Landscapes of the Soul

A socio-horticultural comparative study of the Chinese and Japanese soul through their gardens

Chinese and Japanese gardens are miniature renderings of idealized natural landscapes. Although they are manmade, and in a sense artificial constructions, they try to emulate nature’s beauty by harmoniously bringing together those elements that we humans admire, such as ponds, rivers, beautiful trees, bushes, and rocks. These gardens are obviously intended as places for solitary or social contemplation of nature’s beauty. Yet, at a deeper level, they may also serve as portals into the depths of man’s soul.

At first glance, the untrained Western eye, used to viewing utterly different gardens and landscapes, might group Chinese and Japanese gardens together and concentrate more on their similarities rather than their differences. This is helped by the fact that their common structural elements are many: Both are isolated sanctuaries set apart from the stresses of daily life, both create an illusion of a whole self-contained world, use the same basic materials (plants, trees, water, rocks and human structures), strive for inner harmony and beauty, and are conceived and constructed by masters of the gardening craft. However, grouping Chinese and Japanese gardens together as if they represent two faces of one coin is no different than grouping the Chinese and Japanese people together as if they represent one nation – how far from reality such a grouping would be! This article aims to explain not only how the gardens of these two extraordinary nations differ [1], but how these differences can be used to shed light on the social and psychological makeup of the two nations. We will actually go even further and show that the differences between a Chinese and a Japanese garden are the horticultural expression of the differences between the Chinese and Japanese soul.

Size: Big and Small

The most obvious difference is that of size: The Chinese gardens are usually huge by anyone’s standard. You need hours to explore a typical Chinese garden – or in the case of imperial gardens like the Summer Garden in Beijing, even days. The Japanese gardens are small and contained. If one wants, he may explore them at a fast pace in less than an hour.

This difference of size is not just a reflection of the obvious difference in geographical size between the two countries but also a reflection of many other socio-psychological elements of the two nations. China has always been huge, in all aspects. It has a long continuous history of five thousand years. It has a large geographical presence – the biggest in Asia. It has always been the most populous nation on the planet; it even had a greater percentage of the earth’s population at certain instances in the past than it has today. It had always aimed at grand constructions and projects that reflected its size and understanding of itself: the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Great Armada [2], the Yongle Encyclopedia [3]. Size has always been a basic structural element of China in another way too: It has two of the greatest rivers in the world (the Yellow and the Yangtze, which have always been the two pillars of the Chinese Civilization) as well as some of the most majestic mountains in the world – the Himalayas, Hua Shan, Huangshan, and others. China also possesses grand complexes of caves and mammoth sculptures that have been used for thousands of years as places of worship: The Yungang and Longmen grottoes, the Giant Buddha of Leshan, and many others are some of the largest open-air religious complexes on the planet. Moreover, it has karst rock formations and natural wonders whose grandeur and magnificence no photographic lens can ever capture – such as Guilin and the Jiuzhaigou National Park. Many of these unique natural marvels have been carved on the Chinese psyche for millennia. Travelers, writers, and artists have described them in their poems and portrayed them in the famous Chinese scroll paintings.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have always been a relatively small nation, living on islands at the edge of Asia. With few rivers, medium-sized mountains, bays, coves, creeks, and undulating valleys and hills, Japan is contained, insular, and isolated. It does not have a history going back to the third millennium BCE. Its many and scattered shoguns never claimed to have been the rulers of all under heaven; their world-vision was always local, provincial, and manageable.

The sizes of the two countries, with their subsequent respective influences on the overall mentality and psyche of the two nations, are mirrored in the way they view the role of the gardens in their lives: A Chinese person sees in a bigger, vaster, more impressive garden a necessarily “better” garden. A Japanese person is not even preoccupied with the idea of size; the garden’s size is simply the space available to create the garden. In Japan, one can see small, even minuscule gardens popping up in the most unlikely places. Quite often gardens are even purposely kept secret, their existence known only to a few initiates [4]. Not so in China. A garden’s value and greatness is directly proportional to its size and popularity. A famous garden is one that is recognized as such by the multitude and appreciated by as many visitors as it … can contain!

