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Chinese Gardens XI (Rhetoric & Features).                          




Gardens should be ‘much more natural, though man-made’ (after Ji Cheng in ‘Craftsmanship of Gardening’, 17th c, Ming Dynasty). A repetition of nature in the realm of the man-made… a reconjuring which will include all the tricks and modalities of meiosis (the art of making small, opposite to the hyperbole of the statue).


The issue of size (size matters). Hyperbole again for Imperial parklands (or rather enclosure): meiosis for the garden and city parks. The operation of a Meiotic Mimesis is balanced by a Hyperbolic Mimesis, parallel tropes for (religious and secular) aggrandisement (giant Buddhas and aristocrats painted at twice the size of mere mortals) and the evocation of paradise (in miniature) in the gardens of the East.


The large/small opposition in Chinese gardens maps neatly onto the Imperial/Private opposition, although not tidily onto that of North and South. Large gardens are parks, which often include gardens (more formal) alongside wild (if largely artificial) park land - even extending to that usable for hunting. An example of a Southern park may be found in the Seven Stars Park in Guilin, (some sort of park appears to have existed here since the Sui dynasty, 581-618 CE). Parks are (despite their appearance) ‘managed landscapes’ these may be usefully opposed to ‘constructed gardens’ where the detail is more important.


Mood. Spiritual. To be aided by relics and objects. Also by reconstructions in, or into, ideal form. Nature’s (matter’s) impurities are to be lost in the process of approximation to the perfect… the otherworldly form. We are offered a compression of the best associations of certain landscape features. The equivalent of our Western notion of genius loci- the sense of space become place, in certain configurations of mountains, lakes, and the clearings that permit the views over such, also forest openings, and rivers – the sense of a ‘room’ within Nature, and of the possessor of that ‘room’ as a personification of its effect (its affects), even an anthropomorphism. But constructed rather than found.


Origins. Hunting. And ‘approaching the spirits’. If the former straightforwardly indicates the aristocratic imperial origin of parks, then so does the latter, through perhaps less obviously. Owing to the central importance of the rituals carried out by the emperor, which would be carried out in specially put aside parkland, often on specially built platforms which also allowed one to survey ones possessions. If the world of the park was the world in miniature, the very image of the fiefdom, the part/whole relation that subsumes the nation, then this was a mark of possession – the ‘view’ as self-extension (with ones possessions on view). Such platforms were to have reached mythic proportions in the orginary (mythic) period of Chinese history; however an echo of these structures may have survived into the Qing period in the sacrifical (sic) platforms that surrounded old Beijing (and which were knocked down, along with the city walls outside of which they stood, only later last century).


‘Three mountains in a pond’. Meiosis (the rhetoric of size again). As a re-creation and condensation of desired elements; quotations from a landscape, repetitions of certain landscape features, repeating and representing the state and country and nation. Repeating the the display of the State’s possessions, in miniature, by means of miniaturisation (meiosis) as a representation/presentation, as quoting/citing, as re-siting (a re-siting of parts of landscape). So reciting, as with a string of prayer beads, as if a litany, as canonical, the glories of the State


Idyllic/pastoral. The tradition of landscape and its representation as spiritual (in content and effect) as a source of spiritual sustenance. Landscape as escape. The ideal landscape as an implicit criticism of urban or worldly life. The Buddhist and Daoist expectations of landscape involve the presence of a larger degree of spiritual value when compared to the Western fantasy of pastorality (of simplicity, honesty, authenticity) as conceived in opposition to the sins of the urban, to the sins of the city. Build your own mountain (mimetic meiosis again), then sit and watch… (Similar values may be found in the contemplation of much landscape art, a yet smaller, more portable version of its real or imaginary referents, in so many ways like an icon, or mandala, a mini altar converting the gaze into ritual).


Hunting and Merry-making. (Comparative). Not too dissimilar then to the Roman (Classical and Baroque) parks as forms of ‘pleasure garden’. Comparable in this sense also the later English and French parks of the aristocracy with their surrounding parks made up of pasture and hunting land, which may be opposed to the tamed, formal layout of the gardens directly behind or cleaving to the dwelling place.


Small-scale gardens and the arts. (Size again). Official, ‘scholar’, or intelligensia gardens as the development of the desire for sanctuary, of a life away from court life with its factional struggles. An escape from the dangerous distractions of power and war (reputedly these gardens were said to have originated in 200-500 CE). Whence the clear visual link to the development of poetry, art and calligraphy. The garden as a form of ‘scholar art’. The Tang intelligentsia wished to be seen as devotees of a culture as once simple and elegant, in contrast to the showy wealth of the emperor, his court and his high officials.


Choice. The best imaginable; because most sacred, most symbolic, most similar to, most evocative of, the ideal… A concentration of scenery, chosen from Nature for its intensity and symbol-bearing beauty. Yet really chosen from a repertoire set in the imagination (and in previous history of these places as a genre). Nature improved at the behest of the ideal. Conjured by… Miniaturisation. Meiosis. The ‘world in a teapot’ model. Further developed under the Song Dynasty. The birth of a new kind of concentrated space.


‘The view-finding gate.’ Instrument of optics. Aesthetic optics; an optics of the spiritual. How to see, learning to see; this is the role of framed space, the key to the placing of gates and apertures. Framed space, we quickly learn, is more focused, more intense, more symbolic, gaining for itself a higher value than unframed space – source of a private mood of sacrality. A tool for seeing place (in a place already constructed out of space, the garden itself).


Other senses. Sound. Of water, in enclosed spaces, or of rain, falling upon leaves. Of plants chosen for the production of this sound. Of the sense of smell. Pavilions found next to flowerbeds so as to collect their scent. A certain times of year the ‘Perfumed Pavilion’ is no longer a proper name or noun, nor an expression of subjunctive hope, nor even only a citation from literary or architectural history, but an apt description.


‘Watching in Motion and Observing Fixedly’. Again we are faced with the contrast of large and small spaces. Compactness invites detail and time to consume it, intensity requiring time of apprehension. On the other hand, a longer, larger space, with routes that can be veritable journeys through its unfolding expansiveness, requires perpetual movement. Most particularly in a world with no straight lines (in a European garden there would be long views, exploitations of quadrated perspective, an almost quantitative summary of the size of the space, the open consumption of its entirety, its long avenues and open spaces…). The eternal winding (or its climbing alternative, the zigzag path) that constitutes the sight-lines and the relation of eye and body to space in the Chinese garden is conducive to sudden surprises, to the appearance of prepared viewpoints, to a rapid succession of tableau or a slow unveiling by a succession of cumulative stages. The scene meets process. The ritual moment meets ritual as motion, as narrative, as climax (the climax of a particularly well-prepared view).


And ruins. In the ruins of a destroyed marble boat in the remains of the Garden of Perfect Splendour in Beijing, what meanings can be found? Do we have an echo here of the Western ruin with its (barely concealed) religious glee at the fall of civilisations? For the Chinese viewer the first thought is more likely to be concerned with recent history, the destruction wrought by various Imperialisms in the course of the last two centuries, a non-sublime memento mori perhaps only later to co-ordinated with a more general association, the presence of the Sublime as Entropy. The force of the Sublime as a reminder of the fragility of civilisations and dynasties. (And so of last things, of religions and their solutions – otherwise the brute action of History is the lesson left as kind of secular sublime – a reminder itself of the arrival of the post-religious transcendentals of reason, ideology and science).





                                                                                    Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk