The Chinese Garden of Friendship

Unique city stories

Step inside this unique cultural landscape inspired by the historical philosophies and design principles of a ‘learned stroll garden’ from China, rich in symbolic and ritual associations.

A living collection, incorporating many traditional elements of design, including landscape, built elements, views, and more philosophical elements of design, such as Feng Shui, Yin-Yang and the Five Elements the garden is an oasis in the heart of Sydney where nature can refresh the spirit and mind. 

About the Gardens

The CGOF are located in Darling Harbour, known as Tumbalong to the Eora people. For thousands of years, Aboriginal people managed land and water using ancient and dynamic adaptive systems―the harbour was a place of food, ritual, movement and observation. Colonisation saw dramatic impacts on Aboriginal lifeways as food sources and other traditional resources were harvested, exploited and depleted swiftly by the newcomers. Aboriginal people remained resilient and strong, while continuing to pass on knowledge and culture enriching our history and cultural lives today.

Shipping and international trade routes characterised Darling Harbour for much of the twentieth century, until the decline of the working harbour.

The CGOF was constructed as part of the redevelopment of the former railway good yards into the Darling Harbour precinct during the mid-1980s.

Initiated by the Chinese community of Sydney, the CGOF was built as a symbol of the enduring friendship between Sydney and the city of Guangzhou in the province of Guangdong. It is one of only a few public Chinese gardens outside mainland China. The CGOF was designed by the Guangdong Landscape Bureau in Guangzhou in China, and incorporates items manufactured in or salvaged from China, as well as elements sourced and crafted in NSW.

The CGOF were formally opened as part of Australia’s Bicentennial Celebrations on 17 January 1988, and listed on the NSW State Heritage Register 30 years later in 2018.

The NSW Government, through Place Management NSW, manages the Darling Harbour precinct, with a dedicated team of staff and gardeners for the CGOF.

A designed landscape

The CGOF is a traditionally designed Southern Chinese ling nam style cultural landscape enclosed by a wave topped masonry wall, situated in the southern extent of Darling Harbour.

The garden is an intimate space of about one hectare. The carefully designed topography is gently undulating and reveals itself to the visitor gradually as you journey through the space. The created landscape inspires unity with nature and a sense of awe in the beauty and composition of nature. Carefully composed views and vistas embrace the mind and eye. Expressed through scenes layered of plants, symbolic rocks, arranged around a large central lake and smaller water bodies, that are further defined with a variety of traditionally designed timber pavilions and covered walkways.

Bridge over pond with greenery.
Zig zag bridge over the Lake of Brightness. Photo courtesy GML Heritage

The ling-nam garden forms:

  • are derived from Guangzhou, which has a long history of international trade in which external influences arrived via the Silk Road and from over the seas. These influences express themselves as an open-mindedness, tolerance and practical application in garden design. The preparedness to borrow from other styles is evident.
  • show the strictness of the northern and southern/central styles giving way to a more relaxed and adaptable style in the ling-nam garden. It is a mix of all styles, but its defining feature is the use of controlled and contrived natural forms. The play of water, mountain, rocks and plants reflect the rugged landscape of southern China and reflects a sense of wilderness but always in a controlled arrangement.
  • utilise the subtropical climate, encouraging the notion of the outdoor and indoor relationship through which the garden pavilions are open to the environment and entice free movement between pavilion and garden.

Chinese gardens are traditionally places where private contemplation promotes a sense of tranquillity, reinforcing the belief that harmony with nature promotes good health and long life.

