Gardeners’ Eden


Sometimes, our first impression of Chinese cities is one of grey concrete. However, in spring we find streets lined with abundant flowerbeds and trees. Gardening is truly an art form in China, which would never be denied by professional garden designers and amateur botanists.

The gardens of southern China are well known, especially the famous gardens of Suzhou. There are many ways to say “garden” in Chinese. 园林 (yuán lín) is one of them. The expression is formed with the characters 园 (yuán), garden, and 林 (lín), woods. Gardens often embody garden designers’ taste and morality. Trees and buildings are carefully laid out to form a harmonious 景观 (jǐng guān), landscape. Besides, each garden has a name to express its style or the character the owner seeks. 拙政园 (zhuō zhèng yuán), the Humble Administrator’s Garden, 留园 (liú yuán), the Lingering Garden and 怡园 (yí yuán), the Joyous Garden, are among the most famous.

Traditional Chinese houses are arranged around a courtyard, the central section of which is usually set aside for flowers, forming a 花园 (huā yuán), garden. In Chinese, a gardener is called 园丁(yuán dīng), generally referring to municipal gardening employees. An amateur gardener is called 养花的人 (yǎng huā de rén), meaning “someone who breeds flowers.” In China, 园丁 is also a metaphor for primary school teachers as they play an important role in children’s education. Children are considered 祖国的花朵 (zǔ guó de huā duǒ), blossoms of the country.  

Chinese believe that tending flowers is a way to 修身养性 (xiū shēn yǎng xìng), cultivate their moral character. This may be the reason why they attribute personalities to flowers. The metaphorical term 四君子 (sì jūn zǐ), Four Gentlemen, does not represent four types of well-bred men, but refers to 兰 (lán), orchid, 梅 (méi), plum blossom, 竹 (zhú), bamboo, and 菊 (jú), chrysanthemum. Each of these plants represents a different human characteristic. Orchids are 清廉 (qīng lián), honest and upright, while plum blossoms are 坚强 (jiān qiáng), strong-minded. Bamboo has 潇洒 (xiāo sǎ), a natural and unrestrained spirit,  and chrysanthemums are 高尚 (gāo shàng),  noble. Another plant, 莲花 (lián huā), lotus, is associated with holiness and purity. It is often used to describe a person 出淤泥而不染 (chū yū ní ér bù rǎn) who remains undefiled in spite of general corruption. 藕断丝连 (ǒu duàn sī lián), a lotus root whose fibres stay joined when broken, describes the state of incomplete separation between lovers.

  牡丹 (mǔ dān), peony, is China’s 国花 (guó huā), the national flower. Its 花瓣 (huā bàn), petals, 花色 (huā sè), colors, and 花香 (huā xiāng), fragrance, express the best wishes for 荣华富贵 (róng huá fù guì), wealth and rank.

Apart from flowers, trees are also bestowed with particular cultural connotations by Chinese. 盆景 (pén jǐng), bonsai, is an art form using miniature trees grown in containers decorated with stones. Many bonsai therefore are not just miniature landscapes, but embrace the philosophies of life. The shape of a bonsai is also important and often conveys a cultural meaning.

The character 花 (huā) is widely used in Chinese language to refer to something pleasing.  The Chinese cyberword 撒花 (sǎ huā), scatter flowers, expresses approval or congratulations. 花好月圆 (huā hǎo yuè yuán), blooming flowers and full moon, is a complimentary address for newlyweds. We can use 鸟语花香 (niǎo yǔ huā xiāng), birdsong and flowers’ perfume, to describe beautiful scenery. The idiom 走马观花 (zǒu mǎ guān huā), look at flowers while riding on horseback, means to glance over things hurriedly.

Further, a gorgeous lady is 羞花闭月(xiū huā bì yuè), so beautiful as to put flowers to shame and make the moon want to hide. But a lady who has no merits but her beauty is just a 花瓶 (huā píng), a flower vase. A 校花 (xiào huā), school flower, is not the flower on a school badge but refers to the campus belle fancied by all male students.

A 花花蝴蝶 (huā huā hú dié) is a lady’s man who often finds new girlfriends since, like a butterfly, he flits around to sample the fragrance of different flowers. If someone is fond of appreciating the opposite sex or deeply loves his or her partners, then we call the person a 花痴 (huā chī), literally an infatuated flower lover, implying a person easily mesmerized by the opposite sex. 花心 (huā xīn), flower heart literally, means “fickle in love,” used to imply an unfaithful or unreliable lover who is like a flower “visited” by many butterflies and bees.