Japanese and Chinese gardens, both legendary for their beauty, have common roots. Japanese envoys to China in the early seventh century C.E. were impressed by the gardens they saw at the Chinese imperial court. Japan didn’t have its own style of gardening at that time, so elements of the Chinese style were imported.
While there have been several significant differences between Chinese and Japanese gardens for centuries, Japanese gardens originally followed the general pattern of the Chinese.
It was during the Edo Period that the Japanese garden began to adopt a distinctive style in order to better correspond to the country’s landscape and culture and suit the preferences of garden owners and visitors.
Let’s put them side by side and explain main differences between Japanese and Chinese gardens.
|Chinese gardens||Japanese gardens|
|Investment||More expensive||Less expensive|
|Architecture||Variety of structure types||More natural surfaces |
with fewer structures
|Buildings||In the garden center |
close to water.
|Away from water.|
|Design||Colorful elements, pavilions and |
chambers. More areas for leisure.
Designed for friends and family
to spend more time inside.
Viewed from inside.
|Minimalistic design focused more |
on the beauty of individual unmowing
Views. We admire / view garden
from outside perspective.
|Inspiration||Chinese gardens are mostly |
inspired by lakes and mountains.
|Japanese gardens tend to take |
inspiration from their coast.
|Rocks||They have striking shapes and |
look like mountains or animals.
|Tend to be smaller and put into |
arrangements that more closely
resemble elements of nature.
|Type of Material |
on the floor
|Pebbles, stepping-stones, |
moss, gravel, and pavement
|Pavement, swept earth, or groundcover|
|Shrubs||Are pruned in a way that is meant |
to achieve a more naturalistic
|Probably be formed into shapes |
in the pursuit of ideal beauty.
|Trees||Bamboo, Magnolia, Azalea, Olive, |
|Japanese maples, plum, and |
cherry trees are among the most
prevalent tress in a Japanese garden.
This was short intro about main differences. Let’s dive deeper and explain. Each more in detail.
Differences in Architecture
In Chinese gardens, you’ll find buildings with an especially important position, situated in the center of the arrangement. These structures take up a very significant part of the space. The buildings of a Chinese garden are usually located beside or at least in close proximity to (or even above) the garden’s central body of water.
Chinese garden buildings tend to have quite elaborate designs and decoration, which means, of course, that creating a Chinese garden can be significantly more challenging and expensive than the Japanese variety.
The architecture in Chinese gardens tend to have eaves with colorful elements and a variety of structure types. Examples can include chambers, pavilions, and covered walkways.
Japanese gardens, on the other hand, often have more natural surfaces and far fewer structures.
Buildings in Japanese gardens tend to be a significant distance from the body of water. The buildings have a simple design and minimal decoration. In fact, the architecture are presented in an extremely modest manner, even perhaps partly or almost completely concealed in some way.
Japanese gardens tend to be quite a bit smaller than Chinese ones. They focus more on the beauty of individual, unmoving views, while Chinese gardens take up larger spaces and concentrate a great deal on the feeling of movement and a variety of different views.
Generally speaking, Chinese gardens have a design that makes it easier for family and friends to spend more time in. They have more areas for leisure such as courtyards, pavilions and covered walkways, and the pathways tend to be paved. They tend to have high walls in order to stop people outside from seeing in.
This stands in diametric opposition to the style of the Japanese garden, which specifically hopes for the admiration of outsiders.
The primary inspiration of the Chinese garden has traditionally been inland landscapes, such as mountains and lakes.
Japanese gardens, on the other hand, often has scenery that acts as miniaturized representatives of the Japanese coast. In fact, Japanese gardens often have representations of pebble beaches and rocks as well as white sand. These elements are often arranged to appear like they’ve been worn by the ocean’s tide and waves.
Both Chinese and Japanese gardens have water elements and features.
Japanese gardens can have ponds, streams, and/or cascades. Decisions about where water features are located often take into account how they will be position in relation to the sun. This is because we need to know how the sun will be reflected in and by the water.
Whether you choose to have a Japanese or a Chinese garden, including water features will help foster the space’s sense of serenity and escape from the outside world.
It makes sense that rocks play an important part in Chinese and Japanese gardens, as they have a role in Eastern philosophy. They are seen as symbolic of endurance and the majesty of nature. They are believed to help make the garden closer to the spirit of the earth and lend it special characteristics.
