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Chinese Scholar's Garden

Martha Stewart Living Television

The Chinese Scholar's Garden that recently opened at New York's Staten Island Botanical Garden looks as if it were lifted whole from another time and place. And, in a sense, it was: The design is based on the gardens constructed during the Ming dynasty (1368 to ca. 1644), a period of renaissance for an empire that had endured many years of war, economic hardship, and internal strife.

Such gardens were sanctuaries for scholars; the design was said to stimulate thought. Only portions of a garden can be seen at any one time; with each twist and turn of the paths running through the garden, the rocks, waterfalls, small structures, and plants come into view one at a time, or in combinations that change with each shift in perspective.

Visitors are greeted with an ornate Chinese screen, which at one time served two functions. Originally, it prevented demons from entering the garden (according to Chinese myth, demons can only travel in straight lines), but today it retains a single task: blocking a view from the main gate so aspects of the garden unfold before the eyes bit by bit. Architects installed patterned windows that compel you to walk closer to them and peer through. An illusion of extended space is created by incorporating the environs outside the garden into certain views. Even such simple structures as a zigzagging bridge contribute to the effect: Because you can't walk in a straight line, you're forced to see different parts of the garden from shifting angles as you move along. A Chinese philosopher once likened a well-designed scholar's garden to life, saying that it should reveal more and more of itself as you go, always offering something new to discover.

Learn more about New York Chinese Scholar's Garden.

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