The Influence of Feng Shui (Geomancy) on Traditional Chinese Garden

  • offcial website of Beijing Expo 2019  2017-Sep-14 15:09:44

Thoughts of Feng Shui has a profound impact on theories of traditional Chinese garden. Site selection of traditional Chinese garden, planning and layout of garden, cultivation and layout of garden plants, techniques of organizing landscape of the garden including borrowing landscape, contrasting landscape, dotting landscape and complementing landscape and water gap garden, etc. are all drawn and transformed from the theory of Feng Shui. 

Feng Shui, also known as Kanyu, site planning skill, the art of Yin and Yang, the Qingwu technique and the Qingnang technique, is a distinct cultural phenomenon of China. It mainly consists of theories and methods for determining the location, layout and orientation of residences, villages and tombs for bringing good luck for oneself and one’s descendants. It is the science of “environmental selection” which is summarized by ancient Chinese people in long term social life and production practice. In the recent decades, research of Feng Shui theory has continued to increase and achieved remarkable results in architecture and geography. However, the influence of Feng Shui on theory of traditional Chinese garden design has not aroused enough attention. And yet it is exactly one of the significant contents in the study of Feng Shui theory, as well as an important issue which must be referred to in studying traditional Chinese garden theory, and it has great realistic significance for current construction and conservation of garden. This article intends to conduct a discussion on this, and correction of experts are welcome.

1.Site selection of garden

Site selection of garden, also known as “site planning”, is a priority of garden making. It is the selection of environment before garden making. The site selection theory of traditional Chinese garden is undoubtedly dominated and influenced by the Feng Shui theory, and draws on its essence. Site selection of “Genyue”, the famous imperial garden of the Northern Song Dynasty, was carried out according to the Feng Shui theory. It was recorded in Records of Genyue of Zhang Hao of the Southern Song Dynasty that Emperor Huizong of Song had no prince when he just ascended the throne. So, he asked an expert on Feng Shui, and the expert said that “the terrain of the northeast corner of capital was consistent with the Feng Shui theory, but it is a little too low. If it could be heightened, then you could have princes.” In eight diagrams, the northeast is called “Gen” which is related to prosperity of descendants and clans. The way to transform the terrain from low to high is to build mountains. Thus, construction of an imperial garden based on piling up a mountain began. It was planned by Emperor Huizong of Song who was skilled in painting and given a name “Genyue” after being completed, and water of Jingling River in Kaifeng City was diverted to the garden, making it a poetic landscape garden.

Influence of Feng Shui thoughts can be seen from the theory about site selection (site planning) of gardens in The Craft of Gardens which is a masterpiece of garden-making theory of the Ming Dynasty. It was written in the book: “The basis of the garden can face any direction, and the land can be high or low; by passing the door one should find interesting view that is based on the land form. Sometimes it should be beside the woods, sometimes it requires the opening of a river or pond. The near sceneries should be reached through paths, and the remote village should be covered with luxurious trees. Villages and cities are all proper choices for building gardens. If you are building it from scratch, it should be easy to set up the base but you better plant poplar trees and bamboos; if it is an old garden, you can renovate it because it already has ancient trees and many flowers. The design should be square and round, flat and crooked, long as the circling walls and flat as the spreading clouds. For the high places, you can build pavilions and platforms, and for the low places you can dig out pools and ponds; buildings are best placed with water, and you should first find the source of the water, where it comes from and where it goes… Water can be separated by bridges, and dwellings can be built with stone piled walls to intimate the mountain environment… All should be appropriately arranged in the garden.” From these words, we can know that site selection of gardens consists of adapting to local conditions, arranging landscape in the garden based on different terrains; nestling under a mountain and near a river, using mountain and river as the basic structure in which the mountain becomes vivid due to the river and the river turns with the mountain; as well as following the principle of “selecting the site of building by augury” of the Feng Shui theory, choosing an ideal environment with “favorable climatic, geographical and human conditions” for the psychological balance.

