There’ve been amazing cultivated gardens in China for thousands of years, but most North Americans don’t have the opportunity to travel to that distant land and see them in their natural form. Fortunately, established Chinese gardens can now be enjoyed worldwide – and I’ve had the chance to travel to many of them. I’ve seen Chinese gardens just about everywhere – including Switzerland and India – and my two favorites are the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney, Australia, and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens Staten Island.

Chinese Garden of Friendship

A welcome oasis in an urban setting, the Chinese Garden of Friendship is a must-see when in Sydney.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden

The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden is an exemplary spot to enjoy when you’re in the New York City area.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Chinese Garden and Mark

When it comes to knowing Chinese gardens, Mark is in the inner circle.

Photo Credit: Gina Zwerling

Chinese garden

Chinese garden design brings together nature’s elements to create a balanced whole.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

The Chinese Garden of Friendship was initiated by the local Chinese community of Sydney to commemorate Australia’s 1988 bicentenary and to celebrate the bonds between Sydney and its sister city, Guangzhou, China. The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden was constructed by the Landscape Architecture Corporation of China (LAC) and opened in 1999. This garden is credited with being the only authentic classical Chinese scholar’s garden built in the US.

China’s garden design style began for imperial palace grounds during the Zhang dynasty 3,000 years ago. It then became a staple of private estates for the rich and influential, reaching its peak during the Ming dynasty. Scholar’s gardens date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, and were mainly created for scholars and administrators retiring from the emperor’s court.

The most noticeable difference between Chinese garden design and Western design is the absence of planted flower beds, lawns or formal plant collections. Instead, the spirit and essence of natural features such as waterfalls, mountains, lakes and forests are captured on a small scale. The Taoist philosophy of yin (calmness) and yang (activity) are represented in the garden, creating a balanced whole.

Exploring a Chinese garden is a journey of discovery – glimpsing small parts of the garden through beautiful gates, suddenly finding yourself in enclosed courtyards or pagoda-style pavilions. Sculpture, calligraphy and carvings indicative of mythical creatures or human stories are featured throughout.

While visiting the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden with my friend Gina, we especially enjoyed the views through the garden’s “moon gate” to the sculpture and water features beyond. We sat in quiet conversation in the upper courtyard, then walked along the bridge. In Sydney’s Garden of Friendship, I savored a slow walk around beautifully carved pieces and remarkable specimens of Asian plants. During my stroll, I stumbled upon a wedding taking place on the smooth wooden platform cantilevered out over the surface of the lake. (The bride and groom made a striking couple, reflected in the water.)

Chinese gardens are wonderful places for peace, study, meditation and relaxation, but they can also be great spots to just enjoy a conversation with a friend, spend time with the family or get some exercise. Be sure to explore one when visiting a city lucky enough to possess a Chinese garden.