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Lesson Plan for China:

The Aesthetic Symbol of the Nature: Ming Dynasty Garden Poetry

Kun Meng, CAC Graduate Outreach Fellow, 2021-22


Purpose: Teach students about Chinese poetry

Target Grade Level: 9-10 (this can be adapted for other grades)

Topic: The Aesthetic Symbol of the Nature: Ming Dynasty Garden Poetry



Background information for teachers:

  1. Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China, Published by Reaktion Books Ltd in London, 1996.
  1. The RHS Book of Garden Verse, Published by the Royal Horticultural Society, 2020.


Concepts: Ming Garden Poetry and writing poetry

Key Ideas: Suzhou, a small city in the southeast part of China, is today a tourist hub, but it once was a cultural center. This city has hydrological networks, delicate-woven silk artifacts, and various outstanding garden sites, which attract more than fifteen million visitors all around the world each year. Among these garden sites, one was established around the fifteenth century CE: the Humble Administrator’s Garden or Garden of the Inept Administrator is known as a Chinese architectural paradigm. “Painting within a poem” and “Poem within a painting” are examples of how visitors have described the unrivaled beauty of this garden. Similarly, omnipresent inscriptions, most of which are verses, prove the significance of the garden poetry in the Late Ming period. How to identify them properly, and how to bridge garden poetry with garden culture, the urban life of this period is consistently reminding us about the authentic symbol of ‘Chineseness’.


Knowledge: Students will be able to master the rhetorical strategy of several specific words and get to know how poets apply them in the poetry to reach his/her goal.

Application: Aided by varying sources of garden poetry, we will mainly focus on Wen Zhengming’s inscriptions of Thirty-one scenes of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Students will hopefully grasp the main idea or emotional aims of the poet through identifying the meaning of specific words or phrases.

Analysis: Students will be able to compose a garden poem using the literary devices employed by Wen Zhengming or drawing a painting that expresses their understandings against the garden view.



  1. Brainstorming

Students share thoughts openly with their classmates regarding this scenario: if they have ten million dollars, and all the money goes to building a lodge or villa, what kind of stuff would they include in it? What kind of facilities would you put in your building? How would you build it?

This step is a free-writing: there is no one right answer or response. Students can be divided into several groups, and each group should contain at least four students. In this group, one of them should be the group leader, as to motivate the other group members.


  1. Introduction to the Garden Art

What is the exact definition of Garden Art? What kind of art matches this definition? (Garden Arts include material culture, horticulture operations, literature, etc). To clarify this, teachers may present some photographs to shed light on this abstruse idea. Who might know the major differences between Chinese and Western gardens? From the observation, three major differences can possibly be seen: the Building Materials, the Configuration and the Cultural Theme. There is no one correct answer, so the above three topics can be fully discussed.

In fact, some of their thoughts and ideas have been already explored by some famous Chinese designers. Although their original innovation is much more like a utopia, a majority of their work should be revered not merely because of its luxury complexion, delicate sculptures or idiosyncratic plants, but also embodied by some art forms conveying the meaning of Confucius moral concerns, as well as the Daoism’s reclusive ideology, which cannot be simply realized by money or political power. One thing harbored underneath the superficial beauty of Chinese garden include the resilient and intractable soul that desperately needs acceptance and appreciation. Moreover, a cosmological approach bridges the old and new, Yin and Yang, authentic and virtual. Of course, there’s no real soul in this world, from and empirical view. In ancient China, a flower, or a tree, even grass, was endowed with the meaning of vehicles to transit these souls, for which they coincidently bear the significance as a symbol.


  1. Narrow down the topic to the specific location of China

Students view the images of Suzhou, or concretely speaking, a short video introduces the majestic view of Four Great Gardens. By watching, students form a general impression about ‘Suzhou Yuanlin’.

After the slide show, students should refer to the images and think about the following questions: Which character in the video do you think bears the symbolic meaning? What these plants or creatures signifies? Can you tell us the connections?

Through series of questions, students will share their opinions in their group. Given to possibility that their have or lack knowledge of Chinese language, this step is purely a guesswork which encourages them for the active participation.

As for the teacher, please be advised to jot down every student’s thoughts on the blackboard, so as to obtain adequate sources. Then, use these three questions as a guide.

①. Upon viewing these pictures, what is the physical appearance of these characters or what do they look like? (Peony has large petal, the hue of its petal is colorful, for example, much of its color resembles the water-color pigment, emerald, orange or burning fire)

This technique is relatively simple to all others that has been employed in the Ming dynasty garden poetry. Through preliminary brainstorming, the title of various figures gets modified and serves as the motif in the poem. For instance, ‘碧玉妆成一树高,万条垂下绿丝绦’ (Dressed in the green of jade, myriad of twigs so verdant, drop like your silken braids) by He Zhizhang, a poet of Tang, deliberately use Jade to signifies the willow. In another word, the authentic name of all these figures could be applied in the poem in a form of its unique attribute. Or, the attributes of a figure is interchangeable with the name of the it.

