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Chinese Garden-Origin and Development

Chinese garden landscaping has a history of more than 4,000 years with the earliest gardens appearing in 2000 BC during the Shang dynasty. Shang kings used forests and mountains for hunting and as sightseeing destinations. Chinese garden landscaping would develop from this embryonic form of garden.

The first gardens in early Chinese history were imperial status symbols of the kings and aristocrats. Their most distinguishing features were that they covered large areas and had dual purpose; for hunting and for holding sacrificial rites to the god.

Gradually the appeal of gardens spread beyond the aristocracy to officials, poets, painters and traders who hoped to recreate the scenic spots they saw in the convenience of their hometowns. Early private gardens were small and featured stones piled into mountains. Water channels were usually planted with pine and cypress trees and bamboo. These gardens recreated natural scenes and are named "gardens with mountains and waters sceneries."

The wealth of the Tang dynasty spurred the building of gardens. The imperial gardens were in Chang'an, present day Xi'an and the largest was called the Forbidden Garden. This garden was 14km wide and 12km long and held 24 gardens and building complexes. It was the main imperial getaway with scenic spots and different activities like hunting, singing and dancing.

Landscape painting became an independent branch of Chinese painting during the Tang dynasty. Mountains, water, trees and villages were popular subjects and painters sought to embody the harmony between man and nature with their paintings. Painters didn't just paint sceneries, but expressed their thoughts and emotions with the images. Gardens were built in a similar vein with the garden designers attempting to harmonise architectural beauty with natural beauty so the visitor can view a complete picture.

During the Song dynasty, garden landscaping became even more popular and spread further down the social hierarchy. Owners of teahouses began to build gardens to solicit customers and everyday commoners could therefore enjoy the beauty of gardens. Landscape painting now had a greater influence on garden landscaping than before. For example, the emperor would hire a commercial painter to paint a design and the garden would be built according to the painting. Great detail was given to the lines, structures and decoration of courtyards, with particular attention paid to the placement of small ornaments.

Chinese garden landscaping reached a golden age in the Ming and Qing dynasties and became an art that blended music, painting, poetry and architecture. Gardens began to influence each other and designers referred to other gardens for inspiration. The number of gardens greatly increased, with many of them private gardens and classics like the "Master of the Nets Garden" and the "Geyuan Garden". Imperial gardens like the Old Summer Palace and the Summer Palace began imitating and copying ideas from other private gardens.