It is traditional to think of focal points in a landscape as statues, sculpture, topiary, buildings, follies, water features or plant specimens. But what about topographic foci?
"Joys of the Fisherman", Wang Fu 1410
For centuries in Chinese landscape art, mountains (and water) were the emphasis in the landscape. Rocks and boulders were and still are representative of these features. They provide the same or similar vertical emphasis that a statue, building or folly would, but with a more naturalistic “unbuilt” form. They are not only foci, but also destination points along a journey. A strong contrast to the level or lower-lying ground plane. Similarly a “bowl” which is an inversion or depression in the groundplane is at direct contrast with a mounded vertical feature. In a depression, people are naturally and psychologically attracted to discover the mystery within and then ultimately ascend back up to higher ground.
"Palace of Nine Perfections", Yuan Jiang circa 1200 (scroll painting)
The Chinese word for landscape is “shanshui”, which literally means mountains and water.” In gardens, fantastic rocks represent the the rugged grandeur of the Chinese landscape and the great unyielding, solid, hard mountain ranges, the “yin” that contrast with the “yang’ –rivers and streams (soft, wet and cool, restorative qualities).
A wonderful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of New York highlights these natural forms. Mountains and their symbolic equivalents which are boulders and rocks,.. serve as a primary source of inspiration in these antiquated Chinese gardens.
"Summer Mountains" Qu Ding mid 11th century
"Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden", Xie Huan circa 1400
“Rocks are not like plants or trees, once altered, they gain a new lease on life.”
“Pile up the rocks to emphasize the height, excavate the earth to increase the depth.”
Ji Cheng was a practicing garden designer in the first half of the 17th century. He designed gardens for several well-known individuals in the late Ming dynasty. It is believed that Ji Cheng’s clients supported the original publication of this book.
The Yuan ye offers no precise prescription for garden design, mostly practical advice and poetic visualization. Ji Cheng states that “There is no definite way of making scenery, you know it is right when it stirs your emotions.” It is “qi” –-the pulsating breath of life that must be the result of the designer’s efforts.1 (Most Chinese philosophical schools followed the same fundamental principle that everything in existence is composed of the same fundamental “qi” or breath.) Ji Cheng speaks of taking advantage of "borrowed scenery", similarly screening out what is offensive. He continues with suggestion of segregating space (garden rooms or compartmentalization), wall outlines, stone selection and much more.
1. Landscape Design, A Cultural and Architectural History: Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.