Download PDF

The following is an excerpt from the lecture of J. Justin Meehan, Esq. delivered at the past CFG Appreciation Tour

Philosophical Foundations of the Chinese Garden Aesthetic

There is a very special aesthetic to the Chinese Friendship Garden (CFG) and to Chinese Gardens in general. which gives them a uniqueness differing from European and even Japanese Gardens. This aesthetic is based on a Naturalness in both appearance and design. By comparison, European Gardens were characterized by symmetrical and artificial arrangements which demonstrated their belief in the triumph of human reason over Nature. This is easily seen in the geometrical arrangements in the Gardens of Versailles in France. In fact, reports of Chinese Gardens by missionaries and other travelers in the 1700s had a profound impact in reshaping European ideas for Gardens.

Its not that the Chinese did not also attempt to impose reason and order in design and architecture, however they did so primarily in regard to human living environments rather than natural or garden type settings. The Forbidden City in Beijing is almost completely= designed using lines and angles not found in the natural environment. Lines and angles were necessary in order to create living spaces which took into account differences in relationships and social status between classes of peoples, even between family members. These relationships were an essential part of the Confucian philosophy designed to create the ideal balance of social responsibilities and obligations for a well ordered society. For the most part, these relationships were unequal (eg. subject and ruler, father and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger) requiring differing accommodations both in terms of behavior and space. This authoritarian and hierarchical designation of living spaces put each person in his proper place.

Counterbalancing the Confucian ethic, was the Taoist philosophy. Both appeared at about the same time (between 555 and 300 BCE.) and can be seen as having a relation to each other similar to the Taiji (yin/yang) diagram, with Confucianism forming the Yang (male, authoritarian) division in relation with Taoist philosophy forming the Yin (feminine, natural) side of the paradign. Though outwardly different, they co existed side by side within Chinese Society and the Chinese Personality. It has been said that the Chinese Gentleman is Confucian in his public life and Taoist in retirement. They also co exist in the Chinese £rarden itself. A typical Scholars Garden would have 4 major elements: plants, rock, water and human bufidhigs plating man squarely within the natural environment, not,above it and certainty in n balance and not opposition with nature.

Taoist philosophy is a belief system that points to an Unidentified Origin of all things which is beyond human comprehension or even the ability to describe in words and therefore is assigned the word Tao or Way. From the Tao emerged all things and is Tao's influence is ever present in terms of the Way things are. In looking for the Tao we cannot find it, but its operations are most clearly understood in terms of Nature and the way things are naturally. Contrary to Confucian philosophy, the Taoist is seldom a group conformist, but is found rather abandoning convention in order to follow the Tao. While the original Taoists who had abandoned public life for a life of seclusion in Nature, philosophical Taoism infused and inspired Chinese life in many ways, especially in the arts (painting, poetry, calligraphy, architecture, design and even the martial arts) and even fostered a quasi scientific approach to explore medical treatment, the use of herbs and acupuncture. The essence of the Taoist approach was to accept things the way that they are, go with the flow and avoid making things worse by trying too hard to make things the way we want them to be, which often results in creating the exact opposite of what we originally intended. Appreciating the natural and spontaneous is at the essence of the Taoist aesthetic of Chinese Gardens.

Of course there all kinds of other considerations to be taken into account. There are different types of Chinese Gardens such as the Imperial Gardens created for Emperors and their Court. There are Temple Gardens built around Taoist and Buddhist Temples. There were the private gardens built by wealthy families to display their wealth and status and most often used like beach houses in the Hamptons (or the Lake) for conspicuous entertaining. And, of course, there was the Scholar's Garden built for withdrawal from the rat race of society and allowing for rest, seclusion, reflection, study and self cultivation, or at least the appearance thereof Gardens also differed depending on their geographic location and the era in which they were built. Most Gardens existent in China today were for the most part built quite recently, within the past 200 years or less. While modem study of Chinese Gardens tends to focus more on socio-economic factors, it is the Chinese Gardens ability to reveal and reflect traditional Chinese culture and values that interests me the most.

Although Chinese Gardens are an intentional attempt to recreate the naturalness, balance and spontaneity of Nature within prescribed confines, Chinese Gardens seem much less contrived or improved upon than Japanese Gardens which seem so perfectly arranged. Perhaps limited by the island of Japan's lack of space or proscribed by the essentialism of Zen (Chan) Buddhist philosophy, a Japanese Garden can seem so perfect as to make one's own entrance seem somewhat of an intrusion. It has been said that where Zen seeks perfection, Taoism seeks balance. The perfection of the Zen Garden often reminds us of just how confused our own lives and mind seem in comparison.

Chinese Gardens on the other hand invite the guest to enter and enjoy. Various pavilions, whether for study, play or show, place the human being within the center of the natural environment, not above or below. Chinese Gardens call out for every type of artistic participation and social response. Music, poetry, painting, dance, calligraphy, word games and drinking all fit well within the way things are in the Chinese Garden. No Garden would be complete without written calligraphy, colorful painting and other evidence of human artistic appreciation and interaction. All Gardens, whether European, Japanese or Chinese reflect each culture's philosophic understanding and invite artistic response. Each Garden is in effect a vital cultural museum.

