Skip to main content

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 critical reading using examples from Chinese garden poetry

Target Grade Level: 9-10 (although 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 has a proud history as a center of culture. This is a city rich in enormous hydrological network, 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 establish around the fifteenth century CE, the Humble Administrator’s Garden or Garden of the Inept Administrator is well-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 in a proper way, and how to bridge garden poem with garden culture, even the urban life of that 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 the poet apply them in the poem to reach his goal.

Application: Aided by varying sources of garden poems, mainly focus on Wen Zhengming’s inscriptions of Thirty-one scenes of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, students will 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. A brainstorm

Students share free thoughts with their classmates about a scenario: If they have been distributed ten million dollars(In spite of where the money came from, possible from winning the lottery or something), all the money is applied to build a lodge or villa, what kind of stuff they want to include in it? What kind of facilities you may want to equip within your building?

This step is a free-discussion, which means no unified and standard answer or response. Students could be divided into several groups, and each group contains at least four students, for the sake of keeping the group motivated and energetic. In this group, one of them lead the discussion so as to the rest of them will actively engage.


  1. Introduction to the Garden Art

What is the exact definition of the Garden Art? What kind of artistic forms could match this definition? (Garden Arts, including material culture, horticulture operations, literature and so forth) To clarify this definition, teachers may bring some photographs to bear on this abstruse idea. Who might know the major difference between Chinese and Western gardens? (presenting a group of photographs via slides or printed-photos) From the observation, three major differences could be putted on the table: the Building Materials, the Configuration and the Cultural Theme. The answer is also not unique, whereas the above three dimensions should be fully discussed.

In fact, some of their thoughts and imaginations has been elaborated by some outstanding Chinese designers. Although their original innovation is much more like an utopia, a majority of their works 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. Something harbored underneath the superficial beauty of Chinese garden is the resilient and intractable soul that desperately needed for acceptance and appreciation, also, 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 the empirical view. In ancient China, a flower, or a tree even the 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 watch the slides of Suzhou, or concretely speaking, a short video introduces the majestic view of Four Great Gardens. Through the observation, students will shape the general concept about ‘Suzhou Yuanlin’.

After the slides show, students refresh the details in their memory, and think about the following question: 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 knowledge of Chinse signifiers is none, this step is purely a guesswork which encourages them for the active participation.

As for teacher, please be aware to jot down all but every student’s thoughts on the blackboard, so as to obtain adequate sources. Then, explain this technic to the student by three questions:

①. Upon viewing these pictures, what is 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 is resemble to 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 the preliminary imagination, the title of various figures has been modified, and serve 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 to the name of the it.

②. The second technic, students might have learnt it before this class, namely Anthropomorphize or emotionalize. In the context of garden poetry of Wen Zhengming, it was often applied in the form of a verb, which favored by poets to express his or her contemporary feeling. 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 clean as though washed) Trying to picture out the following: You are having a bubble bath after a long-distance expedition, how do you feel? These verbs are straightforward, students can even perform and mimic several motions referred in the text.

③. The special words connecting to the edifying stories. Chinese literati have their arrogant personality, they didn’t want to be misinterpreted or judged by outsiders, either because of the social circumstances is chaotic in the late Ming. In order to eschew the persecution by imperial court who constantly resort to the monitoring, they choose to invoke some classic edifying stories, which could be hard to decipher. In Wen Zhengming’s garden poetry, several cases has been fairly used. For example, in a poetry titled The Canglang Pavilion, the last couplet uses the legend of two person, one of them is Su Zimei or Su Shunqin in alias, anther one is Du Fu. The first person gained his fame in firstly establish this pavilion, and he was also relegated by the emperor of Northern Song dynasty. With such grievance, he chose not to grumble, instead devoted himself to the pastoral life. Planting trees, drinking the spring water, 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

Presenting garden poetry of Wen Zhengming, see the references in English version on the homepage of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each student chooses one of these poems to read, then work in groups to share which figure 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 for 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 superfacial 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 hypothesize as best as students can.


  1. Analyze the cumulative impact

This step requires students to pack all three technics up, and trying to 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 navigated in 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), definitely 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, a literary device to bridge the totally different sensuality, know as synesthesia. 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 favor 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 burdening the authentic world view of the poet. In this text, 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.