Huntington Library’s Chinese Garden: A Tour of California’s Best Hidden Botanical and Architectural Masterpiece

Huntington Library’s Chinese Garden: A Tour of California’s Best Hidden Botanical and Architectural Masterpiece

“Enter as a hundred cares vanish. Laugh as the great river expands.”


Couplet vertically inscribed at the entrance of the Chinese garden’s tea house.

Liu Fang Yuan, or The Garden of Flowing Fragrance, is an incredible 15-acre garden created in the traditional style of scholar gardens from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Suzhou, China. This breathtaking garden is the result of nearly two decades of international collaboration, uncompromising craftsmanship, and comprehensive attention to detail. Revolving around a central lake (Lake of Reflected Fragrance or Ying Fang Hu), the garden was artfully designed to be a “moving painting” composed of architectural structures, plants, trees, rare rocks, ornate walkways and bridges.

The Bridge of the Joy of Fish / Yu Le Qiao / 魚樂橋 provides views of the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu / 映芳湖 and the many areas of the garden surrounding and reflected by it. (Jeff Perkin)

Every area of the garden offers new compositions and sensations to stimulate the mind and captivate the senses. Beyond its aesthetic and sensual beauty, the landscape and architecture are filled with messages in Chinese calligraphy, abundant Chinese plants, stones and architectural features that were artfully incorporated for cultural significance. Incredibly, Liu Fang Yuan is just one of an astounding collection of 16 themed gardens that make up 130 acres of botanical gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, CA. Thousands of plant species, extensive art galleries, and extremely valuable book collections make the Huntington a one-of-a-kind historic estate and living museum.

Recreating a Ming Dynasty Garden

Chinese gardens creatively utilize their surroundings by framing distant views and creating a balance between environments inside and outside of the garden. True to the principles of Suzhou landscape design, the gardens were designed to respect the natural landscape. Set against the backdrop of mature oaks and pines near the San Marino Mountains, the Huntington estate’s massive acreage provides the area necessary to create the illusion of being far from Los Angeles County.

Terrace of the Jade Mirror / Yu Jing Tai / 玉鏡臺 is a window and a portal in the garden with meaning connected to the white moon. (Jeff Perkin)

A natural basin where rain waters originally collected provides an authentic landscape to create the garden’s central 1.5-acre lake. The Lake of Reflected Fragrance is a focal point for surrounding walkways and structures. Visitors serenely stroll by the water and look out at views that were carefully crafted by masters in garden design. From its conception, designers from Suzhou, China developed the vision for the garden based off of specific elements from several classical Chinese gardens of the past. The result is a symphony of wood beams, tiles, granite terraces, Taihu rocks and fragrant plants lining detailed walkways and courtyard pavilions.

“All of the posts and beams in the structures are connected with wood joinery techniques that were being used in these type of garden structures five hundred years ago. It was vitally important that the garden be built by Chinese artisans. Their craft has been handed down through hundreds of years. They are aware of all the subtle details involved in this traditional type of construction,” said U.S. architect, Jim Frye. “There were three languages spoken during the construction: Mandarin, Spanish and English. They were constantly converting measurements from imperial to metric and then back to imperial again. There was no room for error.”

90 percent of what visitors see in the garden’s structures were crafted in Suzhou workshops. This includes bridges that were hand-carved out of granite, an incredible 850 tons of imported Taihu rocks, carved pavilion beams, ornate window features, delicate roof tiles made of baked clay, sculpted wood panels and much more. The vast majority of the work was done by hand in true Suzhou fashion. The garden’s high-level artisanship and authenticity is a true testament to all the designers’ dedicated effort to create a living, breathing work of art. Many years of this dedicated work has made it possible for visitors to learn about, and truly become immersed in, classical Chinese culture.

World in a Wine Pot / Hu Tian / is part of the new Verdant Microcosm which is a natural gallery of Penzing and Taihu rocks. (Jeff Perkin)

Features of Classical Chinese Garden Design

Classical Chinese gardens have a history dating back to the 11th century. Hand-carved woodwork, windows, roof tiles, stone and doors are all features of this practice. Wealthy merchants in Suzhou during the 16th century created large gardens on their estates with a dedication to this style. The Huntington Library is a rare modern-day example of such gardens with its large collections of art, books and plant life.

