The Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a replica of the Master of Nets Garden in Suzhou, China. The natural components of the Scholar’s Garden creates an area for contemplation, observation, and relaxation. Similarly, the purpose of the Master of Nets Garden in China was to let one escape from the city and enter into a natural universe. The legacy of the Master of Nets Garden continues as it is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Garden creates a Taoist atmosphere where scholars can identify forces, find balance, and discover peace.
The Scholar’s Garden conveys the Taoist idea of the importance of natural forces in our daily lives. This principle is achieved through the Garden’s use of plants and sunlight. The Tao means the way – the prominent force of the universe. The Tao can be seen and felt in the Garden through the use of plants. The force and power of nature are emphasized through a wilderness setting rather than a floral atmosphere. No flowers or blooms are used in the Garden, resulting in a rugged, wild and powerful setting. In the Garden, the plants are positioned in different arrangements. The plants are not uniform in size, type or height. Rather, there are a variety of plant arrangements occupying the Garden some growing taller than the other. This gives the sense that the force of nature, and not a gardener’s blueprint, guides the growth and development of the plants. In addition, the Tao’s “energizing force” includes the sun’s constant movement throughout the day. The constantly changing shade and light illuminate parts of the Garden at different times of the day and highlight the subtle attributes. For example, when the plants are in the shade, the Garden conveys a dark and somber atmosphere compared to the bright and enlightening atmosphere when the sunlight shines directly upon the plants. The forces of the Tao are evident through the use of plants and sunlight in the Scholar’s Garden.
Furthermore, the Scholar’s Garden portrays the Taoist concept of balance, which is evident through the height, size, and texture of the rocks. Similar to the representation of the plants, the composition of the rocks can be interpreted as mountain ranges and peaks. The rocks are rigid and are naturally formed in unique shapes. In Taoism, these different, individual aspects are used to trigger contemplation and a focus on nature. The placement of the irregularly shaped rocks next to the smooth, moss rocks creates a balance between the forces of yin and yang. Some of the rocks represent yin; dark, wet, and tall compared to yang; hard, dry, hot, small, and eroded. Yin and yang are complementary forces that rely on each other. This is seen with the smaller eroded rocks that support the tall rocks with crevices. In addition, the towering rocks create focal points for the viewer. The architects of the Garden created an atmosphere where the base of the rocks are textured in a complex manner and evoke thoughts about the structure and other aspects of nature.
Finally, the Scholar’s Garden conveys a peaceful Taoist setting, which is seen through the soft and rhythmic movement of water. In Taoism, one of the most important values is the concept of water, and its constant, soft, feminine characteristics. Water is continuously moving and going with the flow. Taoism’s central theme is following the harmonious, pure flow of water, which determines how Taoists think and act in society. The water signifies the importance of individuality and evokes a sense of inner self. As an observer, listening to the soothing ripples of the water and the breaths of the fish coming up for air, it is evident that the water creates an atmosphere for new thoughts and relaxation. Another salient principle is feng shuisghui, the continuous flow of energy and movement of forces. Feng shui is seen through the natural elements in the Scholar’s Garden including water, sunlight, and air. Feng shui is another aspect of the Garden that a scholar can reflect upon while enjoying the serenity of the space. Feng shui, water, the juxtaposition of the rocks and the fish create a peaceful atmosphere for focus and observation.
The plants, water, sunlight, and rocks represent the core Taoist principles: the way, balance, going with the flow, and fengshui. The silence and stillness of the Garden’s spiritual terrain evoke thoughts and observations intended by ancient Chinese philosophy. The Scholar’s Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a tranquil atmosphere reminiscent of various ancient Chinese traditions. The unique arrangement of natural elements allows one to think beyond this universe and contemplate the forces and natural elements that surround us in our everyday lives, just as Taoism prescribes. Taken together, these concepts create a setting for scholars to understand ancient Chinese philosophy in a first hand way, achieving a sense of peace and harmony.