My friend Grath Helgerud asked me to build a Chinese Scholar’s Garden for him in Second Life, after seeing an exhibit about these intriguing gardens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Without knowing anything at all about what that meant, I accepted the challenge. As I began to research the style, I uncovered a vast new universe of thought that drew me in more deeply as I worked. This is not Chinoiserie — European impressions of China — this is authentic China, a world that fascinates me by being so “other”.
Chinese Scholar’s Gardens are an art form that flourished in China from the 10th-18th centuries. Creating one of these gardens was a favored leisure pursuit of the scholar class, a way to create a spiritual retreat from the pressures of professional life. Complex design principles produced a spiritual retreat within interior courtyards of the scholar’s home. Waterways are surrounded by carefully arranged rock gardens, trees and plants that all have poetic meaning, forming meticulously composed vistas. Pathways lead one on a journey, drawing you into it more and more deeply, offering interesting views and perspectives at each turn, framed by pavilions, halls, gates and windows.
This was a challenging project because it required me to think in a completely different way. In the Western world we are more accustomed to a house surrounded by a park-like garden; this is a garden surrounded by a house. Architecture and sculpture are important elements; a Chinese garden is “built” as an abstraction and stylization of nature. It wouldn’t do to simply scatter some nice plants and trees around. Mathematical proportions must be precise; plants, rocks and structures have specific meanings and must be selected and placed just so. The end result is an immersion experience that takes you on a journey. Following the asymmetrical garden path, you encounter a variety of spatial connections as you pass from one section to another, being presented with new and pleasing views at every turn.
Everything in the garden has significance; there is meaning attached to every plant, every rock, every shape. It was more than simply a calm place for painting, poetry, calligraphy, study and music. To build a garden, a scholar had to understand fengshui, botany, hydraulics, philosophy, history, literature, poetry and architecture. The garden was considered a measure of his knowledge as well as a showcase of his aesthetic taste.
I had no such knowledge, of course. I was very fortunate to discover the work of the fabulously talented Ryusho Ort, who immediately impressed me with the beauty, technical virtuosity and authenticity of his Chinese buildings. We started with his Dragon and Phoenix Hall in the Ming dynasty style, and added others in Song and Tang dynasty styles. Ryu coached me along the way, and helped us create a very pleasing retreat.
Even the plantings were a challenge, since the design requires very specific types of plants and trees, not all of which are readily available in Second Life. It took quite awhile to find good quality flowering plum trees, peonies, and grasses. Bamboo, banana and lotus were a little easier, but I never did find the right type of orchid, or the quintessential Taihu rocks.
I was happy, though, to be able to find an excellent family of Mandarin Ducks and multicolored Koi to grace the ponds.
Naturally, spending time in the Chinese Garden required the proper attire! I am pictured here wearing Nicky Ree’s magnificent Phoenix Gown.
You can see the entire set of 16 photos on my Flickr page.
To learn more about Chinese Scholar’s Gardens, I recommend the Wikipedia page as well as this video as a good starting place. The Missouri Botanical Garden has another nice introduction on their website. On the Asian Historical Architecture website you can take in-depth photo tours of some of the famous gardens of Suzhou, China such as the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, and the Master-of-Nets Garden.
Click here to visit this Chinese Scholar’s Garden in Second Life. Grath has since added a few non-Chinese items, but there are still plenty of places to sit and relax, cuddle or slow dance. It’s a great place to visit for contemplation, meditation or relaxation — just like the originals were.