The Craft of Gardens divided garden-making land into six categories in “site planning”, including mountain forest land, city land, village land, countryside land, land close to residence and land of river and lake. In particular, mountain forest land, village land and countryside land are mostly influenced by Feng Shui thoughts, and can best reflect the requirement of environment and landscape of the Feng Shui theory, such as mountain forest land: “mountain forest land is the best for garden making. Being both high and concave, winding and deep, steep and overhanging, flat and smooth, it creates natural scenery itself without artificial refinement. Enter deep places to find the source, dig out water ponds in the low places. Caves can be carved out, and mountains can be connected to corridors… Outside the door are some flowers and a stream. Bamboos can lead to quiet places, and a pavilion can be set among the pine trees… A thousand green mountain ridges surround and ten thousand clear gullies flow.” For village land: “Ancient lovers of the countryside would live in the field. Now those in the village can build fences surrounding the mulberries and hemp; they can dig out water channels and divert water to plant willow trees; dwellings are near the crops, and corridors are connected to the rape flowers. In a land of ten mu, there should be three mu for ponds arranged in a crooked and interesting way with proper sources; in the remaining seven mu of land, four should be used to pile hill and plant bamboos.” For countryside land: “When selecting a land in the countryside, one should find flat ridge and crooked depression. A hill should be piled up and trees be planted, water source be open, and a bridge over water be built. Pick a place a few miles away from the city, and one can travel fast and easily between the city and the countryside. One should understand the ruggedness and size of the land, and then build walls and ponds. Opening up wasteland requires diversion of water, and selecting sceneries requires the reservation of trees… Under the moon, plum trees and bamboos should be planted around the house, which can be both interesting and emotional. There should be two or three spaces that retain the beauty of spring, and one or two places for people to hide from the heat of summer.” From this we can see that site selection of these three kinds of garden lands all stresses to make use of natural environment to create the deepness and winding of water around the mountain, and it can reflect the feature of garden landscape “creating natural scenery itself without artificial refinement”. It is exactly consistent with the ideal environment pursued by Chinese Feng Shui thoughts. Many methods of “site planning” in The Craft of Gardens come from methods of “site planning” of the Feng Shui theory, such as “selecting the site of building by augury”, “a thousand green mountain ridges surround and ten thousand clear gullies flow”, “digging pools and piling up hills” and “finding flat ridge and crooked depression” (like horseshoe depression in Feng Shui land), etc.

All ancient Chinese garden makers carried out site selection (site planning) of gardens guided by Feng Shui thoughts. French missionary P. Pierre Martial who used to paint in the Old Summer Palace during the Qianlong Era of the Qing Dynasty recorded the description of imaginary site selection of gardens of Liu Zhou who was a great garden maker at that time: “Their first pursue was fresh air, good orientation and fertile land; shallow ridge and long mound, flat land and deep gully, clear lake and rapid, all of they should be matched well; they hoped there was a mountain in the north for keeping off the wind and bringing about coolness in summer, a spring under the ground and a pleasing vision of the sky which could reflect the first and last flashes of light in all four seasons. ” It clearly showed the aesthetic thoughts of Feng Shui. It was recorded in archives of the Qing Dynasty that Lei's Design, a well-known family of architecture which engaged in planning and design of imperial architecture for generations, would pay a field visit and evaluate and discuss the Feng Shui with accredited Feng Shui officials, as well as drew special patterns of Feng Shui terrain every time they did planning and design for palaces, gardens and mausoleums. It is obvious that large imperial gardens like Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure in Xiangshan Mountain, Garden of Tranquility and Brightness in Yuquan Mountain, Garden of Clear Ripples (now known as the Summer Palace), Garden of Everlasting Spring and the Old Summer Palace in the Longevity Hill, etc. took Feng Shui thoughts as their principle of site selection (site planning). Similar examples are too numerous to enumerate in construction of private gardens. Because most private gardens are the integration of garden and residence, it is natural that site selection of private gardens is dominated by Feng Shui thoughts.

We can see from the above that site selection of traditional Chinese gardens is fully influenced and dominated by Feng Shui thoughts. In the past, people conducted evaluation and research on theory of traditional Chinese garden mostly from the perspective of poetry and painting while quoting many comments from ancient painting and verse theories; they seldom quoted the Feng Shui theory, which made it impossible to thoroughly interpret the garden making art of traditional garden.