②. The second technic, which students might have learned before in class, is “anthropomorphize” or “emotionalize”. In the context of the garden poetry of Wen Zhengming, it was often applied as a verb, which was favored by poets expressing his or her contemporary feelings. In this sense, a plant or static creature can dance or sing, even take a shower or bath at home. For example, in the Banana Balustrade, the motion of Banana tree is a case in point. (The new banana is more than ten feet tall; after the rain it is cleaned and throughly washed). Try to visualize the following: you are having a bubble bath after a long-distance expedition, how do you feel? These verbs are straightforward, so students can even perform and mimic several motions referred to in the text.

③. The special words connect the edifying stories. Chinese literati have their arrogant personality, they don’t want to be misinterpreted or judged by outsiders, either because of the social circumstances or the chaos in the late Ming. In order to eschew the persecution by imperial courts who constantly resort to monitoring, they choose to invoke some classic edifying stories, which can be hard to decipher. In Wen Zhengming’s garden poetry, several cases have been used quite often. For example, in a poetry titled The Canglang Pavilion, the last couplet uses the legend of two people, one of them is Su Zimei or Su Shunqin in alias, anther one is Du Fu. The first person gained his fame in this pavilion; he was also relegated by the emperor of Northern Song dynasty. With such grievance, he chose not to grumble; he instead devoted himself to the pastoral life. By planting trees, drinking the spring water, and maintaining high-soy organic food, he finally chose to recluse in his estate. This escapism in Ming China is pathologically boasted by literati, as a manifestation of Daoist’s sublimit pursuance.


  1. Insert these emblems to the Poetry

To present the garden poetry of Wen Zhengming, use the English version on the homepage of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each student should choose one of these poems to read. Then they can work in groups to share which figures introduced by the previous step was used in the poem and how the poet reinterprets those figures? Could you tell us the intention of the poet while using these symbols?

The first question aims to recollect and consolidate the technic that has been introduced in this class, thus it is easy to connect the pictographic flower with the semantic one. But the second question, which cannot be directly perceived from the plain and bland words, needs to associate them with some narratives and stories, which will facilitate the understanding against the ‘double layer meaning’ of this figure, apart from those superficial meanings, including shape, color or biological attribute. Question 3 is one of the thorny problems faced by numerous Chinese scholars, therefore, in this step, the only requirement is just making a hypothesis as best as the students can.


  1. Analyze the cumulative impact

This step requires students to pack all three technics up and recite or retell the poet’s intention in the chosen poems. Teacher should explain the mechanism of lining up those words and phrase.

As for the example, I decide to introduce the most effective way to reach the spiritual realm:

The Banana Balustrade

The new banana is more than ten feet tall;
After the rain it is clean as though washed.
It does not dislike the high white wall,
It elegantly matches the curved red balustrade.
Cool autumn sounds come to my pillow,
Green morning colors are seen through the
Let no one take to the shears heedlessly,
Leave it until its shade reaches my house.


  1. Classified the terms you use to navigate the poem

The motif or subject: banana/relevant figure: the rain, the white wall, the curved red balustrade, cool autumn sounds/green morning colors

Verbs: washed/does not dislike/matches/come/seen/shear/reaches


  1. Describe the imaginative picture using these words

In the cool autumn days, banana trees after the rain are clean and purified. It postures like a refined scholar, standing in the court, accompanied by the curved lines of the balustrade.


  • Questions?

What is the habit of growth of banana trees?

The question aims to explain why the poet associated banana trees with autumn days.

In Chinese poetic history, the poet routinely paired banana trees with the rain, what does this usage represents? (i.e In Chinese poetry, this combination symbolizes melancholic feeling, since the rain presages the defoliation of leaves and the faded passion of summer days), this scenario is detested by the poet.


Can you explain more specific about how the autumn sounds can ‘come to my pillow’?

This is another tricky question. In China, there is a literary device, called the synesthesia, which helps bridge the totally different sensualities. Concretely speaking, it is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. For example, if the poet wants to express his favorite flavor of an ice-cream, he will say the sweet flavor tastes like berries, transmitted by the wind to my ear.

Why the poet does not want to shear the branches?

This question appears in the last couplet is a moral-loaded usage, which burdens the authentic world view of the poet. In this context, it means the lingering feeling of the poet, he sticks so much to the past, as to cannot adapt himself to the melancholic tone of the autumn. The lush trees and dense leaves of banana trees usually appeared on summer days, thus, Wen Zhengming does not want to shear it heedlessly, which supposedly refresh his memories of the summer.