The Chinese and U.S. governments have agreed to build one of the largest classical Chinese gardens in the West on a hillside at the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington.
As conceived, the 12-acre garden would consist of as many as 15 traditional Chinese structures, including an ornate two-story teahouse and exhibition hall overlooking a 1.3-acre lake that would be created in what is now a sloping field near the arboretum's collections of pines and redwoods, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday.
Joseph J. Jen, undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics, said reproductions of Ming-era gardens have been built in other North American cities over the past 20 years, including New York and Portland, Ore., but the one in Washington will be far larger and as such more authentic in its feel.
Jen pushed for the Chinese garden in Washington after being lobbied by the local Chinese American community. The idea has been warmly received by Chinese officials who view the project as a way of deepening American understanding of Chinese life, said Sun Weide, the press counselor at the Chinese Embassy. "Chinese gardens are a very important part of the Chinese culture," he said.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed Oct. 14, China will fund and supply the structures, extensive rock landscaping, furniture and artwork. The arboretum, which falls under the Agricultural Research Service, would do the site preparation, including the lake excavation. Jen said costs have not been calculated but that the vast majority of the expense will be borne by the Chinese.
The garden will not copy any ancient place but will include the elements that make Chinese gardens so distinctive, including rock, stone, plant and architecture positioned in symbolic associations. As the Web site for the Chinese Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden points out, "Chinese gardens play havoc with perspectives and Western conventions. Their components are laden with great metaphorical meaning."
In ancient China, gardens became gathering places for scholars and artists to work, study and meditate in a Confucian world, Jen said. Typically, paths and views are highly controlled to create vistas or changing moods. Pavilions are fragrant with heavily scented wood. Stones, typically white and heavily eroded, suggest dwelling places for Taoist spirits, and there are ubiquitous references to yin and yang, of opposites in balance. A designed landscape itself is one of the principal art forms of China, along with poetry, calligraphy, dance and flower arranging.
The garden plan includes a walled entrance marked by rock formations and gardens of different seasons, as well as a boathouse by the lake. Other features include ponds of Chinese goldfish, lakeside pavilions and bridges, gardens of lotus and waterlilies, distant pavilions and a white pagoda.
Paths would take visitors past groupings of willows and peonies and other Chinese plants reflecting the country's rich flora. For more than a century, China has been a major source of ornamental plants for westerners and the arboretum's Chinese garden would become a center of continued horticultural research between the two countries, Jen said.
Jen was one of four signatories to the agreement. The others are Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman; Jiang Zehui, chairman of the Chinese Academy of Forestry Sciences, and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese ambassador to Washington.
A 10-member design team that met once in China and once in Washington came up with the concept this summer. Thomas Elias, arboretum director and a member of the team, said the garden would become "a major draw" for the 446-acre arboretum, located off New York Avenue near the Maryland line. "It's a very exciting concept," he said.
Jen said it would be "one of the largest classical Chinese gardens outside of China and probably one of the best when it is done." He said the Chinese American community is raising funds to help pay for the project, which will need approval from various planning and building regulators in Washington, including the Fine Arts Commission.
Elias said it would be at least three years before the garden could be built. As with other Chinese gardens in North America, the structures will be hand-built by craftsmen in China and then shipped here for assembly and completion.
The one-acre garden in Portland was assembled there in 2000 by a team of 65 Chinese artisans, and cost a reported $12.8 million.
Like the New York garden, above, Washington's garden would put stones, plants and structures in symbolic positions.