While stones are important elements in both types of garden, the types of rocks used and the way they are utilized in garden design differ.
In Chinese gardens, the rocks used were chosen for having striking shapes or looking a bit like mountains or animals. This characteristic has been seen in Chinese gardens for thousands of years, and it was especially significant during the Ming Dynasty. Rocks are frequently employed as garden centerpeices or stars.
Rocks in Japanese gardens, on the other hand, tend to be smaller and put into arrangements that more closely resemble elements of nature.
Japanese gardens have pebbles, stepping-stones, moss, gravel, and pavement covering the floor. It is rare to see any exposed soil.
In Chinese gardens, pavement, swept earth, or groundcover. Pavement is comprised of bricks, tiles, or even broken pieces of china that are arranged in such a way that geometric patterns or the shapes of animals or flowers are represented.
The stone in Chinese gardens tends to be of a sedimentary type, usually either sandstone or limestone. Garden designers usually ensure that the stone has signs of erosion that occurs over time by exposure to water. This is meant to reflect a teaching in Daoist teaching: that hard things are eventually overcome by soft things.
In Chinese gardens, the stones are usually piled into large arrangements and meant to call to mind the images of mountains, peaks, and cliffs. The stones are often placed in close proximity to vines, trees, and shrubs. These elements together make up the garden’s main feature.
Stones in Japanese gardens are relatively heavy, dense, and smooth in texture. Some of the most common stone types used are cherts and metamorphic granites. The stone arrangements in Japanese gardens are smaller than those found in Chinese gardens. The stones are partly buried into the landscape with great care. They are complemented by moss, gravel, or smaller stones.
Stone and rock arrangements play an important role in Japanese gardens. There are many different traditional arrangements to choose from, and each has a different meaning and significance. Some arrangements can be used for very large stones or boulders. If you’re planning to have any large stones or boulders in your garden, make sure that they are transported and placed responsibly.
You should be aware that this can be costly (cranes are often involved), so make sure that you plan properly and won’t want to make changes. Remember that a falling boulder can cause damage to other elements of your property.
Use of Perspective
Chinese gardens are meant to be viewed from the inside. That is why all the pavilions, galleries, and buildings are located in the middle of the garden. This is appropriate for the purpose of the Chinese garden, which is to let its visitors see and enjoy the garden but not to invite outsiders in.
In sharp contrast, Japanese gardens are designed to first be viewed from an outside perspective. An example of this is the Japanese rock garden (or Zen garden). An example of when you’d view the interior of a Japanese garden is when you’re standing on the path that leads into the garden. Japanese are meant to be inviting and make people want to enter it and enjoy its peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.
Use of Shrubs, Trees, and Flowers in Chinese and Japanese gardens
Both Japanese and Chinese gardens use beautiful plants, probably ones that have unique growth patterns.
Chinese gardens often use plants that are specifically chosen for their symbolic meaning. In Japanese gardens, plants are more often chosen for abstract beauty.
When a shrub in a Japanese garden is thought to be more significant than its flowers, it will probably be formed into shapes in the pursuit of ideal beauty. By contrast, trees and shrubs in Chinese gardens are pruned in a way that is meant to achieve a more naturalistic appearance. The foliage, fruits, and flowers of these shrubs are prominently showcased.
In Chinese gardens, it’s common to find the Spirea shrub. The flowering almond shrub is a blooming shrub often found in Japanese gardens. It has blooms on its boughs that come out in early spring. As there is such a focus on creating specific shapes in Japanese gardens, the shrubs are likely to be pruned more heavily than you’d find in the Chinese variety.
As with most other elements of the Japanese garden, trees are chosen and placed to help present an idealized representation of nature.
One of the goals of the Japanese garden is to find a sense of equilibrium between nature and control, creating a distilled vision or distillation of nature. Japanese gardens have both deciduous and evergreen trees, but coniferous and broadleaf evergreens are favored. There are also deciduous trees, as well as the shrubs were discussed earlier.
Use of Japanese maple in Japanese garden
Japanese maples, plum, and cherry trees are among the most prevalent tress in a Japanese garden.
There are different kinds of Japanese maple available. One is the Aoyagi maple, which has foliage of an enchanting chartreuse shade. Another is the Black Japanese maple. This variety has leaves that change from a blackish red to a dark purplish red.
