‘Borrowed scenery’technique in classical Chinese gardens

By GAO JIANGHAN / 03-11-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The design of Humble Administrator’s Garden emphasizes the presence of the Beisi Pagoda, making the most of this “borrowed scenery” in the background. Photo: CFP

Yuanye, or The Craft of Gardens, is a classic treatise of the art of Chinese traditional gardening, written by garden designer Ji Cheng (c. 1582–?) in the 17th century. At the beginning of this book, Ji states: “Skill in landscape is shown in the ability to ‘follow’ (yin) and ‘borrow from’ (jie) the existing scenery and lie of the land, and artistry is shown in the feeling of suitability created” (trans. Alison Hardie).

 He further explained “follow” and “borrow” as: “‘Interdependency’ (another translation of yin) means following the rise and fall of the site and investigating its proper disposition, pruning the branches of obstructing trees, directing streams to flow over rocks so that they are mutually complementary, erecting pavilions and kiosks where appropriate, not interfering with out-of-the-way paths, and letting them wind and turn: this is what is called ‘excellent and appropriate.’ ‘Borrowing’ means even though every garden distinguishes between inside and outside, in obtaining views there should be no restriction on whether they are far or near. A clear mountain peak rising up with elegance, a purple-green abode soaring into the sky—everything within one’s limit of vision—blocking out the commonplace, adopting the admirable, not distinguishing between cultivated and uncultivated land, making all into a misty scene: this is what is called being ‘suitable and skillful’” (trans. Stanislaus Fung). 
In the last chapter of Yuanye, entitled “Borrowed Scenery,” Ji posited what would become a core theory in garden design: “Now the borrowing of views is the most important factor in gardens” (trans. Stanislaus Fung). The borrowing scenery technique is widely used in classical Chinese gardens. It affects the whole process of designing and building a garden. 
Following the original landscape 
“Following” and “borrowing” is primarily reflected from the overall landscape design of classical Chinese gardens. The natural structure of the original environment lays the groundwork for the classical Chinese gardens, determining the subsequent arrangement of rocks and ponds, paved paths, architecture, plants, and other elements of a garden. 
Almost all classical Chinese gardens, whether owned by imperial families or common people, are built according to the natural structure of the original environment, and are inspired by the owners’ ideal natural scenery. 
The Old Summer Palace, or Yuanming Yuan, located in Beijing, is a masterpiece of this principle. It was initially rewarded by the Kangxi Emperor to his fourth son, who later succeeded to the throne as the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735). During the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, the Old Summer Palace greatly expanded from its initial construction and the introduction of Haidian District’s waterways. Garden designers drew inspiration from the water towns in south China. Eventually, continuous construction and expansion under the reign of three emperors turned the Old Summer Palace into a grand garden where various micro-landscapes blended harmoniously into winding watercourses. 
The Chengde Mountain Resort in Hebei Province formerly existed as a large complex of imperial palaces and gardens where Qing-Dynasty emperors escaped the summer heat of the capital city of Beijing. The design of this resort followed the original natural landscape—forested hills, plains, the Wulie river, and the Lion Valley—and introduced outside waterways into the complex, connecting lakes, ponds, and streams within the resort with each other, dotted with various islets. 
Aesthetic conceptions 
The atmosphere and aesthetic conceptions created by the scenes in classical gardens are a unique part of the art of Chinese garden design, which is rich in cultural connotations and hard to copy. 
With techniques such as “distant borrowing, adjacent borrowing, upward borrowing, downward borrowing, and borrowing in response to the seasons,” garden designers often draw inspiration from poetic imagery such as distant hills, nearby waters, the setting sun, the lustrous moon, gurgling streams, and flourishing plants, to achieve an aesthetic vision of the garden—“Attracted by the nature of things, as one’s eyes perceive, one’s heart anticipates, just as [in painting] the idea precedes the brush, and only then can one depict exhaustively” (trans. Stanislaus Fung)—where viewers’ feelings interact intensely with the garden’s natural scenes. 
For example, the Qingyi Garden, later known as the Summer Palace, located in Beijing, “borrows” the distant Yuquan Hill and Yuquan Pagoda in the west, and integrates them into the design of the garden as the background landscape. Complete with the scenery of distant hills, the striking pagoda, nearby trees and a lake, and rosy sunsets “borrowed” into the garden, a building on the eastern shore of the Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace is named Xijia (literally, charm of nightfall), because it coincides with scenery depicted in a poem by the Eastern-Jin poet Tao Yuanming (365–427): “The mountain views are good by day or night [xijia],/ The birds come flying homeward to their nests” (trans. Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang). 
Another typical example is the view of the Beisi Pagoda, seen in the distance over the pond of the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The Beisi Pagoda far to the west of the garden is incorporated into the garden setting and has become part of the design. In the morning, mist shrouds the outline of the pagoda, turning the garden into a dreamlike place. 
“Borrowed sounds, light, and seasons” 
In classical Chinese garden design, “borrowed scenery” is not limited to the natural landscape and scenes outside or inside the garden; it could also include dynamic natural elements that resemble the natural environment. Sounds, light and shade, and seasons are frequently “borrowed” to highlight the artistic atmosphere of the garden. 
In the Loquat Garden, a small garden within the Humble Administrator’s Garden, a pond is featured along a wall. Several plantain trees by the pond were designed to make romantic sounds as the rain patters on their leaves. A pavilion next to the pond is named Tingyu Xuan, or Pavilion for Listening to the Rhythm of the Rain, indicating that visitors can appreciate the sound of rainfall on the leaves of the plantain trees and the pond on a rainy day. 
The smart use of light and shade can also turn a garden into a fantasy world, such as in the Western Tower in the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, featuring the view of sunlight streaming into the courtyard through various window lattices. 
The season and the time of day are also important elements. Garden designers considered garden scenes that would look best in the four seasons, and those best viewed at night, in the morning, or afternoon. 
The West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, is known for its “Ten Scenes,” a collection of ten scenic views distributed around and within the lake, which serve to show the charms of the West Lake through the use of varying locations, seasons, and times of day. Among these scenes, four scenes epitomize the lake’s charm through all four seasons, including the “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway” (a thin strip of land with six arched stone bridges built spanning the lake, covered with peach and weeping willow trees in spring), “Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard” (known for its lotus flowers in summer), “Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake” (a stone tablet at the western end of Bai Causeway, which is considered a good place to appreciate the moon, particularly in autumn), and “Melting Snow on the Broken Bridge” (the stone-arched Broken Bridge after snowfall). The views of “Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset” (the majestic Leifeng Pagoda surrounded by the golden hues of the setting sun) and “Evening Bell at Nanping Mountain” (the prolonged bell sound from the Jingci Temple reverberates across the lake, ringing its farewell to the last sunbeam of the day) reflect how different times of day could be “borrowed” to create views. 
Through “borrowing” the ever-changing moods and appearances of nature, Chinese garden designers associate visitors’ imaginations with the scenes in the garden, thus expanding the view and creating the illusion that the garden is much bigger than it was. 
Gao Jianghan is a lecturer from the School of Architecture at the Huaqiao University.