China has the oldest continuous tradition of gardening anywhere on earth, stretching back some three thousand years, with the earliest records describing the large park gardens of the royal nobility during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), which not only served as areas of pleasure but as hunting grounds.

The early gardens of China followed this tradition, with decorative horticulture being the preserve of the emperor, exemplified by considerable landscaping and planting around a pool at the core of most designs, where the emperor could relax in peaceable pleasant surroundings, drinking wine and enjoying his privilege while drifting upon a boat in the serene park with his concubines.

During the early centuries BC, the influence of Taoism began to shape Chinese thinking, giving rise to the philosophic application of its underlying themes to all aspects of Chinese creativity, which began to draw on the values of nature in the creation of gardens, an influence which showed itself in the miniaturisation of natural themes, including artificial mountains, drawing inspiration from China’s dramatically beautiful wild landscapes.

Some of the gardens created for the emperors of this time also featured structural components in the form of allusions to the mythical dwellings and islands found in Chinese poetry, and also included botanical and zoological elements.

Following the arrival of Buddhism into China in the early centuries AD, and the subsequent creation of its many temples, it became characteristic for these havens to include within their grounds a small garden for contemplation, which began the process of liberating the practice of creating gardens from the royal houses to other wealthy individuals, particularly scholars, poets and artists.

This shift in the dynamics of garden creation would lead to what is now considered the first golden age of gardening in China, under the Tang dynasty (618-907), a time in which all the arts flourished, and the creation of landscapes became a widespread passion for many Chinese as their strong economy allowed many more the resources to enjoy the practice, with an ever evolving philosophic artistry, profoundly shaping the future conceptualisation of such spaces.

In the subsequent Song dynasty, the capital was moved to what is now modern day Hangzhou, where many beautiful gardens were created on the shores of West Lake, but it is at the nearby town of Suzhou that China’s most famous surviving gardens from this age can be found.

Gardens are intrinsically delicate things, which left to themselves will quickly decline, and the many eruptions of warfare in China have also helped to destroy the ancient gardens.

The oldest surviving Song dynasty garden is found in Suzhou, and is the Blue Wave Pavilion, built by the poet Su Shungqing in 1044, one of nine surviving classical Chinese gardens of special creative merit constructed here over nearly a thousand years that have been collectively listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and together represent the most refined surviving application of quintessential Chinese garden design, and the subtle psychology of why such creations were made.

Another Song dynasty garden included the UNESCO list in Suzhou is the beautiful Master of the Nets Garden, built in 1141, by scholar and civil service minister Shi Zhengzhi, while in the following Yuan dynasty the Lion Grove Garden, built in 1342, famed for its rock features, is also included, along with three Ming dynasty gardens consisting of the Humble Administrator’s Garden (1526), the Garden of Cultivation (1541) and the Lingering Garden (1593).

Later gardens on the UNESCO list are the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty Garden, built in 1807, replacing several original gardens on this site which dated as far back as the Jin dynasty (265 – 420 AD), the Couple’s Retreat Garden (1874) and the Retreat and Reflection Garden (1885). A further sixty gardens of Suzhou are classified as National Heritage sites, making Suzhou a must-visit for any gardening enthusiast visiting China.

Aside from the delights of Suzhou, other significant historic gardens in China include the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Mountain Resort Garden at Chengdu Summer Palace, both themselves UNESCO World Heritage sites, Jichang Garden in Wuxi, Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, the Ancient Lotus Pond Garden at Boading in Hubei province, and the Ge Garden in Yangzhou.

The unique artistic and philosophical approach of the Chinese gardeners, which produced such lovely peaceful havens and would eventually come to influence garden practices all over the world. The famous Japanese Zen gardens, which in turn have influenced and coloured the creation of many modernist civic projects around the world, have their roots in Chinese Taoist gardening traditions, before they migrated to Japan in the establishment there of Zen Buddhism.

In the classical conformity of Europe, epitomised by the Italian and French gardens of the time, the influence of Chinese gardening began to infuse English gardening in particular, and many of the grand estates began to employ the Chinese devices of a succession of surprise elements, creating a journey through many different vistas for the visitor, in which non-linear features began to supplant the previous symmetry of geometric forms and planting.

Many of these gardens would include specifically Chinese elements, such as pagodas, but the inspiration also led English garden designers to reinterpret Chinese thinking into their own cultural heritage, employing architectural devices from classical Greece and Rome into their creations. These influential ideas also in turn began to penetrate into wider European gardening aspirations.

In the modern age, the influence of Chinese creativity and philosophical ideas, along with the new environmental consciousness of contemporary gardeners continues to propel gardening into ever evolving forms, and more naturalistic planting and the use of principles explored for millennia in China are firmly established in modern gardening and landscaping all over the world, profoundly shaping the perceived ideals of what it means to simply sit in a garden.

In an echo of the artistic poets and thinkers of ancient China, who developed their inspirational places of quietude and imagination, one of Europe’s most popularly visited small gardens is that of Giverney, near Paris, built by the artist Claude Monet specifically for painting, which features a pond, water lilies, weeping willows and a Japanese bridge, the subject of much of his later work, as he wonderfully transcended virtually all solid form in his paintings, reflecting a state of consciousness early Taoist garden pioneers would immediately recognise with a knowing smile.