The key traditional Chinese philosophies that underpin Chinese garden design and are present in the CGOF include:

  • Confucius and Daoist philosophies, which underpin the traditional and classical Chinese garden design. The core principle is that of the idealised family unit living within a garden that in itself is an extraction, a miniaturised and artistic expression of nature in its many forms. The garden is fundamentally an arrangement of pavilions, as rooms in a house, set amongst a play of water, rock and plants and scenically articulated with such iconic devices as serpentine walkways, zig-zag bridges, and moon gates; and embellished with poetry and artworks to reflect the values of the garden maker. There is a respect and acknowledgement of the master of these gardens being a learned person of the fine arts, philosophy, music, painting and with a passion for horticulture. These gardens reflect such values, blended with high creativity and artistic merit. The philosophies that underpin the design of the classical Chinese garden have been remarkably consistent for the last 2500 years. The magic is that each classical garden utilises a similar palette of materials and design principles to create a uniquely individualistic interpretation of a common philosophy.
  • Feng Shui, which is the traditional Chinese belief that wind and water are the source of all life energy. Feng shui analyses the flow energies, the importance of specific components, their connections with the outside world and how they combine and can influence a person’s life. These considerations can be reflected in the site planning and garden design, as follows:
    • Gardens designed according to the philosophies and principles of Feng Shui seek to encourage Qi (the wind will disperse the Qi and the water will contain it) to flow into and throughout the garden and thus bring positive energy into their life, as well as shielding the garden from negative Qi, known as Sha Qi (the straight flying arrows of evil influences).
    • The main goal in Feng Shui gardening is to raise the level of Qi in the garden and make sure that this energy moves smoothly and freely through the spaces. This also involves removing barriers to Qiusing Feng Shui fixes (called cures) to raise the Qi in areas where it may get trapped and stagnate, and slowing down or calming Qi that moves too quickly through a garden.
  • Yin-Yang, which is the idea that Qi has a passive and an active side. Yin-yang is based on a concept of the universe as containing complementary opposites –qualities that seem to contrast each other but that actually work together. For example, soft and hard or light and dark are qualities that complement each other.
  • Five elements that make up everything in the world: Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire. All these elements must be present and in balance in a Feng Shui garden. The elements work together to create a harmonious, welcoming space. How the elements work together is called the ‘Nourishing Cycle of the Five Elements’. Caution must be used when positioning and combining elements because the elements can sometimes cancel each other out. This aspect is called the controlling cycle of the elements. For example, too much Water element can ‘put out’ the Fire element, which leads to unbalance in the garden.
Looking out from pavilion to decorated wall across water.
View from the Tea House Terrace to the Dragon Wall. Photo courtesy GML Heritage

Views in Nature  

There are important views within, around, to and from the CGOF. At ground level, the Garden is a significant element in the streetscapes of Harbour and Pier Streets along the Tumbalong Boulevard, from within Tumbalong Park and from the pedestrian bridge and entry to Darling Harbour from Liverpool Street.

Recent urban development within the surrounding precinct form a new visual setting for the Garden. Tall buildings now define skyline views from within the Garden.  Such development in the urban context is  probably to be expected,  yet once in the garden the visitor’s attention is generally captivated by the aesthetic and sensory appeal of the Garden itself.  While you are there, why not take a seat and contemplate the ‘painterly’ forms, textures and patterns in nature. 

Circular gate in centre of garden.
View from The Cloud Wall to the Twin Pavilion and The Gurr. Photo courtesy GML Heritage
Looking across pond to garden and city skyline.
View from lakeside to The Gurr. Photo courtesy GML Heritage

Management of the Garden

The NSW Government through Place Management NSW (PMNSW) owns and manages the Chinese Garden of Friendship - one of Sydney’s heritage and cultural precincts at The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

The Chinese Garden of Friendship Advisory Committee, formed in 2017 provides independent advice on the long-term planning and strategic management of the Garden, and helps to inform a 10-year plan for the site. 

An extensive Conservation Management Plan (CMP) has been developed to ensure both the physical properties and significant cultural heritage values of the CGOF.

The garden has been meticulously designed, and is a finely composed formal expression of nature that inspires contemplation and wonder.

The Garden is open for public visitation daily between 10am and 5pm. 

Chinese Garden of Friendship 

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Content supplied by GML Heritage

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