Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Having lived in Japan for many years and visited a variety of Japanese gardens I often wondered how these types of gardens are different from their predecessors in China. In fact, the Japanese garden originally came to Japan from China so are they still the same or different?
This lead me to the question I think many people have asked before which is, what is the difference between Chinese and Japanese gardens? The main difference between Chinese and Japanese gardens is that Chinese gardens tend to be more bold, exotic, ornamental, and have more architecture and structures throughout a park-like setting, compared to Japanese gardens which tend to be more subdued, austere and minimalist overall.
Of course this is an oversimplification of the differences between Japanese Gardens and Chinese gardens but on the surface these are some of the key areas that can be highlighted. The early Japanese gardens from around 600 AD we're definitely influenced by Chinese gardens. Prince Shotoku sent a delegation to China to learn and study there after they returned the best type of garden was built in the Nara area, which was the capital of Japan at the time. Slowly however, Japan developed its own garden style that better fit Japanese landscape and culture. Next we will talk about some of the differences more in detail.
A Series of Concealed Scenes
One of the main differences between Japanese and Chinese gardens is that Chinese gardens are usually designed to be a series of concealed scenes. Chinese gardens usually have a series of winding paths that take you around the corner to a new view or a new landscape. With each turn a new scene is presented. Japanese strolling Gardens, or Kaiyu-Shiki, and Tea Gardens, or Roji, are very similar in this way.
The Chinese Garden is meant to be experienced along the journey of the path and the entire garden should not be seen from one particular viewpoint. This is very different from the Japanese Gardens that have developed overtime, excluding strolling garden and tea garden styles.
Architecture and Structures
One of the striking differences that you will notice right away in a Chinese Garden is the amount of architecture and structures that are used in the garden. Many pavilions, pagodas, gazebos, meditation areas, small houses etc. are used to break up the garden and provide each window or angle with a different view from within.
Japanese gardens sometimes may have a tea house, religious meditation hall, or sitting area, but usually these are quite limited in number.
Chinese gardens on the other hand, can sometimes have many structures with very bold and bright colors with eccentric sloping roofs. Japanese tea houses and temples tend to have a more straight line and overhanging roof line.
Chinese gardens often have moon gates, ornamental window frames, bold arching bridges and bright red pavilions and pagodas. Although a very large garden by all measures, The Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou has a total of 48 structures on it. This is sort of unheard of in the Japanese garden.
Rock Gardens and Ponds
The Japanese rock garden has developed in Japan in a way that is much different from how rocks were used in gardens in China. The Chinese Garden relies much more on highlighting exotic and bold rocks in their landscapes. “The Lion Grove Garden” in Suzhou has many exotic rocks that are said to look like a collection of lion heads. Many of these rocks look almost volcanic and porous, but are usually made of limestone and have naturally eroded. Chinese culture has come to appreciate the exotic stones, which represent mountains and are seen as a focal point.
Japanese Rock Gardens on the other hand, place a lot of emphasis on the setting of the stones together, often in asymmetric groupings. As in China they also represent mountains, sometimes still representing an ancient Chinese tale or artistic landscape scene. However, Japan has expanded to allow various types of rocks to be the main focal point of the garden.
In most Chinese gardens ponds and lakes are the center of the garden, and water is definitely a major theme in Japanese Gardens as well but Japan has allowed for the mere symbolization of water to be acceptable. You can see many examples of Japanese Rock Gardens, or Zen Rock Gardens, that may have a wide area of raked gravel with waves and ripples that represent the ocean or river. Sometimes in the raked gravel area you may have a boulder or mound protruding from the small stones or sand representing an island. You may also see a variety of sizes of solid boulders set together that represent a waterfall. For more examples of Japanese rock gardens check out this article on "What Kinds of Rocks Are Used in Japanese Rock Gardens."
