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Architecture of the Chinese Garden

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Wall in the Chinese Garden
Credit: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)

The skilfully integrated architecture of the site eloquently testifies to the presence of mankind in nature. Marked with all the finesse and refinement of traditional Chinese architecture, the pavilions appear to the visitor as successive images bordering the paths, visible through window openings and over walls.

Classical, open or closed, the seven structures take their cue from the Ming era. Structural beams and columns are assemblied the old-fashioned way, fitted together with tenon and mortise joints.

Circled by ornate balustrades, covered by exotic roofs with upturned corners, topped with rounded tiles embellished with Chinese symbols, the garden's pavilions rival each other in grace and elegance.

The Entrance Courtyard

Surrounded by high walls, the Entrance Courtyard is a place of transition, a tiny garden unto itself. The walls of the courtyard are set with thirteen windows offering glimpses outside the garden. Each window is unique, in terms of either its shape or its latticework.

The two guardians

Two lions watch over and protect the garden's entrance. The female, on the left, has a paw placed on a lion cub, while the male rests a paw on a ball symbolizing prosperity.

The Three Stars

Facing the door, three grey stones symbolize ancient Chinese deities. The stone in the middle represents fuxing, or the Star of Happiness. Popular imagery depicts this star as a 6th century mandarin, or as a general from the Tang era (618-907); he is often surrounded by bats. The bat is another symbol of happiness.

To the right of the Star of Happiness is the stone that symbolizes prosperity. It is called luxing, or the Star of Dignitaries and Remuneration; it is also called the Star of State Officials, since that position once implied an elevated social status and financial advantages. This god is personified by an official of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) who acquired honour and wealth over his lifetime. Uneducated people who could not aspire to this eminent social rank had to replace this deity by a mythological character who assures the birth of many children. Today, the Star on Prosperity implies social dignity, good fortune and many offspring.

The somewhat top-heavy stone to the left represents the Star of Longevity, or shouxing. This deity decides the day upon which each person will die. He frequently appears in the shape of an old man with a prominent bald head, leaning on a knotted stick and holding a big peach, the heavenly fruit that grants immortality. He is often depicted standing near a turtle and a mushroom, also symbols of long life.

The Friendship Hall

The Friendship Hall is the centrepiece of the garden. This building hosts most of the exhibitions held at the garden. The many windows and doors set in the pavilion's walls give visitors a sense of constant  contact with nature, allowing them to follow the sun's course. In the centre of the pavilion, the eyes are drawn to an impressive lantern decorated with birds, dragons and phoenixes.

The combination of sturdiness and elegance seen in the Friendship Hall is a legacy of Ming dynasty architecture. This formidable building of some 100 square metres (1,076 sq ft) is topped by an imposing roof, whose substantial mass is relieved by the numerous windows on all sides of the wooden structure, by the gallery that girds it and especially by the roof's distinctive curved corners.

The corbelled and skirting roofs, typical of Chinese architecture, protect the building from rain and sun while allowing abundant natural light inside. With its arched corners turning skyward, the roof produces an effect of lightness and stability.

The substantial weight of the roof rests on an unusual framework. The longitudinal main beams and transversal secondary beams distribute the weight in both directions. The weight of the beams is, in turn, transferred to the 36 columns.

The roof of Frienship Hall is adorned with the main creatures in the traditional Chinese bestiary. First, to protect the building from fire, two dragons thrust their fish-tails skyward as they hold the ridgepole in their jaws. Farther down, four lions, one on each corner, guard the ridges that accent the skirting roof.

Finally, alternating yin and yang, crescent-shaped phoenix tiles and round discs bearing dragons adorn the eaves at the base of the roof.

The Springtime Courtyard

Visitors enter the Springtime Courtyard through a door with four petals, a shape that symbolizes the apricot blossom. The courtyard contains an impressive collection of penjings, the miniature trees called bonsai by the Japanese.

The art of penjing

The art of penjing, a word that literally means "landscape in a pot", developped primarily during the Tang dynasty (618-907), although documents show that it existed as early as the 2nd century. These trees, whose growth has been controlled so that they are no taller than 10 to 150 cm (4 to 59 inches), may have straight, twisted or protuberant trunks; their branches may be pruned on different levels or cascade downward.

Many of the trees in the Montréal Botanical Garden's collection of penjings were donated by the City of Shanghai during the Floralies internationales held in Montréal in 1980.

By pruning branches and roots to produce these dwarf trees, the artist/gardener was attempting to create a tiny reflection on nature. He sought to reproduce hardiness and perenniality, as well as the elegance and harmony of nature. The miniaturization of a tree or a landscape concentrates the essence of the tree, of nature, by eliminating all superfluity. Like garden landscaping, the fashioning of penjing was inspired by the artistic rules of traditional painting.

The miniature landscapes

Miniature landscapes, the second category of penjings, have stone as their main feature, to which grass, moss, water and pavilions may be added. All these elements make up either a dry, aquatic or semi-aquatic landscape. There are two of these miniature landscapes in the Springtime Courtyard.

The Green Shade Pavilion

Take a moment to stop at the Green Shade Pavilion. Perched atop a small hill, this structure is meant as a stopping-place during a stroll. In Chinese, it is called ting, a word that means "pause".

The Tower of Condensing Clouds

This 14 meter-tall, double corniced structure resembles a Chinese pagoda, a type of building inspired by the Indian stupa. A stupa is a bell-shaped monument that houses relics or sacred Buddhist writings. This explains why pagodas long had a religious vocation.

The Mountain

The Chinese think of mountains as holding up the Sky, as magical and supernatural places.

Taoism furthered the supernatural aspect of mountains with the belief that the Immortals lived there. These eight legendary figures could grant longevity to those who succeeded in meeting them. The first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.), Shi Huangdi, was the first to create an artificial mountain inside his garden. He hoped to attract the Immortals and learn the secret of eternal life. His successor, the emperor Wu, built three artiificial mountains in his immense garden, and he surrounded them with wide moats of water. These beliefs and activities led to the custom of digging lakes and building artificial mountains.

According to Chinese tradition, the stone used for the artificial mountain in a garden must contrast with the grey stone from Tai Lake used for individual sculptures. It took 3,000 tonnes of stone, in a warm brownish-orange shade, to create the nine-metre (30 ft) high mountain in the Dream Lake Garden. The result is a surprising arrangement of stones incorporating paths, a staircase, a grotto and a waterfall flowing into a pond.

The Pavilion of Infinite Pleasantness

The name of this small building refers to a poem penned in the 9th century by Bai Juyi describing an emperor's melancholy as he stood before the deserted pavilion where his love onced lived. The woman was killed to save the kingdom from violent uprisings.

The Pavilion of Infinite Pleasantness is a quiet, sheltered spot for a rest.

The Stone Boat

Set against a row of Scotch Pines and larches that form a natural barrier, the Stone Boat seems almost to float on Lotus Pond. Here, once again, the materials emphasize both contrast and harmony, with the water (yin) in the pond lapping at the stone (yang) of the structure.

The Stone Boat is a much smaller version of the marble boat built at the Summer Palace in Beijing for the Empress Cixi, a powerful political figure in the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The small terrace in the "bow" is the ideal spot from which to admire the water lilies on the surface of Lotus Pond, while the upper "deck" in the "stern" is delightfully cool during the hot summer months.

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