As the traditional retreat of scholars and gentleman, the Classical Chinese garden provided a place not only to meditate, but also to socialize, play music, indulge in the calligraphic arts, paint, write, eat, drink, and play games.
The origins of Chinese music can be traced back to distant antiquity. 3,000 years ago, when European music was in its infancy, a complete musical theory and sophisticated musical instruments had already emerged in China. A musician might be seen playing the "p'i-p'a" (lute) or the "hu-ch'in" (a vertically-held violin).
In Chinese cooking, color, aroma, and flavor share equal importance in the preparation of each dish. There is also an traditional belief that food and medicine share the same origin. Protocol is followed even when eating in the garden: meals must be taken while seated, and there is a set order of who may be seated first among men, women, old and young.
Tea is an indispensable part of the life of a Chinese, for it was they who first discovered the tea leaf. The seven basic daily necessities, it is said, are fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.
A delightful site that describes the Chinese tea ceremony notes that, "(This) ceremony, unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, emphasizes the tea, rather than the ceremony." How the tea tastes, smells, and compares to the previous cup -- in the case of successive rounds of drinking -- is what participants are most interested in.
Wine occupies an important place in the culture and life of the Chinese people. It has been used to express reverence to ancestors, for toasts during a feast, or to enjoy while writing poetry or prose in home or garden.
Brush calligraphy, called "Shu Fa" is an art unique to Asian cultures and requiring great discipline. Because all strokes are permanent and incorrectible, the calligrapher must constantly strive to coordinate both mind and body. "Shu Fa" is considered one of the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati (the others are "Hua" -- painting, "Qin" -- a stringed musical instrument, and "Qi" -- a strategic boardgame), and so it is not surprising to imagine calligraphy in a Classical Chinese garden.
Chinese Chess or Xiangqi, is a chess-like boardgame the mastery of which, as mentioned above, was considered one of the four necessary skills of the literati. It is enjoying a renewed surge of interest and has many followers; estimates of the total number of Xiangqi players around the world today run from a conservative 100 million to well over 500 million.
No one can say with certainty where the popular game of Mah Jongg first originated. Some insist that it was brought to life by Confucious in 500 BC. It is possible, its appearance in the various provinces seems to coincide with his travels. The three "Cardinal" tiles also coincide with the three Cardinal virtues taught by Confucius. Chung (middle) the Red, Fa (prosperity) the Green, Po (white) the white. Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial Piety. The game was introduced to the west in the early 1900s at English-speaking clubs in Shanghai, but by this time the game (Chinese for "Hemp Bird") had already been played for countless years in Chinese homes and gardens.
The Chinese garden was not a place apart from life, but a part of life. Perhaps the relationship of the individual Chinese with the garden is best illustrated by a short story entitled, "In a Chinese Garden" by John P. Rastello. Set in the time of the Chin Dynasty, it describes the daily activities of Tai-ya, an elderly man, as he moves about his garden.