Garden Trees and Flowers
Chinese gardens are often aiming at preserving a natural appearance of the landscape. Nature at times can seem like it is taking over the garden or at least wilderness is dominating. The trimming and pruning of trees was kept to a minimum, if done at all, and left the natural form of the trees to be appreciated.
In Japan however, a long tradition of heavily pruning and thinning of the branches and leaves has taken place. Shrubs are perfectly sculpted into mounds that nestle together with boulders and trees. This gives the Japanese garden a very precise and highly maintained look to the garden.
Both Chinese and Japanese gardens do highlight the fact that human beings and nature are coexisting. However, I see that Chinese gardens showcase this with the balance of ponds and natural landscapes with man-made structures like pavilions, and Japanese gardens lean more towards a scene of more naturally occurring elements that have been adjusted or manipulated by man here and there.
Japanese Gardens aim to have more flowering shrubs, like azaleas, which can be heavily pruned, and flowering trees. These do provide a seasonal source of color but are often not as bold and bright as in Chinese gardens.
Borrowed scenery in Chinese gardens is seen as the epitome of a successful garden. If you can manage to capture a beautiful mountain scene in the distance, or make use of neighboring trees somehow in your garden then you have been able to display your garden in a way that makes it seem like it is never ending or at least much larger than actually is.
The Garden Treatise , Yuanye, from 1631 states that “borrowing scenery as a holistic understanding of the essence of landscape design in its entirety. The ever-changing moods and appearances of nature in a given landscape in full action are understood by the author as an independent function that becomes an agent for garden making. It is nature including the garden maker that creates.” (Kuitert, Wybe (2015) Borrowing scenery and the landscape that lends - the final chapter of Yuanye, Journal of Landscape Architecture, 10:2, 32-43)
In Japan however, this is a somewhat debatable landscape Style. There is the tradition of Shakkei, or borrowed landscape scenery, but not everyone is in agreement whether a Japanese garden should rely on outside influences beyond the garden walls. You can definitely see examples in Kyoto, for example, those do have Mt. Hiei in the background and are extremely beautiful landscapes. Some gardens unfortunately that once relied solely on this far off background scene are now having to deal with tall buildings and man-made structures that are now obstructing the once natural View.
With Japan's urban development you find that most people are living in a city area with very limited space, even though mountains, rivers and oceans surround them. With limited space for the average person's home usually there is some type of wall as a backdrop and the home Garden scene has been relegated to the confines within the wall.
Some have described the Chinese garden as busy or crowded while others describe it as a beautiful disorder. Philosophically speaking, the Chinese Garden was seen as a showcase to display the aesthetic taste and cultivated artistic and educated sense of the owner of the garden. Some also say that Japanese gardens eventually become more restrained, refined, uncluttered or subdued. Both Garden styles at times make use of an idealized miniature landscape, but it is usually much more prominent in Chinese gardens.
Both Chinese gardens and Japanese gardens have an underlying theme of showing the connection of human beings and nature. They have diverged on the path to showcasing this coexistence, but nevertheless this shows how people are both unique and different in their own ways, but connected and the same at the root of it. Through creating and appreciating gardens now and throughout history, you can see how our place in this world and our ongoing exploration of how we fit in with nature has been an ongoing important theme for us.
That being said, there was never one particular style of Chinese Garden or one particular style of Japanese garden that represents either one. Garden styles have changed throughout history over the thousands of years they have developed in different areas and regions within China and Japan. In both countries you have different gardens that have different roles; sometimes being a home garden, which serves as a scholars retreat to create art or poetry, an aristocrats playground, or a serene meditative space. On the surface it may seem like Chinese gardens and Japanese gardens are very similar, but to other people they may seem vastly different. All of this comes from your accumulated experiences in these gardens that then develop your perspective.
I hope this article on the main differences between Chinese and Japanese gardens will encourage everyone to explore a variety Chinese gardens and Japanese gardens to deepen your appreciation and perspective on both garden styles.
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