Garden Size and Layout
Japanese gardens, which are often designed to achieve maximum artistic effect in concise spaces — and to be seen from inside the house - emphasize the beauty of the static view.
Chinese gardens typically occupy larger spaces and their designs emphasize movement through the garden to achieve multiple changes of view.
Today, Chinese garden architecture emphasizes curved roof hips and eaves, colorful finishes, and many different types of structures such as covered walkways, pavilions and chambers.
Japanese garden architecture exhibits relatively straight hips and eaves, large overhangs of the eaves, natural surfaces and many fewer structures.
Garden walls in China, often used as backgrounds to show the lines and shadows of plants in the sunlight or moonlight, are built high to prevent outsiders from looking in.
The walls of Japanese gardens are built lower and typically are more visually “porous”.
The Garden Floor
In Japanese gardens, pavement, gravel, pebbles, stepping-stones, moss and groundcovers form the floor; the soils are rarely exposed.
In Chinese gardens, the floor is composed of pavement, groundcover and (in arid North China) swept earth; pavement is made of tiles, bricks and broken pieces of china arranged to form geometric patterns or the shapes of flowers or animals.
In Chinese gardens, the stone is often a sedimentary type — limestone or sandstone — that shows signs of being eroded by water over time, exemplifying the Daoist teaching that “soft things overcome hard things”.
Stones typically are piled up in large arrangements to symbolize cliffs, peaks or remote mountains. They are often planted with shrubs, trees and vines to form the main feature in the garden.
In Japanese gardens, the stones are relatively smooth, heavy and dense; typically metamorphic granites and cherts are used.
Stone arrangements usually are less massive than the stone arrangements in Chinese gardens; they are carefully half-buried into the landscape and often set off by smaller stones, gravel or moss.
The two garden styles use many plants in common but handle them differently:
In Japanese gardens — where a shrub’s foliage is deemed more important than its flowers — shrubs are pruned into shapes to achieve an ideal form of “perfect beauty”.
In Chinese gardens, trees and shrubs are pruned to create a naturalistic look, and their flowers, fruits and foliage are showcased.
Selection of Plants
Both Japanese- and Chinese-garden styles value plants that are graceful and exhibit unusual growth patterns. Both styles also limit their plant palettes, but perhaps for different reasons:
Chinese gardeners often select plants for their symbolic meaning. Here a stand of bamboo symbolizes both resilience and family connection.
Japanese gardeners are more likely to select plants for their abstract beauty.
Japanese gardens during the Heian Period were modeled upon Chinese gardens, but by the Edo Period there were distinct differences.
Chinese gardens have buildings in the center of the garden, occupying a large part of the garden space. The buildings are placed next to or over the central body of water. The garden buildings are very elaborate, with much architectural decoration.
In later Japanese gardens, the buildings are well apart from the body of water, and the buildings are simple, with very little ornament. The architecture in a Japanese garden is largely or partly concealed.
Chinese gardens are designed to be seen from the inside, from the buildings, galleries and pavilions in the center of the garden.
Later Japanese gardens are designed to be seen from the outside, as in the Japanese rock garden or Zen garden; or from a path winding through the garden.
Use of Rocks
In a Chinese garden, particularly in the Ming Dynasty, rocks were selected for their extraordinary shapes or resemblance to animals or mountains, and used for dramatic effect. They were often the stars and centerpieces of the garden.
In later Japanese gardens, rocks were smaller and placed in more natural arrangements. integrated into the garden.
Chinese gardens were inspired by Chinese inland landscapes, particularly Chinese lakes and mountains, while Japanese gardens often use miniaturized scenery from the Japanese coast.
Japanese gardens frequently include white sand or pebble beaches and rocks which seem to have been worn by the waves and tide, which rarely appear in Chinese gardens.