A Step Towards a Greater Understanding of Local Garden History in China

Josepha Richard

The English-language field of history of gardens in China has grown in diversity since the end of the 1980s, with an increased understanding of the multiplicity of garden styles across space and time. The tone was set by key works such as the translation of the Yuanye (The craft of gardens) – the earliest treatise on gardens in China – by Alison Hardie in 1988; and the discussion of the passage from production to aesthetics in Ming gardens in Fruitful Sites by Craig Clunas in 1996. Shelly Bryant’s The Classical Gardens of Shanghai is a welcome addition to local garden history in China.

Bringing local history to the forefront of gardening history in China
As the title clearly states, the book is wholly dedicated to the history of local gardens of Shanghai, when the majority of regional studies usually focus on Beijing or Suzhou. Although Bryant does refer back to Suzhou gardens regularly to illustrate general garden history, most of the book is dedicated to flesh out the history and layout of five gardens located in Shanghai and surrounding Songjiang, Nanxiang and Jiading. The importance of local gardens in China has largely been ignored in publications outside Mandarin-language; whereas scholars writing in Mandarin have long started to explore the issue, notably in journals. English-language publications are mostly focused on examples located in two areas: Jiangnan (around the city of Suzhou) and Zhili (around Beijing). However it is a gross simplification to reduce the Chinese territory and cultural diversity to only two regional garden cultures. Even when the avowed topic is the general history of gardens in China, English-language content is often reduced to gardens located in capitals – such as Beijing or Chang’an – and in the cultural centre of Jiangnan.

As suggested by Clunas in the introduction of Fruitful Sites (Oxford: Reaktion Books, 1996), in order to allow for systematic and valid scholarship, garden history in China – and indeed in other countries – should be dedicated to a specific area and time. In Classical Gardens of Shanghai, the area of research is clearly reduced to five examples in and around the city of Shanghai; Bryant discusses the reasons behind this selection in the conclusion. Each chapter corresponds to a garden, and can be read separately. Each garden is put in its temporal and social context, its whole history briefly depicted from ancient origins to modern day. Although this does not follow Clunas’s recommendation, it should help dispel the frequent misconception that contemporary gardens in China look like they did at the time of their ancient foundation.

Making Chinese gardening tradition understandable to unfamiliar visitors
When used as a guidebook, the book enables the reader with no knowledge of Mandarin, or Classical Chinese, to appreciate any of the five gardens in a fuller manner than possible otherwise. Designed as a slim volume, it can be conveniently brought along for an actual visit of the gardens described. Gardens of China are best experienced when appreciating both their intricate layout, and the delicacy of the elegant literary metaphors displayed inside. This book helps any reader to overcome this obstacle by imparting some essential knowledge on Chinese gardening and providing a generous amount of translations. Bryant notably cites the unique Ming treaty on gardening written by Ji Cheng, the Yuanye or The Craft of Gardens as translated by Hardie. Each chapter, while providing insights unique to one specific garden, brings as well as some general tips as to how to appreciate Chinese aesthetics, that will stay relevant in other locations. Bryant makes a point of familiarising the reader to garden culture in China, which was ‘inseparable from the other arts, and was often used to host events centred around the arts’ (p. 123). The fact that gardens were often at the heart of political and social matters is reiterated throughout the book, sometimes through some poignant anecdotes (see the story of the Gong Clan garden which forms part of the Qiuxiapu, p.86).

The author has taken great care to use cardinal directions at regular intervals, in order to make the visit easy to follow. The inclusion of quotes by respected specialist Chen Congzhou provides a contemporary counterpoint to the ancient poetic inscriptions, and highlights the garden’s most compelling features. Bryant gives the signification of the most important symbols – such as flowers and animals – in order to ease the unfamiliar reader into a clearer insight as to the original intentions of the garden’s owner. The author also provides translations of poetry found across the gardens: Chinese characters are displayed before their English translations, so that those readers with Modern Mandarin skills might improve their understanding of the lines in Classical Chinese. The author’s translations are straightforward, probably so as to not overwhelm readers with complex analogies; after this first initiation, the reader will find more subtle translations in the included bibliography (for example Duncan Campbell’s translation of Zheng Yuanxun).

‘Chinese gardens’ versus ‘gardens of China’
The title suggests that only ‘classical gardens’ of Shanghai were considered for the research. The use of ‘classical’ as translation for gudian is a common issue in non-Mandarin publications as it unavoidably suggests an anachronistic association with the Western notion of ‘classical’: it might bring forth images of Ancient Greece or Rome – in China ‘classical’ is likely to refer to the Ming dynasty, but not always. Bryant defined ‘classical Chinese gardens’ in the introduction: it ‘generally refers to the gardens found in the Jiangnan region (…) with Suzhou serving as the long-established centre of the landscaping techniques found in this style of garden’ (p. 3). A critical reflection on the vagueness of the term would have brought home some key points in favour of local garden history.

As explained by Jerome Silbergeld in ‘Beyond Suzhou: Region and memory in the gardens of Sichuan’ (The Art Bulletin 86(2), 2004: 207-27), it is better to avoid discussing ‘the Chinese garden’ as if it was one coherent entity, and instead to explore the many regional traditions of gardens in China. Categorisation can prove to hinder advancement of knowledge in Chinese cultural history. Bryant notes that ‘the terms private, scholar’s, poet’s, southern, classical, Suzhou, Chinese, and Jiangnan are all used interchangeably to denote the gardens that grew up in the region’ of the Southern part of the Yangtze River Delta (p. 3). The author completes this classification with the addition of imperial, landscape and temple gardens: unfortunately this means that private or merchant gardens built outside of Jiangnan area are thus left out of the discussion. Although the term ‘classical’ is debatable, the contents of the book are likely to fulfil the purpose of local history: by making Shanghai residents and tourists alike aware that, even without going to Suzhou, noteworthy gardens are available in their immediate surroundings.

As the author concludes, one of the keys to grow understanding of ‘gardens in contemporary China depends on our ability to engage with their past’: with this volume in hand, a meaningful engagement with otherwise difficult to understand gardens is at once made easy and enjoyable.