Walking Footpaths: Social Worlds Apart

This brings us to the second important difference, not totally unrelated to the aspect of size: the walking paths. The paths in a Japanese garden are narrow, delicate, in some cases even invisible – you can easily lose them, and trying to reconnect to the path can turn into a rewarding puzzle. Stepping stones are often used to cross a small creek or to lead to a tea pavilion, forcing the strollers to go in line, one after the other, concentrating mindfully on their steps.

Not so in China, where the paths are more like garden “grand avenues.” In these avenues, hundreds of people can and usually do walk, all moving in the same direction in a long procession. Because of both its size and the crowds of visitors that it can accommodate, a Chinese garden also has a multitude of sitting pavilions of various sizes where the strollers can sit and rest or socialize.

Hangzhou Garden
Hangzhou Garden
A small path in a neighborhood park in Tokyo.
A grand walkway in the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou.

A Japanese garden is always a quiet place. The few visitors silently walk the delicate and unassuming paths, occasionally pausing to enjoy the view and peacefulness. There are a couple or very few pavilions at most, usually able to accommodate only a handful of people. One rarely sees a large group entering a Japanese garden. If there is a group, it is usually a family or a small company of close friends.

In China, there is always a swarm of groups moving around making all sorts of noises – talking loudly, laughing, singing, playing instruments or even being involved in competitive group games. The social aspect of a Chinese garden was always anticipated by the owner, and always realized by the garden architect. There is even a special performance pavilion in many gardens, in which one frequently sees musical troupes performing or people having their lunch or playing cards and Mahjong. A Chinese garden, like a Chinese neighborhood or a Chinese temple, or basically every place in China, is also a center for social gatherings, interaction, and activity. Granted, today’s overcrowding in Chinese gardens is not to be considered the historical norm. Many gardens, situated in nobles’ houses, were never intended for public enjoyment. But yet again, the noble, or scholar, or prince, as a rule, invited their many friends to the garden. Congregations of scholarly and cultivated friends, known as “elegant gatherings,” were the intellectuals’ symposia for the last two millennia and were usually held in the hosts’ huge gardens. In these gatherings, the men of letters would share between them their latest creations, be it poetry, calligraphy, painting, or ideas, often allowing the host to posture at having brought together in his garden the illustrious guests.

No other difference in the structural elements of the gardens says more about the difference between the overall character and psyche of the two nations: The Chinese are among the most sociable, extraverted, outward-looking people on the planet; the Japanese are the most shy,  introverted, inward-looking people of Asia.

Perimeter: Concrete and Abstract

Another major difference that can easily be missed after one enters the garden, and which relates to the way the two nations think, is the perimeter: Almost all Chinese gardens are contained (like China itself!) within walls; most Japanese gardens have no walls – only low fences separating them from their surroundings. Sometimes, one may simply stumble upon a Japanese garden while walking near a forest or a temple. The Japanese garden is typically considered an extension of nature, and for this reason borrowed scenery [4] is almost always used. The surrounding borrowed scenery, while made to look like an integral part of the garden, simultaneously points beyond itself to the rest of nature with which the garden is connected. The garden’s perimeter delineates a fluid border than can never be completely defined from within the garden: Where does the garden stop and the surrounding mountain begin? Is the majestic castle inside the garden, or is it perched on the hill outside? Whatever lies outside the garden has a significant influence on it, and in some cases, such as the Korakuen Garden in Okayama with its famous “borrowed castle,” defines it.

Hangzhou Garden

The Korakuen Garden in Okayama, built in 1700, is considered one of the “three great gardens of Japan.” It includes the Okayama Castle as borrowed scenery.


In China, borrowed scenery is rarely used, or if it is, it is not done with effect. And this, despite the fact that the concept was invented there and is supposedly aimed for. But how can one “borrow a scenery” when there are walls surrounding a garden, or when the pavilions are so huge that they obstruct the view, or when the garden is situated in the middle of an area of overcrowded apartment blocks?