The Japanese maple has been popular in Japan for several centuries. There are dozens of cultivated varieties available. There are different options in form (in terms of leaf shape and size, as well as plant habit and size), and color (color of foliage in spring and fall, as well as the color of branches and trunk).
Small Japanese maples are chosen to lend a sense of movement and gracefulness to the garden.
Use of Bamboo in Chinese and Japanese gardens
Bamboo is frequently included in Chinese and Japanese gardens. There are numerous different kinds of bamboo. There are evergreen types as well as varieties that drop leaves in the fall.
The two major categories of bamboo are clumping (or non-running) and running.
The clumping types of bamboo are more manageable for the smaller types of spaces you’ll probably find in a Japanese garden. As Chinese gardens tend to be larger, perhaps running bamboo may be more of an option there.
NOTE: Running bamboo can quickly become overwhelming to deal with if you don’t have enough space.
Some kinds of bamboo have lovely foliage and even colorful stems. If you live in a climate that can become cold, you should know that certain kinds of bamboo are hardy enough to deal with that. Do your research on different kinds of bamboo and decide on what would be best for your garden in your climate and region.
Other Type of Trees
The pine is an evergreen conifer often seen in Japanese and Chinese gardens.
In Japan they bring to mind ideas of longevity, endurance, and great patience. Pinus thunbergii (Japanese black pine) and Pinus densiflora (Japanese red paine). The former is native to the Japanese seashore, while the latter is found in more mountainous landscapes of the country.
The on-matsu is the male pine, while the men-matsu is the female pine. There are noticeable differences between the two, including in terms of their needle characteristics, bark colors, and branching patterns.
Plum and cherry tress (which are flowering deciduous trees) are trees that bloom in the spring. They are included for their intrinsic beauty as well as the way they bring to mind the temporary yet captivating nature of beauty and life.
Plum trees are especially receptive to heavy pruning and it’s common to find them shaped to specifically signify the appearance of age. Cherry trees tend not to be pruned as heavily, as they don’t respond to it as well. This is why they’re generally allowed to grow in a more natural and unhindered way. One of the reasons why flowering plum trees are so prevalent is the fact that they bloom very early in spring.
Magnolia and olive trees are often found in Chinese gardens.
While not strictly a tree, bamboo is another popular element. Bamboo is seen to symbolize the idea of flexibility, adding to the representative significance of the garden’s elements. The serviceberry is a type of flowering tree frequently featured in Japanese gardens. This tree has a plethora of lovely white flowers and is seen as a symbol of youthfulness in Japanese culture.
Flowers in Chinese and Japanese gardens
Some of the most common flowers in Chinese gardens include chrysanthemums and azaleas. Plants tend to be chosen for the texture, form, and sense of balance they present instead of the specific look of their blooms.
Beauty and meaning are both considered in choosing plants and other elements of the garden. Both annual, perennial plants and Aquatic plants are found in Chinese gardens.
Like Chinese, Japanese gardens also commonly have chrysanthemums. They also often feature peonies and water Iris. The Lotus is another important feature in Japanese gardens. The Lotus is known as the “flower of Buddha,” and it has a sacred meaning. It’s common to see a lotus flower floating on the surface of the pond. It is believed to help with contemplation and meditation.
Rhododendron flowers are also seen in Japanese gardens outside of Japan. These flowers come in many different striking colors, such as red, vivid pink, purple, and pure white. In Japan itself, however, azaleas are generally preferred to rhododendrons. This is because they do better with pruning. They have foliage that is more delicate in appearance, as well.
Japanese or Chinese Garden: Which is Best for You?
Perhaps you’ve decided that you want a Japanese or Chinese garden but you just can’t decide which one to go with. Let’s go over some factors to consider when making your plans.
Space: As we discussed earlier, Chinese gardens tend to require much more space than Japanese ones. If you only want a small space for relaxation and contemplation, a Japanese garden is probably the best choice for you.
Depending on the elements that you include in your Japanese garden, you can make it a great place for bringing guests to view the tranquil space. If you want to do a large amount of entertaining in your garden, you may want to move more in the Chinese tradition. Keep in mind that this is going to demand a greater commitment in not only space but cost, as well.
Best of Luck With Your Japanese or Chinese Garden!
Whether you’ve chosen to create a garden in the Japanese tradition or using Chinese elements, you’re sure to create a space that you and your family will enjoy and cherish. Use your new outdoor area for contemplation and relishing an escape from the everyday world of stress and obligations.