There was a series by Monty Don a while ago called Around the World in 80 Gardens. The East Asian segment was naturally devoted to Chinese and Japanese gardens. It is pity Korea was missed out, as the gardens of Korea have a distinct and unusual ethos.
Koreans feel that nature has been good to them. Surrounded by sea on three of its sides, the Korean peninsula offers four distinct seasons, clear and clean water from the mountains, and favourable soil yielding both crops and medicinal herbs.
Believing in the intrinsic beauty and benevolence of nature, blending in with nature was seen as proper, and going against the laws of nature imprudent.
There are one or two peculiar features of Korean gardens which illustrate this philosophy. Fountains were never built, since it is natural for water to flow downwards. The stream lowers itself to become a river, and the river lowers itself even further until it cannot go any lower and reaches the sea. Instead, we find waterfalls.
Land was never made artificially flat, and buildings were designed crooked, broad or narrow depending on the existing topography. Deciduous trees were preferred over evergreens, as they were thought to represent the flow of the seasons, and also meant that the beauty of the garden changed as the year went on.
If you have been to Changdeok Palace and walked through its garden, known as the Secret Garden or Biwon, you could be forgiven for totally forgetting the experience, particularly if part of a busy schedule. I have a friend who visited the garden there on purpose, having read about it, and was disappointed to find nothing extraordinary.
Less than 1% of the 74 acre grounds of Changdeok garden is artificial or man-made. The UNESCO World Heritage report notes that the garden is exceptional for ‘blending harmoniously with the surrounding nature’.
Unlike the gardens of western palaces, where growth is cultivated along pathways in radial, circular or oblique lines, and therefore best appreciated from afar, the gardens of Changdeok were not intended only to be looked at. In its surroundings, the kings of the Choson dynasty would read books, take walks and compose poetry, sometimes in the companionship of courtiers, sometimes alone.
It is said that when we walk along the meandering paths, beneath hundred-year-old trees, noticing the small ponds, pavilions and waterfalls dotted between the hilltops and the woods, we can appreciate the true beauty of the garden. The garden is itself indistinguishable from the greater spectacle of nature, of which Koreans believed mankind is only a part.