2.Garden planning

Feng Shui land is the place where “the essence gathers and vital energy is stored”. With natural landscapes which usually seem “picturesque” due to “concentrated aura”, it becomes a scenic place. Garden is a landscape environment built by emperors, prominent families, celebrities and scholars with the techniques of moving landscapes to the courtyard and agglomerating landscapes in the garden, as well as a miniature or recreation of natural landscapes in pursue of “deepness, winding and exquisiteness”. We can see that the common feature of garden and Feng Shui lies in their pursuit of an ideal landscape environment which is deep and winding; while their difference lies in the following point: Feng Shui gives priority to natural environment, but garden is merely based on natural environment perhaps with some artificial remolding to achieve the natural landscape effect. Therefore, the planning, layout and remolding of ancient garden were all profoundly influenced by Feng Shui thoughts.

Deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, Wang Wei, the famous poet and painter of the flourishing Tang Dynasty, pursued a pleasant and detached landscape environment. In his old age, he acquired Song Zhiwen’s Lantian Villa with Wangchuan River flowing around the house. According to local conditions, he skillfully utilized natural landscape along with elaborate planning and layout, building twenty garden landscapes known as Wangchuan Villa, including Huazi Hill, Bamboo Grove Retreat, Mengcheng Depression and Magnolia Dale, etc. Zhu Jingxuan wrote in Collection of Famous Paintings of the Tang Dynasty, Picture of Wangchuan, the mural painted by Wang Wei in Qianfu Temple of the capital, showed the scene of “prospect beyond the noisy world with extending valley, moving cloud and flowing river.” From Wang Wei’s poetic works Wangchuan Collections and later generations’ copies of his Picture of Wangchuan, we can see that it was a secluded landscape environment which fronted water with three sides surrounded by mountains. It was consistent with the ideal environment in Feng Shui thoughts. Thus, it was obvious that he took Feng Shui thoughts as the principle of planning and layout of garden landscape. From the perspective of the overall planning intention of the Summer Palace, a large imperial garden of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing, there are plenty of religious architecture of large volume and size built in the important controlling point of garden landscape or composition center of the garden, such as Pavilion of the Fragrance of Buddha and Meru Spiritual Territory which control the Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake and the whole Summer Palace as the composition center. This imaginary of planning is exactly the flexible application of the theory of “creating imposing image by gathering forms” and “expanding power by gathering delicate forms” in Feng Shui thoughts, and it enriches landscapes and functional content of the garden. Famous garden master Mr. Chen Congzhou wrote an article in 1958 to make comparisons on planning and design of garden environment between two scenic areas of Sun Yat-sen Scenic Area of Nanjing including scenic area of Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty and scenic area of Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (the Symposium on Garden). He believed that he could completely get a definite interpretation from relevant theories of Feng Shui thoughts through all the analyses and speculations. For example, as the background landscape of Beizhang Mausoleum, the rear dragon can keep off the wind, greet the sunshine, bring about coolness in summer, and create a pleasing vision of the sky; there are mounds known as two sand mountains of blue dragon and white tiger on both sides, which is consistent with the Feng Shui theory of “using them to guard the cavern, keep off the wind and surround it without compression and folding. That is why it is called meandering blue dragon and tamed white tiger”; and Gangluan is located to the south of the mausoleum as a facing landscape. The close ones are called An, while the distant ones are called Chao. It is consistent with the theory of “If there is no mountain ahead, everything will be seen straight” and “A near An limits the expansion of the plain”. The above examples are exactly the embodiment of thoughts of landscape planning of the Feng Shui theory. Academician Wu Liangyong, a modern famous planning master, exactly carried out planning and layout of garden environment for Qufu Confucius Institute of Shandong using the Feng Shui theory.

