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The Symbol of a Unified State

Potrait of Qinshihuang, the first emperor in China's history

Portrait of Qinshihuang, the first emperor in China’s history

In ancient times it was the traditional belief that the powers of the rulers were bestowed on by the gods. Since the power of the emperor came from heaven, the emperor was known as the “Son of Heaven”. The Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) overthrew six smaller states and unified the country, and was later superseded by an even stronger totalitarian Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.).This was the beginning of a consecutive 2,000 years of a unified state with centralized power. The establishment of this form of state government marks a turning point in Chinese history. The influence of this historic period on the art of gardening was also deep and profound.

From historic annals dating from the Qin and Han periods, we can see many records of large-scale architectural building and construction of gardens during this period which roughly covered 400 years. In the year 221 B.C., the Emperor Qinshihuang unified the country and set up a vast feudal empire. He ordered 200 thousand rich families to move to Xianyang in Shaanxi Province, in order to centralize manpower and resources so he could implement his ambitious construction plan. The Qin Dynasty palace is of astoundingly large proportions. The most famous Qin Dynasty palace is the E-fang Palace which was built south of the capital of that time, Xianyang. In the “Annals of History-Section on Emperor Qinshihuang”,“is wri????en the following passage-”…the front palace of E-fang is 500 paces from east to west, and 50 zhang (note: one zhang equals 10 Chinese feet) from south to north. It is large enough to hold 10 thousand people, and tall enough to erect a 5-zhang banner.

Emperor Qinshihuang used the Xianyang Palace as the center, and around in a radius extending for scores of miles planned to build over 200 palaces and chambers, which were all to be mutually connected by passageways above the ground. This made this whole region both his palace area and his garden area. This extravagant construction plan was never completed. The Qin Dynasty only lasted 13 years, and the dream of Emperor Qinshihuang of building an empire that would last down the ages went up in flames together with the fire that razed E-fang Palace. It is said that the fire raged for 3 months before E-fang Palace was finally burnt down to the ground.

After the fall of the Qin Empire, the former capital of Xianyang fell into ruins. The Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) set up its capital in the City of Chang’an, which lies to the southeast of Xianyang. The palaces of Western Han were also very large in scope. Of palaces in Chang’an city, the Changle Palace and Weiyang Palace alone took up one third of the whole area of the city. If you add some of the smaller palaces such as Gui Palace, Bei (North) Palace and Mingguang Palace, the palace area took up over one half of the whole city, whose area proper was 36 square kilometers. This is over 20 times the space occupied by the Forbidden City of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which took up approximately 0.72 square kilometer.

Han Dynasty Bronze pot with bird pattern

Han Dynasty Bronze pot with bird pattern

The power of the Han Dynasty and its garden construction both reached their peak during the reign of the Emperor Han Wu (140 B.C.-87 B.C.). In order to show the absolute authority of the emperor, Emperor Han Wu personally oversaw the construction of gardens. The Shanglin Yuan (Upper Woods Garden) is situated south of Chang’an, starting north from the southern banks of the Wei River and terminating at the foot of the Zhongnan Mountains. It is surrounded by a wall of approximately 130-160 kilometers, which includes the northern slopes of Zhongnan Mountains and the southern slopes of Jiujun Mountains. The eight largest rivers of central Shaanxi all run from north to south through the garden. Just the Kunming Pond alone, which was dug with manual labor, has an area of 150 hectares, which is quite sufficient for navy training activities. Inside the garden are 12 clusters of buildings, and the garden is also complete with paths, covered corridors, bridges and pavilions, which completed the sense of changes in space.

There were separate palaces and gardens for the cultivation of flowers and plants,enjoyment of music, dog racing and the planting of weeping willows, all for the pleasure of the emperor. Outside of the palace, you could also find 36 smaller “gardens within gardens”. In the Shanglinyuan (Upper Woods Garden) were cultivated all manner of fruit trees and trees for their beauty, to say nothing of the multitudes of rare fowls and animals. It is no exaggeration to say that this was at the same time a large botanical garden, zoo, and plantation. The Western Han historian Sima Xiangru when describing the Shanglinyuan Garden wrote with exaggeration: the most southern stretches of the garden still flourish with vegetation in the winter, whereas the most northern stretches of the garden are frozen over with ice and snow in the summer. The Shanglinyuan Garden is the largest scale garden to be found throughout Chinese history, and gardens of this size were rarely found in later times.

The Shanglinyuan Gardens, like the E-fang Palace, was also destroyed by the ravage of war. But it had a tremendous lasting influence on the art of garden construction in later times. To symbolize a large and unified country, the palaces and parks of both the Qin and Han Dynasties all strived to manifest the heavens, the earth and the universe in their design. The tremendous amount of land area and space they occupied and the great diversity of the buildings and landscapes were the basic prerequisite behind the thoughts guiding their design, and fully manifested the political views and interpretation of the universe at that time.

 East Jin painting The Ode of Luo Deity

And in the Taiye Pond in the Shanglin yuan Garden were built three islands, which signify the three sacred mountains of Yingzhou of the Eastern Seas, Penglai and Fangzhang which can be found in folk tales.This practice of building 3 sacred mountains in a body of water was passed down as a classic tradition to builders of gardens of later times, and we can find this theme of “three mountains in a pond” repeatedly

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