I translated this brief history of gardens in China from the reference book:
Peng,Y. 彭一刚 (2008). Zhongguo gudian yuanlin fenxi 中国古典园林分析 (Analysis of the classical Chinese garden). 25th Ed. Beijing: China Architecture & Building press.
Yuyinshanfang 余荫山房, suburbs of Guangzhou. Part of the Four Famous Gardens of Lingnan. Copyright © 2013 J.Richard. All rights reserved.
At the beginning of the Ming dynasty1, the capital was located in Nanjing. Then the capital shifted to Beijing, on the base of the previous Dadu. The Yuan dynasty's Taijichi (太液池) underwent transformations, the garden being enlarged to the south, and three lakes added : the northern lake Beihai (北海), the middle lake Zhonghai (中海) and southern lake Nanhai (南海). All these are then part of the wide imperial park named Xiyuan (西苑).
Around the middle of the Ming dynasty, agriculture and crafts made outstanding progress, in parallel it also marked one of the greatest development in garden-making. At this time, the important garden centres were the surroundings of Beijing, Nanjing and Suzhou cities. Officials and nobles built their private gardens in the capital, Beijing. The gardens were usually scattered around water ponds, or dispersed around the south-east area near the lake and the river. The suburbs of Beijing also featured numerous gardens such as the Shaoyuan2 (勺园), the Liyuan (李园) also called Qinghuayuan (清华园) and the Liangyuan (梁园), etc.
In Nanjing, the secondary capital, there were also many private gardens. But it was especially in the Suzhou area that the private gardens were flourishing, because its thriving economy attracted many bureaucrats. A number of these gardens still exist to this day, among which we can cite the Zhuozhengyuan (拙政园), the Liuyuan (留园), the Yipu (艺圃), etc. Beside Suzhou itself, the whole surrounding region was crowded with gardens. This popularity also reached the city of Yangzhou, where scholars and painters gathered inside the growing amount of parks. The abundance and richness of garden-making during the Ming dynasty found its expression in the person of Ji Cheng, an educated painter who created gardens, and wrote the first treaty about garden making: the Yuanye3 (园冶).
After the fall of the Ming, during the Qing dynasty4 the popularity of garden-making was maintained, particularly under the reigns of the emperors Kangxi (康熙, ruled from 1661 to 1722) and Qianlong (乾隆, ruled from 1735 to 1796). The number of imperial gardens in Beijing during the Qing dynasty exceeded ten. Inside the city, the Ming dynasty's Xiyuan was repaired, enlarged and perfected, thanks to the construction of many buildings. To the north-west of the city were successively built the Jingyiyuan5 (静宜园), the Yuanmingyuan (圆明园), the Jichunyuan6 (畅春园) and Qingyiyuan7 (清漪园) etc., with a total of five imperial gardens. Moreover, in Chengde an imperial garden was also built for the summer use: the Mountain resort (避暑山庄). The gardens of Qing dynasty were superior to those of the Ming Dynasty in terms of number and size, marking the most flourishing period for garden-making in Chinese history.
Under the reign of the emperor Qianlong, Chinese economy was flourishing and the country was politically strong. The emperor undertook six inspections tours to Jiangnan. Qianlong had a strong interest for garden-making, in addition of being a very cultured person. During his inspection tours, he selected his favourite sceneries inside Jiangnan private gardens and then used any possible means to imitate these concepts in his own imperial gardens in the capital. Therefore, we can say that the Imperial gardens absorbed part of the Jiangnan private gardens concepts. As a consequence, one characteristic aspect of the Qing gardening style is to accumulate imitations of famous garden's sceneries, and then group these together in a new garden. For example, in the imperial Mountain Resort in Chengde, the emperor Kangxi ordered the construction of thirty-six sceneries, and Qianlong also created his own thirty-six sceneries. The Yuanmingyuan featured Qianlong's famous forty sceneries. Every single one of these had its own meaning and symbolic, probably inherited from the eighteen sceneries of the West Lake in Hangzhou. Inside the sceneries, the buildings themselves could be imitations of Jiangnan gardens' constructions. For example, many parts of the Mountain resort of Chengde are imitations of Jiangnan region's buildings. The Jinshan ting (金山亭)copied the Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang (镇江). The Yanyu lou (烟雨楼) was inspired by the Yanyu lou in Jiaxing (嘉兴). Following the same pattern, the Shizilin (狮子林) in the Wenyuan8 (文园) imitated the Shizilin in Suzhou. Finally the Wenjin ge9 (文津阁) was an imitation of the Tianyi ge10 (天一阁) in Zhejiang (浙江).
Apart from Beijing, during the Ming and Qing dynasties gardens were principally built in Yangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxing, Hangzhou, etc. as well as in the delta of the Pearl River11. In Beijing were mostly the gardens of the emperor's family and those possessed by nobles and high officials. Other officials, scholars and wealthy merchants mainly built their gardens in the Jiangnan and Lingnan12 (岭南) regions. While visiting Yangzhou, it is said that Qianlong saw that both banks of the Narrow West Lake (瘦西湖) were covered with gardens built by officials. Yangzhou gardens' where mainly characterised by exquisite artificial mountains. Thus the city became famous for those, and a proverb was even created [to underline this special feature]: ''Yangzhou is known for its magnificent gardens, the gardens are known for their gorgeous mountains and rocks'' (扬州以园亭胜，园亭以叠石胜). In Suzhou as well, the number of gardens was impressive: according to a statistic from the liberation, in the city alone remained at least one hundred of these. But the gardens still existing today have been modified many times and can only be considered to date from the late Qing Dynasty.
In the region of the Pearl River's delta, which is called Lingnan, the weather is moist and the soil fertile. Hence, garden-making had to be adapted to this natural condition: this makes for excellent garden-making environment. This region was added to the Chinese territory during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. At this period Lingnan was already an area with flourishing garden-making activity. As Guangzhou's port was opened to the foreigners' trade, by the Ming and Qing dynasty, the Guangdong province developed, and so did the garden-making trend. As a result of the foreigners influence, the Lingnan garden style acquired very specific characteristics.
1. Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644).
2. A garden created by Mi Fangzhong 米方种during the Ming dynasty, nowadays part of the campus of Beijing University.
3. The Yuanye (Craft of gardens) was written in 1634 by Ji Cheng 计成.
4. Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911).
5. The Jingyiyuan was built on a previous garden site, in 1745 under the reign of Qianlong. It is located in the Fragrant Hills to the north-west of Beijing.
6. The Jichunyuan is located to the south of the Yuanmingyuan. It was started in 1684 under the reign of Kangxi, and was later on modified and added to the wide imperial park created by Qianlong, including the Yuanmingyuan.
7. The construction of the Qingyiyuan started in 1750 under the reign of Qianlong. It was situated to the west of the Yuanmingyuan.
8. The Wenyuan is a part of the imperial Mountain resort in Chengde, built in 1747 on the model of the Suzhou garden.
9. Constructed in 1774, also part of the imperial garden in Chengde.
10. A famous Ming dynasty built library in Ningbo, with adjacent gardens.
11. Around the city of Guangzhou.
12. Lingnan 岭南 literally means ''To the south of the mountains'': represents mainly the actual Guangdong province.