the Tang period, there were over 1000 domestic gardens in the city of Luoyang, and eight Imperial gardens in the capital Xi-an. The classical house and garden model of the “scholar-official” became well established during this time.
Two features in particular characterize the scholar gardens:
The first is the overall spatial design. The whole garden forms a three dimensional picture through which you can walk, and individual parts are only gradually entered or discovered as you go along. The concept of the garden as a series of separate but interconnected parts, to be discovered and enjoyed, is analogous to the unrolling of a Chinese landscape painting which produces surprise through concealment. Walls, doors, windows, paths, corridors, and bridges all have a special role in creating a landscape of continuous change and surprise. The 18th century writer Shen Fu said, “Arrange the garden so that when a guest feels he has seen everything, he can suddenly take a turn in the path and have a broad new vista open up before him, or pass through a door in a pavilion only to find that it leads to an entirely new garden”. Many of these gardens are surprisingly small; they were created within the boundaries of a single dwelling, where different vistas were created within the garden that could be seen from carefully selected vantage points. Wherever possible, designers took advantage of a “borrowed view”, such as a distant pagoda framed through a window.
The second feature is the landscape itself, influenced by an earlier concept of Mountains and Water or Shan Shui. Poetry and landscape painting in China have both drawn inspiration from mountains and water for many centuries, and the phrase Shan Shui itself came to mean landscape. The rugged strength of great mountains set against the softness of water is Yang and Yin at its most profound. They are opposites that complement each other, even as water can erode solid rock. So it was not surprising that scholars tried to emulate the great contrasts between rocks and water in creating the micro-landscapes of their gardens. Some of the most highly prized rocks were water worn limestones from Lake Tai that exhibited an intricate and sometimes grotesque degree of natural erosion. The so-called Exquisite Carved Jade Stone in the Yu Yuan garden in Shanghai is one of the most famous examples. The juxtaposition of such stones standing upright as vertical columns above placid pools full of lotus blossoms emphasizes the contrasting nature of mountain and water, and may symbolise, in miniature, the famous mountain landscapes of southern China. Some gardens contain dramatic hard landscapes built from layers of water-worn stone to create the illusion of small mountains—until you pass through the adjacent moon gate to find a completely new vista of lake and lotus leaves.
When it came to plants, scholar-officials historically used plants with long-established symbolic associations, especially those made famous in poetry and art. Bamboo, lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, plum, and pine were particularly significant. Plants were also valued for their fragrance, colour, shape, or acoustic properties. However, the range of species was quite limited, and the total amount of space occupied by plants was relatively small in comparison to Western gardens. Bonsai plants (miniature trees) also featured heavily in these classical gardens and were originally owned and groomed only by the elite. Creating Bonsai - arranging rocks in the miniature landscape, clipping, and adding new elements -was viewed as a meditative practice that helped to liberate the mind and inspire new ideas.
Ultimately, the most significant and beautiful feature of these gardens is a special sense of space and tranquillity within a harmonious whole. Classical gardens often contain many buildings, some serving as living quarters, venues for more formal gatherings, or private niches wherein one could contemplate life, drink tea or join friends in scholarly pursuits. But the landscape was bound together by a strong philosophical message that reflected the ancient Chinese intellectual’s desire to harmonise with nature, and to find spaces for individual self-fulfillment amidst the busyness of urban life and work. Remarkably enough, this sentiment is hardly unfamiliar for the modern man despite our differences in time and culture.
Adapted from Bath, David Goode, “What Can We Learn from Chinese Classical Gardens?” Retrieved from https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/03/17/what-can-we-learn-from-chinese-classical-gardens/.
Photos by Sharon @ Dressed up Dreams Photo Studio - All rights reserved.
Hanfu Culture Salon I - The Tang Dynasty
9 December, Saturday, 2.30- 5pm
Bonsai Gardens Main Hall, Chinese Gardens