3.Cultivation and layout of garden plants

According to the opinion of the Feng Shui theory, ideal Feng Shui land has a good geographical pattern and aura, as well as picturesque scenery and pleasant environment. The Feng Shui theory believes that “auspiciousness comes with lush grass and trees”, “luxuriant trees grow well” and “lush growth of good trees generates wind.” There are more detailed descriptions in “Trees Facing the Sun” in Simple Talk on House of the Qing Dynasty: “The homestead of village residence takes trees as the sweater. It turns out that due to the dispersing structure of avenues, it is not enough to store the vitality without protection of trees. Due to strong wind of valleys, it is not enough to keep out the cold without the protection of trees. Thus, in the countryside, the residence becomes prosperous with lush growth of trees, and decays with declining growth of trees. Large forest brings great prosperity and small forest brings small benefits. It is like human without clothes and birds without feathers if no trees are planted. How can they stay warm this way? … It becomes vibrant and prosperous only when grass and tree are luxuriant. This means the Yang ley line is there, and with it comes wealth and good fortune.” There are similar records in Mausoleum and Residence of the Book of Changes, which shows that tree landscape of garden plays such an important role in formation of “propitious place” and “dragon’s den”. Thus, Feng Shui thoughts attaches great importance to planting garden trees, advocating planting garden trees inside and outside towns, villages and courtyards of residences. By doing this, it can effectively keep off the wind and agglomerate vital energy, as well as maintain the ecology of small environments, rendering small environments like villages and courtyards complete in form and abundant and vibrant in landscape. It is recorded in “On Planting Trees” of Collection of Housing Principles of Lin Mei of the Qing Dynasty that: “Planting trees intensively in open places at the back (of the village) for protecting the vacancy” “it gets cold with sparse trees, and gets hot with thick trees. That is the reason why Yin and Yang must reconcile with each other.” It stresses that garden trees should be planted and distributed properly, neither too sparse nor too dense. The Feng Shui theory also has special requirements for orientation and variety of cultivation and layout of garden trees, such as no trees should be planted in front of doors. “There will be no women and few men with big trees oppressing the door”. “The six domestic animals will not survive with trees in front of the door”. With trees in front of the door, it is easy to block out the sunshine and keep the Yang energy out of the house, and uneasy to banish the Yin energy in the house. Besides, it brings inconvenience for people’s travel and makes people vulnerable to lightning strike. It is regulated in Compilation of Housing Theories of Gao Jiannan of the Qing Dynasty that: “Planting peach trees and willows in the east, gardenia trees and elm trees in the west, plum trees and jujubes tree in the south, nai plum trees and almond trees in the north”. “The family will be rich with sophora trees in front of the center door. There will be no ghost around with elm trees behind the house.” “It is considered as a sign of ill omen if almond trees are in the east of the house, and considered as sexual evil if plum trees are in the north and peach trees in the west.” “It brings joyful events if two jujube trees are in front of the door, and brings wealth if green bamboos surround the house.” These special requirements of the Feng Shui theory seem to be nonsense, but they are scientifically justifiable. It not only conforms to the ecological character of species of garden trees, but also meet the requirements of improving the microclimate in towns, villages and courtyards of residences, as well as the requirements of appreciation. There is no doubt that the thought of stressing layout of garden trees landscape in the Feng Shui theory has a profound impact on construction and layout of garden plants of traditional Chinese garden. From Sakuteiki, the earliest masterpiece of garden making in Japan, we can clearly see the significant influence of Feng Shui thoughts on cultivation and layout of garden plants. It was recorded in its “Matters about Trees” that: “Trees should be planted in all four corners of the house, thus to form a place with all four gods. It is usually said that: the stream flows from the house toward the east is considered as blue dragon. Nine willows can be planted as a blue dragon if there is no stream. The avenue in the west is considered as a white tiger. Seven catalpa trees can be planted to replace it if there is none. The pool in the south is considered as a rosefinch. Nine laurels can be planted to replace it if there is none. The mound in the north is considered as a basalt. Three juniper trees can be planted to replace it if there is none. Thus, all four gods are in the house. It brings official career, prosperity and longevity without sickness for people who live here.” It is well known that Japanese garden making art originated from China, and there is a relationship from the source between Chinese and Japanese garden arts. We can say that thoughts and techniques of garden making during the Heian period (equal to the late Tang Dynasty and two Song Dynasties of China) which is reflected in Sakuteiki also reflect some important contents of Chinese garden art in the Tang and Song Dynasty. Feng Shui skill is indigenous to China. If it has not profoundly influenced China garden, it will be difficult to comprehend such influence of Feng Shui thoughts on Japanese garden.