Rocks are one of the main features of classical Chinese gardens. Liu Fang Yuan has over 800 tons of Taihu rocks which are a limestone traditionally quarried from the Suzhou area. Over thousands of years these rocks formed in the oceans and were uplifted into lakes before being brought to the surface. These rocks are spiritually and energetically significant because of their unusual shapes and natural holes in their form. Their ethereal shapes and holes throughout their form are symbolic of the spiritual essence in pre-modern Chinese culture. Taihu rocks symbolize the process of the heaviness of physical form being made light. For these reasons, featured Taihu rocks at Liu Fang Yuan have dreamy names like Embroidered Cloud and Patching up Heaven or Bu Tian.

Waveless Boat / Bu Bo Xiao Ting / 不波小艇 is an architectural feature designed to look like a boat at peace on the calm waters of the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu / 映芳湖. (Jeff Perkin)

A newly expanded area of Liu Fang Yuan, called Verdant Microcosm or Cui Ling Long, was recently completed in 2020. Verdant Microcosm is an area with the purpose of housing the Huntington’s Penjing collection. Penjing, which means “scenes” or “landscapes” in a “tray,” are the Chinese equivalent of Bonzai trees. The art of Penjing is to cultivate the small tree over decades to make it look like the miniaturized version of a magnificent tree or scene in nature. The Penjing are displayed in front of large, white walls against which the trees cast shadows throughout the day. The white walls are like a piece of paper while the Penjing is a work of art painted upon it.

This Penjing is part of the Verdant Microcosm / Cui Ling Long / 翠玲瓏 and throughout the day casts it’s artful shadows on the Cloud Wall behind it. (Jeff Perkin)

Plants in classical Chinese gardens are selected for their cultural significance. Bamboo symbolizes an unbreaking fortitude, lotus flowers symbolize purity, and plum blossoms (which flower in winter) represent persevering through difficult times. The world owes a great debt of gratitude to ancient Chinese horticulture since most of the plants we take for granted today are thought to have originated in China. The director of the Huntington’s botanical gardens, Jim Folsom, puts it plainly,

Lotus Pods have dropped their seeds to continue the circle of life in the Lake of Reflected Fragrance / Ying Fang Hu /  映芳湖. (Jeff Perkin)

“The plants that are in gardens across North America, or at least the common garden plants, are not from North America at all, and not even from Europe. They are straight from Asia. So you begin to look at the camellias and the wisteria and the forsythia and lilac and understand that these plants were cultivated for a thousand years by Chinese gardeners before Westerners even knew they existed. There’s a whole range, a whole host of material that you would encounter, and be very comfortable with, if you went to China and visited the gardens. You’d almost look around and think, what are they doing with our plants? Well, the truth is, what are we doing with their plants?”

Words and meaningful literary references are present throughout classical Chinese gardens in the form of calligraphy, poetic couplets and Chinese lettering. Every structure, courtyard, pavilion and water feature are given a name in Chinese characters. Many literary references of ancient cultural significance fill the garden. In this sense, Liu Fang Yuan is a true “scholar’s garden” in the tradition of those found in Suzhou. It is a place for the cultivation of higher thoughts and feelings. The creative forces of humanity seem to be in harmony with the creative forces of nature in such a place. The unifying force of Being and Presence is palpable. Walking through this living work of art, each person is offered the chance to contemplate the garden’s collection of meaningful insights. Though they seem worlds apart, the gardens’ peaceful symphony has the potential for even greater impact due to its close proximity to one of the largest cities in the world.

Love for the Lotus Pavilion / Ai Lian Xie / 愛蓮榭 is one of Liu Fang Yuan’s main structures and features sculpted scenes from traditional Suzhou gardens. (Jeff Perkin)

Though rooted in the mud, how could the lotus be sullied? Its fragrance spreads far with even greater purity. Lou Qing

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