The Portland Classical Chinese Garden, Garden of Awakening Orchids, located in downtown Chinatown in Portland, Oregon, provides respite from the adrenaline of the urban heartbeat. Through the friendship of Portland and its sister city in China, Suzhou, the garden was conceived in 1988, constructed from 1999 to 2001, and opened to the public in the fall of 2001. The garden seeks to stimulate an understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture and to provide a quiet, beautiful space to soothe the soul and refresh the mind. With the latter, the garden surprises visitors with its method of blending incongruous elements into a harmonious landscape through the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang. Yin and yang and the ancient Chinese traditions ascribe symbolic and aesthetic value to each element in the garden, and all of the elements must intricately and dynamically balance the two opposing forces while weaving in the stories of a rich cultural heritage.
In the "Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain" pavilion, five panels carved out of ginkgo wood depict gardens in Suzhou; the center panel represents the "Humble Administrator's Garden," which served as the model pattern for the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. However, because the garden is built on a former parking lot, the design was modified to fit the one-city-block allotment, which is about half the size of a typical private garden in Suzhou. The garden also differs slightly from its Suzhou counterparts in that it directly reflects the influence of the Ming dynasty through garden and architectural design. Chinese gardens are designed to capture the natural landscape by ideal representation rather than mimicry or duplication. Thus, water pools become rivers, rocks become mountains, and a few trees are an entire forest. Traditional symbolism is also incorporated into the garden, particularly in the architecture. Five bats on the roof tiles protect the garden with the five blessings revered in Chinese culture: long life, health, wealth, a virtuous life, and a natural death. The number five also plays an important part in organizing and balancing the major components in Chinese gardens: stone, water, architecture, literature and the arts, and plants.
Stone and water are carefully situated in the garden to achieve the balance between the yang energy of the stone and the yin energy of the water. Shan shui, the Chinese word for landscape translates literally into mountains and water, emphasizing the importance of these elements in the garden design. Stone mosaic pathways guide the visitor through the garden; the tile-outlined designs of cross-crabapple blossoms, square-crabapple blossoms, and plum blossoms on cracked ice cause the visitor to slow down and reflect on the garden's beauty. Displayed throughout the garden, weathered limestone from Lake Tai compliments the softer pools of water; these rocks are called Taihu stones. In the past, these stones have graced the gardens of the Chinese elite, and often a father would drill shallow holes in a limestone boulder and place it in the lake to be worn away. The son would later reclaim the now-weathered rock for his own garden, continuing the elite status of the family. One of the holey Taihu stones in the garden is labeled with Chinese characters that capture the graceful essence of these limestone monuments: "music in stone." Water also lends a musical element to the garden, whether with quiet waterfalls or beaded curtains dripping from the triangular finishing tiles on the roofs when it rains. Additionally, water is crucial to Chinese gardens for irrigation, for fish, and for smothering fires. Two sea dragons grace the "Hall of Brocade Clouds'" roof ridge; these gods are supposed to bless the garden with rain and protect the buildings from fire.
Chinese gardens are littered with architectural structures, and the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is no exception. While those unfamiliar with the culture may find the assortment of buildings distracting and out of place in a garden, these outdoor living spaces characterize the whole purpose behind Chinese gardens. A Chinese garden is a place for entertainment and cultural and intellectual pursuits; in short, it is a conversation. It is a dialogue between man and nature, a cohesive conglomerate of the ideal landscape and man's place in it. The "Hall of Brocade Clouds" and "Reflections in Clear Ripples" pavilions would be used for receiving guests in a private garden setting; although the garden is public, these spaces can be rented for private receptions by visitors. The "Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance," also known as the "Scholar's Study," would provide a place for the owner to paint or read in the inspiring serenity of the garden. Literature and the arts, especially poetry, permeate every aspect of the garden, from multiple perspectives of views that enhance the observer's ability to think creatively, to the stunning calligraphy of Chinese poems displayed in the garden. Knowing the classics and writing poetry were once requirements for civil service employees in China; these employees would most likely be the owners of such private gardens exemplified by the Portland Classical Chinese Garden.
Plants, the last element, tend to be more subtle in their design emphasis. Although some colorful blooms, such as the bougainvillea and the pomegranate, add highlights of interest, most of the shrubs, trees, and herbaceous plants are simply green. Their power of delight comes from their textures, growth habits, and especially their scents. While plant regulation laws between the United States and China currently delay and sometimes prevent the direct delivery of plants between the two nations, Chinese plants immigrated to the U.S. prior to those laws, and the descendants of those plants now grow in the garden. Of the displayed plants, 90% are endemic to China and 10% represent species introduced and now flourishing in China. The Portland Classical Chinese Garden, with all of its symbolism, balance, and elements, is a truly wondrous garden that achieves its twofold mission to encourage understanding of Chinese culture and to provide a tranquil place to rest and think.