This summer, a construction team is expected to begin transforming a 12-acre field at the U.S. National Arboretum into one of the most ambitious Chinese gardens ever built in the West.
By the time Chinese artisans finish their work some 30 months later, visitors will encounter a garden containing all the elements of a classical Chinese landscape: enticing moongate entrances, swooping and soaring roof lines, grand pavilions with carved wooden screens and groves of golden bamboo. The grounds will boast two dozen handcrafted pavilions, temples and other ornate structures around a large central lake.
Its backers undoubtedly hope that the National China Garden will become a Washington landmark and achieve for Sino-U.S. relations what the gift of the Tidal Basin’s cherry trees has done for Japanese-American links for more than a century. The Chinese government is so anxious to have the garden that it has agreed to foot the entire bill, which approaches $100 million.
“The Japanese gave a few thousand trees and look at all the publicity,” said Tom Elias, a former arboretum director and early proponent of the project. “The Chinese don’t have anything in Washington to put to use.” The panda program at the National Zoo “is big PR,” he said, “but they can’t have many functions in and around a panda cage. This Chinese garden is where they could hang their cultural hat.”
The 446-acre arboretum in Northeast Washington draws an estimated half-million visitors a year. The National China Garden is expected to increase that number by as much as 40 percent.
“I truly believe this garden, if it’s done right and properly endowed, will be a terrific asset,” said arboretum director Richard Olsen.
The Chinese government is close to securing a general contractor for the project. After years of delay and stagnation, construction would begin “at the earliest” this summer, Olsen said. The imminent groundbreaking, of course, assumes no intervening meltdown in relations between Beijing and Washington.
The garden has been a long-held dream of Chinese American leaders in the United States, but its genesis dates to a formal agreement in 2003 between Joseph Jen, then an undersecretary of agriculture, and Jiang Zehui, head of an agency called the Chinese Academy of Forestry.
The U.S. government agreed to pay for the extensive site infrastructure and the Chinese for all the aboveground adornments. But in a classic Washington fiscal dance, Congress in 2008 approved the construction of the National China Garden but offered little prospect of federal funding. This led to the creation of the nonprofit National China Garden Foundation to raise funds.
It also led to China’s realization that if it wanted this cultural jewel (and diplomatic stroke) just two miles from the U.S. Capitol, it would have to pay for it. The full cost is a bit unclear, in part because many of the materials have been assembled and stockpiled over several years in China, but the figure most often used is $90 million, including $30 million for the site work.
The foundation has pledged to raise another $30 million, to endow the garden’s operation, upkeep and cultural programming.
Chinese gardens have captured the imagination of Westerners for centuries, spurred by the introduction of wildly popular plants brought over from East Asia, including peonies, lilies, camellias and many roses, to name a few.
Early examples were fanciful takes on Chinese design. The National China Garden is in a different mold, of re-created historic Chinese gardens built by a corps of imported Chinese craftsmen. Approximately two dozen have been built or planned in North America since China opened up in the 1970s.
Most of the features at the national garden will be re-creations of historic gardens in Yangzhou, a city along the Yangtze River built by wealthy merchants during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
These classical gardens are defined by enclosed, segmented and highly architectural spaces. The gardens flow between outdoors and indoors, lawns are absent, and the landscape uses ponds and plantings to achieve a cosmic balance with the structural rockeries and buildings.
“You never get to the end of a Chinese garden, ideally. You never know where you’re going to turn up next,” said Alison Hardie, a retired senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Leeds, England.
When the National China Garden opens at the end of the decade, its designers say, all these orchestrated moments will be evident from the start. The entrance will take the visitor to the first of two walled gardens, named, in typically florid fashion, the Mountain House of Sliced Stones. The sliced stones here are upright, perforated and jagged limestone rocks that symbolize mountains and their mythological forces.
The adjoining garden, the Ge Garden, is similarly enclosed and features an essential duet between rockeries and water, but on a grander scale. On one side of the main pond will lie the airy Joyful Rain Pavilion, a high-ceilinged, one-story shelter oriented to its surroundings. On the garden’s northern edge will stand the longest structure on the grounds, an imposing two-story, seven-bay hall named Embracing Mountain Building.
The central 1.2-acre lake is the garden’s core and also a setting for prominent waterside buildings, including the deep-roofed Boat Hall, the particularly ornate Floating Fragrance Hall and an elaborately constructed passageway that will house displays of calligraphy, sculpture and poetry as it winds its way to a pavilion overlooking a peony garden.
The lakeside path will take the visitor to the third major element of the project: a garden in the woods leading to the Five-Pavilion Terrace, with its cluster of high tiled roofs.
Another lakeside path will link the pavilion to the tallest structure in the garden, the bottle-shaped White Pagoda, which at about 70 feet will be about eight-tenths the size of the original in Yangzhou.
“The biggest challenge for us was to set this particular place, with its own integrity, into the arboretum, which has a very different feel,” said Faye Harwell, of the project’s landscape architecture firm, Rhodeside & Harwell. “But it’s not antithetical to the rest of the arboretum. The arboretum is a place of different types of gardens within a broader landscape.” Besides, she argues, the Chinese garden will be so large and absorbing that visitors will forget about its wider setting.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for learning and education,” said Sandra L. Gibson, executive director of the National China Garden Foundation. “We are going to have to give people a pathway into Chinese culture, and how to read it.”
Ironically, this lavish garden is to be constructed at an institution that has been living hand-to-mouth for years, on an annual budget of about $12 million. The arboretum was established 90 years ago as a horticultural research center by the Agriculture Department. It is run by the department’s Agricultural Research Service and functions as a scientific institution as well as a public park.
The idea of a gold-plated Chinese garden with all the stylistic bells and whistles seems hard to reconcile with the arboretum’s relentless funding issues. (President Trump recently proposed a 21 percent decrease in Agriculture Department funding for the next fiscal year).
Things have been so dire that the staff once proposed ripping out the popular collections of azaleas and boxwood to save money, sparking a successful campaign to save them. And between 2013 and 2015, the arboretum closed its gates for three days a week, until the friends’ group, FONA, provided funding to restore seven-day-a-week access.
Olsen hopes the garden will become a visitor magnet and raise the arboretum’s profile and public support for it. Asked whether he thought it would force a change in the character of the arboretum, he said, “I hope it does. We can’t be static, and we have been static.”
Whether the garden will become as big a Washington attraction as the cherry blossoms, only time will tell.
Hardie, the Chinese garden historian, thinks its backers may be on to a winner. “There have been some very successful recreations of Chinese gardens in the West,” she said.
“The great thing about Chinese gardens compared to Japanese gardens,” she said, “is that they’re fun. Japanese gardens seem totally serious — you can’t breathe too energetically in case you disturb a leaf.”