The Chinese garden is sufficient unto itself. It is what one sees and no more. Its “ethereal aspects” are soon lost in a labyrinth of pathways, pavilions, lakes, and huge trees. The garden is an enclosed universe that does not point to anything outside of itself – apart, of course, from the mental associations that many of its structures might induce. The garden is a well-defined area created to bring joy to the visitors – that’s it, full stop. It is not there to point to anything beyond itself, or to suggest any abstract relationship between itself and its environs. Many of the garden’s elements deal with the practicality of serving the strollers within it. No visitor in China can fail to notice how everything in the country can be understood in practical terms. The industrious Chinese mind does not feel comfortable dealing with overly abstract ideas. That’s why there is no native “Chinese philosophy.” Confucius was not a philosopher, but an educator and social reformer. And Lao Tzu was a sage who wrote only a few lines of mystical verses. There have never been elaborate Chinese philosophical systems as we understand them in the West. All Chinese systems of thought are concrete, not abstract, and have always been related to practical everyday matters such as social rules of propriety, ethics and relationships, governing one’s family or business, or working for the state. Even Buddhism was utterly transformed in China by incorporating Confucian, Taoist, and many social and practical elements.

The Japanese are practical too, but not everything they do is guided by practical concerns. Oftentimes, other elements influence their decisions, such as aesthetics, tradition, or philosophical ideas. Overall, they are more philosophical and more preoccupied with abstract and metaphysical matters than the Chinese. It is not by chance that they developed one of the most abstract forms of Buddhism, Zen – which paradoxically, first originated in China in the sixth century! Zen has been most influential in the West exactly because it is more philosophical and less religious than other forms of Buddhism.

The Chinese  are among the most practical and down-to-earth people; the Japanese are more meditative, directing their glance more frequently to the beyond – whether it is what lies beyond the garden, beyond their country, or beyond this life.

Architectural Elements: Man and Nature

Let us now examine the architectural elements of the gardens. In a Japanese garden, structures are minimal. Apart from a pavilion or two and a rarely seen large stone path, the Japanese garden materials are almost always small trees, bushes, grass, curated moss, water, and stones. The aim of the garden architect is to create the impression that the landscape, although obviously intervened upon, is still natural. The garden strives to give the illusion of having come about with minimal human intervention. It is as if the Japanese feel guilty about their attempts to enhance nature’s beauty.

Not so in China, where the garden architect has no such qualms. In a Chinese garden, there is an ubiquitous meddling with nature. If the small natural waterfall from the creek does not fall “properly” into the pool, a special construction is made; if there is too much sun in a place, a pavilion is built; if there are no blooming trees in an area, flowers are planted. The intervening human hand is seen in every little corner. And there is a deep reason for that: For the Chinese, there is no Man vs. Nature. Man is part of Nature, and he is placed right in the midst of it, not standing outside observing it. It is for a reason that in most Chinese scroll paintings minuscule human beings are always portrayed sitting in pavilions or admiring a waterfall at the bottom corner of an awe-inspiring landscape. The immensity of mountains and forests, contrasting with the tiny people in the paintings, is how the Chinese conceive of nature. Humans are inside the painting dwarfed by nature, while at the same time they are admiring themselves being dwarfed – both the figures in the scroll paintings, as well as the people who admire the work of art! Nature dwarfs humans but does not expel them.

Humans are even, in some metaphysical sense, necessary for nature to exist. Nothing illustrates this better than Tang Yin’s majestic scroll painting, titled “Whispering Pines on a Mountain Path”: Under an awe-inspiring mountain landscape with cascading waterfalls and old pines intertwining with vines, a scholar with his companions stop on the bridge to admire everything, and most importantly, to listen attentively to the “whispering of the pines.” The pines would never be able to whisper anything if there were no human ears to listen to them, and specifically the ears of poets and painters and scholars who have the sensitivity to appreciate the ineffable beauty of this whispering.