4.Landscaping in Gardens

Traditional Chinese gardens are landscaped according to local conditions, with different forms and superb ideas. The main performance techniques are borrowing scenery, contrasting scenery, dotting scenery and complementing scenery, which are deeply related to the Feng Shui theory.

(1) Borrowing scenery: the most common technique of expression in traditional Chinese gardens. The principle that “Garden is delicate by borrowing scenery and fine in appropriate style” is emphasized in The Craft of Gardens, which can be recognized to be influenced by Feng Shui thoughts according to the description of borrowing techniques. For instance, the Volume Ten of “Borrowing Scenery” records: “There is no fixed style for landscaping but there is always a reason for borrowing scenery... people would like to stay in the forest because of the desolate trees and bamboos are quiet and peaceful, and the city is noisy. Looking far from a high place, people can see the distant mountains like a screen. The house should introduce good air, and the lake should introduce spring water.” The garden space is consistent with the spatial structure of geomancy. The Volume One of “On Garden” records “Choosing to stay adjacent to the temple, you can hear chant; borrowing scenery from the distant mountains, you can get the beauty to feast your eyes. Sleeping in a place with the purple clouds and the blue haze, you can hear the immortal crane singing.” These records can be verified with Feng Shui thoughts. The place with “purple clouds” or “blue haze” is regarded as the most vivid and auspicious place in both Feng Shui thoughts and garden theory. In Royal Garden Summer Palace, whether you are in the former mountain or the east embankment, or boating on the Kunming Lake, you can see the scenery of Western Hills and Yuquan Mountain, which borrows scenery from West Mountain. Jichang Garden in Wuxi borrows scenery of Xishan and Huishan, which is the typical way of borrowing scenery in garden. As the “most important” artistic expression in gardens, borrowing scenery also has many forms, mainly borrowing from the far, near or adjacent places, borrowing in truth, in falsity or in mirror, and borrowing occasionally. All the forms are related to Feng Shui theory.

(2) Contrasting scenery: Contrasting scenery is usually achieved through the construction of garden buildings. Zhu Changwen of Song Dynasty wrote in Map Scripture of Wu County – South Garden that “pavilions, buildings and gazebos are built for contrasting scenery”, where “contrasting scenery” means opposing scenery. Li Yu of Qing Dynasty stated in Daily Jottings for Health that “the most wonderful thing from opening the window is borrowing scenery”, which is also about contrasting scenery mainly through door and window. This expression of contrasting scenery is also reflected from Feng Shui thoughts. “Chao Shan” and “An Shan” in Feng Shui thoughts are contrasting sceneries in gardens. An Shan, also called “Bin Shan”, represents the rosefinch of the Four Gods, with a location in the front contrasting to Zhu Shan. The mountain too close and not very high is called “An Shan” or “Zuo Shan”, while the mountain far and high is called “Chao Shan” or “Wang Shan”. The former is equivalent to close contrasting or opposing scenery and the latter is equivalent to far contrasting scenery. The famous writer Ouyang Xiu in Northern Song Dynasty built Pingshan House in Shugang by Slender West Lake. “Sitting in the House, looking at the mountains across the river, they seem parallel”, which is a good example of contrasting scenery. From the perspective of Feng Shui theory, the Zhenjiang three mountains opposing to Pingshan House are “Chao Shan”. The contrasting scenery of An Shan and Chao Shan can also be distinguished in the small courtyard. For example, there is “A layer of street and a layer of water, a layer of wall and a layer of sand, the house in front of the street is Mingtang, the opposing house is the An Shan” in Collection of Housing Principles. The use of panes in the garden is a variation of this theory.