Another aspect of Chinese Gardens that I enjoy can be experienced in the Nanjing Friendship Garden of St. Louis. This garden was created only after a Feng Shui Master personally examined and approved the layout, positioning and design. As I have been teaching Taijiquan and Qigon in the Missouri Botanical Gardens over the last 15 years or so, myself and my students could not help but experience the harmonious yet abundant balance of energies in the Chinese Friendship Garden. This is what led me to fall in love with the Garden and to want to further explore and learn more about the Garden design. It is a perfectly balanced environment and full of vital energy or Qi (chi). Stepping into the Garden is like stepping into another time a place where one can leave one's troubles outside and experience the peaceful calm and balance within and be restored and revitalized by the resevoir of "qi" within.

Having just returned from China this year after my first visit in 1981, some 25 years ago, it is obvious that traditional culture is being steamrolled by the global culture of consumerism and materialism. To the extent that cement boxes, buildings and department stores and Golden Arches are crowding out and replacing thousands of years of civilization, Chinese Gardens stand like spiritual stop signs to modem progress reminding us of the values and treasures of traditional Chinese Culture. Just as the 3 Georges Dam flooded out and destroyed centuries of civilization in sacrifice to modernization, the benefits come with a cost and loss. Traditional Art and Culture built up over thousands of generations gives way to instant gratification and multinational corporate culture. Shall we allow the gifts of our ancestors to be lost to our children, or can we protect and preserve the cultural legacy of oldest living culture for our posterity and the posterity of the world, before it becomes all too late?

Our Chinese Friendship Garden is the most visible architectural symbol of traditional Chinese Culture in St. Louis today. But the Chinese Friendship Garden is made of wood, mortar, plaster and stone, some found only in Nanjing. These elements deteriorate over time. The CFG needs repainting every few years. Some of the Pavilion wood is getting old and needs replacement. Mortar from "cracked ice" walkways comes loose as visitors come and go. Tiles break and colors fade. The CFG needs regular maintenance, repair and upkeep. There are also plans for a Dragon sculpture to bring visitors attention to the entryway, so that they do not miss the opportunity to enjoy one of St. Louis best kept cultural secrets on their way to the more well known and visible Japanese Garden. The Mo. Botanical Gardens does not have sufficient adequate financial resources to preserve and protect the CFG. Its resources are stretched thin and attention must be allotted over several differing projects and areas in the Mo. Bot. Garden.

In order to assist the MBG to better care for and maintain the CFG a group of concerned citizens have formed a not for profit organization called the Friends of the Chinese Garden in order to help raise awareness of and support for the CFG. They will plan fund raisers and cultural events to better assist the MBG in popularizing the CFG and it helping with upkeep and development. They are already working on creating a documentary on the CFG to share with the MBG and other educational organizations on the history and cultural importance of the CFG. They are also working on a Mandarin House Restaurant fund raising dinner scheduled for next Fall and Spring. A newsletter for members is al being planned. Anyone with time and interest is invited to become part of the Friends of the Chinese Friendship Garden organization. A special account has been set up by the MBG for the CFG which allows interested persons and organizations to donate directly to a fund whose use shall be ONLY for the needs of the CFG.

Interested persons can find out more by contacting FCC President, J. Justin Meehan at Donations to the CFG can be made directly through the MBG with checks made out to the 

MBG c/o Chinese Friendship Garden Fund 
P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, Mo., 63166

Friends Return to Honor Chinese Friendship Garden

Another successful Margaret Grigg Nanjing Chinese Friendship Garden Tour and Celebration was held this past Sunday, April 29, 2007 at the Mo. Botanical Garden (MBG) as part of its educational offerings and adult education program. The class registration was overflowing and has a long waiting list for the next offering. For the second time in a row, the weather was wonderful!. Participants were treated to an hour of interesting lectures by Chinese Friendship Garden (CFG) presenters including MBG Taiji/Qigong Instructor Shirfu/Sifu J. Justin Meehan who is the organizer of this class, assisted by Jackie Mitchell who conducts Garden tours for the MBG. Sifu Justin, who is also President of the Taoist Research and Resource Forum of St. Louis, lectured on the Taoist origins of Chinese Gardens and the problems facing the CFG today. Jackie Mitrchell presented a slide show comparing the CFG with other Chinese Gardens in China today. Also presenting was Douglas Wagganer, a construction supervisor who shared original drawings and his knowledge of CFG.