Hangzhou Garden

Human ears must be present for the pines’ “whisper” to be heard and appreciated. Nature needs Man so that he may witness its grandeur. And although it dwarfs him, it does not expel him.
Tang Yin (1470 – 1524)
Whispering Pines on a Mountain Path, circa 1517,
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei.





Just as nature cannot be conceived without man enjoying it, gardens cannot be conceived without people having fun in them. The huge pavilions that  can accommodate many people in Chinese gardens, and the benches or areas where one can sit and have tea and converse with others or play games, are an integral part of the gardens.

The Chinese feel that nature is inviting them to intervene. Yet their meddling with nature is not actually destructive, or at least it is not meant to be. They engage themselves in a constructive (in both senses!) dialogue with nature. They are therefore active with respect to it. The reason they create huge paths and pavilions, lakes and observatories is so that they may come closer to and touch nature. The Chinese are very tactile; the garden strollers try to touch everything – the stones, the trees, the flowers, the water in the lakes, and, of course, one another. For them, nature is not something “out there.” Nature surrounds and invites us to explore it, touch it, play with it, have fun.

The Japanese are nearer to the Europeans; that’s why they managed to emulate them so successfully: They see nature as having a beauty that stands on its own without man being a part of it or even observing it. [6] For them, nature’s beauty is self-contained. As such, they tread lightly in a garden, avoiding even coming close to a tree or a stone. They remain observers of extraordinary beauty, respecting it, admiring it, and feeling that their stroll is a special occasion. For the Chinese, on the other hand, walking in a garden is an ordinary everyday activity, similar to walking in the city or in a forest.

Materials: Control and Freedom

Let us now come to the main materials used in designing the gardens. In Chinese gardens, the two predominant elements are huge stones (occasionally boulders), worked upon in special stone masonries, and water in the form of lakes and streams. The Chinese have a strange fascination with stones and with sculpting them. China has a myriad of specialized stone gardens, grottoes, and giant Buddha sculptures (referred to earlier). Coincidentally, it even has what is probably the most impressive natural wonder related to stones in the world, the Kunming Stone Forest. The solidity and grandness of stone seems to be a reflection of the solidity and grandness of the Chinese civilization, rooted in the same geographical region and having the same unabated influence and power in Asia for five thousand years.

Hangzhou Garden

Stone sculptures in the famous Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, China, built in 1342.


But the fascination with stone is also related to another, less obvious, aspect of the Chinese character: the impulse to control things. A tree or a bush is not easily controllable (and let us not sidetrack to the subject of bonsai trees, if for no other reason than that although it is nowadays mostly a Japanese art – and name – it actually originated in China). So the Chinese end up working on stone, a material that can be fully controlled – they cut it, carve it, move it around, and finally place it in the ideal position in the garden to stay there for all eternity.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have less of a tendency to control and intervene. They never needed to create huge walls to protect themselves from invading Mongolian hordes, nor did they need to construct huge canals to irrigate endless tracts of land for cultivation in order to facilitate commerce and feed hundreds of millions of people. The Japanese always lived on their isolated islands protected by the sea, having everything they needed within their easy grasp. So, although the Japanese also use stones in their gardens, for them the stones are simply an integral part of nature and do not necessarily stand out from the other elements. Whenever there are stones, rocks, or small boulders in a Japanese garden, they blend in with the rest of the landscape. But generally, the Japanese prefer to use more trees and grass and moss in their gardens, which need not be controlled, and can be allowed to grow without too much human intervention. For the Japanese, a cherry tree is a tree that blossoms every spring so that it can be admired from afar and mesmerize the visitor for as long as that bloom lasts. In a Japanese garden, trees are elaborately trimmed so that they can be viewed from a distance as little works of art in themselves. Often, they are also trimmed so they do not obstruct the carefully curated view from certain points – it would be an exaggeration to characterize such trimming as meddling with nature or as an effort to control things. But a tree in a Chinese garden is placed at a particular place not only to be itself but also to provide shade for the strollers to sit under. Trees in Chinese gardens are functional trees. The same applies to lakes and creeks. A Chinese garden-lake always looks and feels manmade. In a Japanese garden, you are never sure whether the lake is manmade or whether it was always there and the architect simply decided to construct a garden around it!

