Asian Gardens at the Phillips Library

Artificial Garden at Japanese Villa

Japanese garden with hillock and trees

Hand colored illustrations of Japanese villa gardens, late nineteenth century (3)

Recently, the Phillips Library had the pleasure of finding beautiful pictures of Asian gardens to display for a group visit. Natural history and Asian art are strengths of the PEM and Phillips Library, so we were able to pull an interesting selection of items. Before these images are put back into the vault, we simply had to share them with the world. The images that were selected here are from Chinese and Japanese gardens.

Paintings of Old Chinese Garden

Reproductions of Chinese gardens in the sixteenth century (2)

Chinese gardens are often characterized as confusing and dense, dominated by huge rock piles and several buildings squeezed into small spaces, but they represent cosmic diagrams.[1] Chinese garden makers did not set out to copy parts of nature on a smaller scale, but to create a total landscape within a small space in a way which would utilize the qi, or ‘Vital Breath,’ that pulses through nature and affects human affairs. This energy could be intensified by miniaturization (such as in penjing and Bonsai ). This desire to concentrate qi explains some unique elements of Chinese gardens that sometimes confuse Westerners, such as the huge piles of connected rocks called jia shan, or ‘false mountains.’[2]

Morning mist by the Western ridge

Views of Jehol

Early eighteenth century Chinese palace gardens (1)

Japanese gardens are more well-known and perfectionist, with their exquisite moss and stone arrangements, manicured pines, and dry streams.[3] Japanese garden design developed from the Chinese, with its roots recognized as dating back to the early 7th century, by Ono-no-Imoko, a Japanese diplomat. The Japanese tradition got new inspiration from the publishing of a book, circa 1100, called Sakutei-ki (notes on the making of gardens), which gives the principles of this approach:

  • -make a symbolic re-recreation of an ideal landscape
  • -create a vision of the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida
  • -create an image of the Isles of the Immortals
  • -help man to meditate – and take the road to spiritual awakening
  • -ease the descent of tutelary spirits
  • -stimulate feelings of a beautifully Japanese space peopled by divinities[4]

Like Chinese gardens, Japanese gardens embody cultural and religious values. There is not one model or aesthetic for Japanese gardens, and often the garden incorporates the surrounding architecture and landscape.[5]

Japanese Gardens

Early twentieth century illustrations of Japanese gardens (4)

Asian gardens are intrinsically influenced by religion. Japanese Shinto has a powerful sense of gods and spirits in nature;[6] Confucianism is associated with geometrical order; Taoism calls for a natural approach to design; and Buddhism emphasizes meditation, which could be aided by gardens and their rocks.[7] For example, one of the key elements still found today in Chinese gardens is the ancient lake and island patterns. These are created in the image of the Isles of the Immortals, which has roots in folklore and Taoism/Daoism.[8] This motif also has root in an imperial legend. In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Qin Shi Huang (of terracotta army fame) wanted to find out the secrets of these Immortals. His expeditions to find their moving islands failed, so he tried to get them to come to him by building a great lake by his palace with islands so beautiful they would mistake them for their own.[9]

Shiundo Villa garden

Plan and photograph of Japanese villa garden with path leading to tea room, 1930s (5)

The tea ceremony, an important part of many Asian cultures, is another influence of Asian garden design. The sixteenth century formalized the ceremony in tea and stroll gardens with paths specifically designed to lead to pavilions. Artistically placed stone paths both protected the plants from the stroller and the stroller’s attire from the ground. Stone lanterns allowed the tea ceremony to take place after dark. A primary objective of garden design was the positioning of the pavilion, where the tea ceremony took place. Besides the cultural and social aspects of the tea ceremony, it was also used to aid meditation for spiritual wellbeing.[10]

Chinese pavilion over lotus pond

Pavilion for the contemplation of the Moon, over lotus pond, mid nineteenth century (6)

Chinese Garden Photographs

Pavilion over ravine and bamboo grove in Chinese garden, circa 1949 (6)

For more information on these items make sure to check out our online catalog, or make an appointment to visit and see them in person!

Chinese Garden Painting

Two noble ladies in a Chinese Palace Garden, reproduction of sixteenth century painting (6)

[1] Keswick, Maggie. The Chinese Garden: History, Art, and Architecture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 14.
[2] Keswick, Maggie, Judy Oberlander, and Joe Wai. In a Chinese Garden: The Art and Architecture of the Dr. Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (Vancouver: The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Society, 1990), p. 13-4.
[3] Keswick. The Chinese Garden: History, Art, and Architecture, p. 14.
[4] Turner, Tom, “Japanese Gardens,” The Garden Guide, accessed March 28, 2017,
[5] “Overview: Characters for Garden: Tei En,” Columbia University, accessed March 28, 2017,
[6] Turner, Tom, “Japanese Gardens.”
[7] Turner, Tom, “Chinese Garden Design Philosophy,” The Garden Guide, accessed March 28, 2017,
[8] Turner, Tom, “Taoism/Daoism, Nature and the Isles of the Immortals,” The Garden Guide, accessed March 28, 2017,
[9] Keswick, Oberlander, and Wai. In a Chinese Garden,  p. 10.
[10] Turner, “Japanese Gardens.”



Keswick, Maggie. The Chinese Garden: History, Art, and Architecture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Keswick, Maggie, Judy Oberlander, and Joe Wai. In a Chinese Garden: The Art and Architecture of the Dr. Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Vancouver: The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Society, 1990.

“Overview: Characters for Garden: Tei En.” Columbia University. Accessed March 28, 2017.

Turner, Tom. “Japanese Gardens.” The Garden Guide. Accessed March 28, 2017.

Turner, Tom. “Chinese Garden Design Philosophy.” The Garden Guide. Accessed March 28, 2017.

Turner, Tom. “Taoism/Daoism, Nature and the Isles of the Immortals.” The Garden Guide. Accessed March 28, 2017.


Sources of Images

(1) Ripa, Matteo. [Views of Jehol, the seat of the summer palace of the emperors of China [print]. / thirty-six etchings by Matteo Ripa]. [Rehe Sheng, China : s.n., 1713?].

(2) Kerby, Kate, and Wen, Zhengming. An old Chinese garden : a three-fold masterpiece of poetry, calligraphy and painting. Shanghai : Chung hwa, 1922?.

(3) Ogawa, Kazumasa. A model Japanese villa. Tokyo : [s.n., 1899?].

(4) Kondō, Shōichi. Teien zusetsu. Tōkyō : Hakubunkan, Meiji 42 [1909].

(5) Sakurai, Shintarō. Shiundō. Tokyo : Sakurai Shintarō, 1937.

(6) Siren, Osvald. Gardens of China. New York : Ronald Press Co., [c1949].


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