(3) Dotting scenery: The garden designer builds small buildings to add brightness to the garden and make the garden a vibrant and vivid landscape. This approach is also derived from Feng Shui theory. Kunming Lake in Beijing Summer Palace, covering an area of about 2,500 acres, is vast and wide. During the layout of the garden structure, the garden designer took examples from the “pointing” method of Feng Shui theory to dot Longhuangmiao Island (South Lake Island), Zaojiantang, Zhijing Pavilion and Fenghuang Mound, etc. in the lake to achieve the harmony on the landscape.

(4) Complementing scenery: Complementing scenery is also one of the traditional Chinese garden landscaping method. When building a garden in the flat ground without mountains, piling up mountains artificially and digging pools for water diversion are complementing scenery. It is from “complementing geomancy” and “cultivating geomancy” in Feng Shui theory. If the mountain is not high enough, tower or pavilion can be used to increase the height; if the sand is not beautiful enough, trees are planted to enhance the beauty; if the hillock is not round, soils are added to modulate it; if the water flows too slow, people will do the dredge. Planting Feng Shui woods behind the house and digging ponds in front of the house also belong to complementing scenery. This kind of complementing scenery not only increases the vitality of the garden, but also enriches the spatial level of the landscape.

5.Water gap garden

Water gap is a place where water flows. “Water gap is the source of all the water in a place.” Under the influence of the thought “regarding the sky and the earth as the house”, Chinese people would like to integrate some well-enclosed open space and artificial environment, and water gap is regarded as the gateway and soul of a village. Water gap is generally located in the narrow space between two mountains. With the mountain meandering, under the cover of dense trees and buildings, a narrow entrance is formed to allow a small path and a stream to bend over. The ancient Huizhou people, who lived in clans, paid attention to the construction of the landscape in water gap. They built a garden in the “water gap” area – the gateway of the village – as a place of leisure for the village people, and some people called it “water gap garden”. The form of this kind of garden, different from that of the usual garden, is based on the rich natural landscape in water gap area. According to the local conditions, through proper landscape construction, it forms the scenery of “green trees beside the village, continuous mountains outside the village”, integrates the mountains, water, fields and village, and gives a feeling of “creating natural scenery itself without artificial refinement”. The records about the water gap garden in Kaochuan Renli in Hu Branch Pedigree of Renli Mingjing in Huizhou are that “two mountains are against each other on both sides of the water gap, streams are around the village... trees and flowers are planted ten steps from the levee, which constrain the stream in a zigzag pattern. Slab bridges are built on both sides of the gateway of the levee to let people walk on, and a pavilion stands tall in the middle... the other pavilion several times as high as this pavilion is named Wenchang Pavilion.” The structure of Renli water gap is in full compliance with Feng Shui theory, and the layout of the landscape is completely garden-style. Another example is the Huizhou Yansi water gap garden, the famous auspicious area in the local place. There is a seven-story tower, which overlooks the whole town and the Huangshan Tiandu and Lianhua Erfeng. At the foot of the tower, there is a Fengshan Platform, on which a Sanyuan Pavilion is built for people to rest. Fishscale bamboos are planted to make the whole platform green. And there is also a maple forest. In late autumn, the scenery of red against green is very beautiful. A Yugong Bridge across the river connects to the north shore where a temple called “Jie Nunnery” stands. There is a small pavilion beside the water. Sitting in the pavilion to watch the tower, people will find a perfect picture with tower shadow and bridge rainbow. Unfortunately, the scenery has been destroyed beyond recognition. Water gap gardens can be found everywhere in Huizhou area, such as Tangan Garden in Xi County, Xidi and Hongcun in Yi County as the garden integrates water gap and village. Fang Xichou, from Huizhou in Kangxi period of Qing Dynasty, gave a vivid description of Huizhou water gap garden in Xin’an Bamboo Song: “Trees in my hometown are named nanmu, the verdant water gap reflects the blue sky, standing on the red pavilion to get an overlook, passengers mistake it for the Hundred Flowers Pond.” Huizhou water gap garden is the epitome of the combination of the traditional Chinese landscape architecture and Feng Shui theory.

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