Intricacy: Playfulness and Austerity 

There is one final important element that can easily be missed: intricacy. A Chinese garden is very intricate, convoluted, with many decorative elements and “curlicues.” It often turns out to be a labyrinth in which the stroller can get lost. There is an overall playfulness in a Chinese garden that is totally absent from the Japanese – which tends to avoid complications and labyrinthine structures. The Japanese are austere, disciplined, orderly, shy, rarely allowing themselves to show emotion or play in public.

Hangzhou Garden

This traditional Chinese garden in Hangzhou is the perfect example of the intricate decorative elements that characterize Chinese gardens.


Losing oneself in what by many is considered the best of the hundreds of gardens in the garden-city of Suzhou in China, the (all but) “Humble Administrator’s Garden,” which has forty-eight different human structures, one cannot fail to recognize the playful spirit of its architect. The wavy covered corridors rising up and down over the lakes as if imitating the movement of the water, the many pavilions and bridges including the “flying rainbow bridge,” a terrace supposed to resemble the deck and cabin of a boat, and much more, attest to the inventiveness of the Chinese and their constant effort to impress to the point of pomposity.

There is a sense in which gardens in China often become little Disneylands – miniature theme-like parks for recreation, performing, and socializing. They are, in this respect, the fullest expression of the Chinese character. Just as they do in their scroll paintings, the Chinese bring nature near their home and then seize it for their enjoyment, which as a rule involves some form of shared fun.

There are no such things whatsoever in Japan. A garden is not a playground but a serious thing – like all else in Japan. Although the Japanese garden also brings nature near so that it may be enjoyed, the Japanese pleasure is of a different kind: It is a silent, often solitary and meditative relatedness with something that has to be respected and kept at a distance, even while it is discretely enjoyed and felt near.

Without ever consciously realizing it, the owners and architects of gardens in China and Japan ended up slowly molding their gardens’ features to both harmonize with and reflect the character and needs of each nation. In this way, the gardens in both countries have become one of the best expressions of each country’s individual soul.




[1] In this essay, the common classic Chinese gardens (of scholars, government officials, merchants, etc., but not the imperial ones) are compared with the common Japanese Tsukiyama or Kaiyu-shiki-teien gardens – not with Zen rock gardens, Shinto, or other specialized gardens to be found in Japan.

[2] China’s Great Armada of the early fifteenth century, led by Admiral Zheng He, was the greatest fleet ever constructed until the twentieth century.

[3] The Yongle Encyclopedia was the largest encyclopedia ever created in the world until 2007 when Wikipedia overtook it in size! It was commissioned by Emperor Yongle in 1403 and was completed five years later. A group of 2,169 scholars, most of whom had to travel around China to collect many books, worked on it. It supposedly collected all the human knowledge (available in China) up to that time. In number of words it is estimated that it was six times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

[4] Some impressive gardens can be seen, for example, in expensive kaiseki restaurants. The idea is that by viewing them while dining, one enjoys his food better.

[5] Borrowed scenery (shakkei) is the scenery that lies outside/beyond the garden (such as a hill, a mountain, a forest, or even a beautiful castle) that has cleverly been incorporated into the various views of the garden enjoyed by the visitors as they meander through it. The background natural landscape or human structures that surround the garden seem, therefore, to belong to a single continuous composition of the-garden-and-the-beyond-the-garden. The inclusion in the views from the garden of the elements that lie outside it, is deliberate. The landscape architect strives from the very beginning to create a garden that is in harmony with the greater area in which the garden is situated by allowing the environs to become “part of the garden.”

[6] Think of the early nineteenth century’s romantic portrayals of nature in the paintings of John Constable or Casper David Friedrich.

© 2020 Nicos Hadjicostis