After the lecture portion of the program, participants strolled out to the CFG to tour the Garden and enjoy the CFG experience. There waiting for them were Ms. Li Zhi Lu a Chinese student studying at Webster University who played the Chinese stringed instrument known as the Guzheng creating a musical environment transporting visitors back to another time and place in Chinas past. Alongside the musical atmosphere, Madam Goretti Lim created a moving masterpiece of Chinese Hun Yuan Taiji and Qigong. Madam Lim is also getting ready to compete in an upcoming National Taijiquan Competition to be held this July in Houston, Texas where she will compete and demonstrate her mastery in Taiji form and Sword. Sifu Justin led participants in drawing energy from the natural environment in a series of Hun Yuan Qigong (chi gong) exercises designed to reduce stress and enhance vitality. Serving tea to participants were Donald Lee and other leading members of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple who practice the Humanistic Buddhism of Yen. Master Hsing Yun whose expression of enlightened Buddhism emphasizes joyful engagement with the community at large and service to others.

Ms. Mimi Huang of Taiwan Marcoview TV recorded the event for the purpose of creating a video documentary of the CFG which will be made available to the MBG, public television and local educational institutions upon completion. Also present reporting the event were Editors Francis Yueh and May Wu of the St. Louis Chinese American News whose support of the CFG and assistence in providing volunteers and artists made the entire event possible. Their crusading advocacy on behalf of the CFG last year (see, Nov. 2, 1966) led to needed repairs on crumbling stone masonry by the MBG and the coming together of concerned citizens who later formed the Friends of the Chinese Garden, which is now being incorporated as a Not For Profit corporation thanks to the volunteer legal services of local attorney, Ms Yi Sun, a graduate of Washington University Law School, originally from Shandong Province, China, who also serves as Friends of Chinese Garden liaison with the St. Louis-Nanjing Sister City Program. To these volunteers and contributors we owe a great deal of gratitude for taking the time and showing the interest in preserving Chinese Culture in their support of the CFG.


Books & Media

Listen to the Fragrance

The Portland Classical Chinese Garden, Lan Su Yuan, grew out of a friendship between the sister cities of Portland, Oregon and Suzhou, a Chinese city renowned for its ancient gardens. Lan Su Yuan - poetically named the Garden of Awakening Orchids - is a microcosm of nature’s splendors contained in an urban setting. Created to nurture and inspire all who visit, this classical garden is little changed from what might have greeted visitors during China’s Ming dynasty.

In Chinese tradition, garden landscape without poetry is not complete, and Lan Su Yuan is graced with a wealth of poetic inscriptions. In Listen to the Fragrance, Professor Charles Wu provides translation and insightful commentary, guiding us on a literary tour of the garden and revealing hidden meaning among its flowers, moving water, Lake Tai rocks, and elegant architecture. With stories and legends from ancient dynasties and images of scenic wonders from China’s vast history, the inscriptions deepen our appreciation of Lan Su Yuan’s beauty. The rich canon of classical Chinese poetry enhances the garden as a new setting for China’s enduring culture.

Listen to the Fragrance will engage readers in the poetic conversation deeply embedded within the landscape of classical Chinese gardens.

Gardens in China by Peter Valder

With their distinctive characteristics, the gardens of China are among the most fascinating in the world. Many excellent books have been written about them but, on the whole, they have dealt only with the surviving imperial gardens and a selection of those of retired officials. Rarely are the fascinating courtyards and gardens of temples mentioned, nor the evocative enclosures of ancient burial grounds and imperial tombs – to say nothing of the public parks, botanical gardens and arboreta, most of which have sprung up since 1949.

In this book Peter Valder describes over 200 gardens in China which he has visited, including representatives of all types. In order to introduce them, he looks at how over the years Western visitors have perceived and come to understand Chinese gardens, and for each site provides notes on its location, history and plants. A description of more than 200 imperial, private, temple, botanical and public gardens in China, including notes on their history and significance, together with 500 color photographs.

$49.95 and

The Chinese Garden

History, Art and Architecture

Third Edition Maggie Keswick Revised by Alison Hardie

Dense with winding paths, dominated by huge rock piles and buildings squeezed into small spaces, the characteristic Chinese garden is, for many foreigners, so unlike anything else as to be incomprehensible. Only on closer acquaintance does it offer up its mysteries; and such is the achievement of Maggie Keswick's celebrated classic that it affords us--adventurers, armchair travelers, and garden buffs alike--the intimate pleasures of the Chinese garden.

In these richly illustrated pages, Chinese gardens unfold as cosmic diagrams, revealing a profound and ancient view of the world and of humanity's place in it. First sensuous impressions give way to more cerebral delights, and forms conjure unending, increasingly esoteric and mystical layers of meaning for the initiate. Keswick conducts us through the art and architecture, the principles and techniques of Chinese gardens, showing us their long history as the background for a civilization--the settings for China's great poets and painters, the scenes of ribald parties and peaceful contemplation, political intrigues and family festivals.

Updated and expanded in this third edition, with an introduction by Alison Hardie, many new illustrations, and an updated list of gardens in China a ccessible to visitors, Keswick's engaging work remains unparalleled as an introduction to the Chinese garden.