SKETCHING A PATH TOWARDS LOOKING / NON LOOKING IN CHINESE GARDENS
“Painting must be sought for beyond the shapes”, declared Chang Yen-yuan (1)
“There are, however, well-intentioned people who, afraid that visitors might not understand what is presented before them, place large man-made fish in ponds or clay pandas in front of a Panda Hall like large advertisements.” Chen Congzhou 1984 (2)
The briefest of essays this one but nevertheless a chance to sketch some recurrent thoughts around the curiousimportance of the non-visualin the private gardens of the southern literati. This idea of the ‘sketch’ as something hazy and indistinct is in itself celebrated and elevated by the classical literati. What I want to give you here then is a fragment of a larger vision. Whether or not this vision matches reality is, like Wen Zhengming’s inspirational Elevation for Remote Thoughts, where we see his patron on a precipice looking out over a vast lake and mountains that could not possibly exist within Zhouzheng Yuan, beside the point. Or possibly it is exactly the point.
The aesthetic qualities and devices of the gardens are well established, the careful integration of architecture, stone, water, and plantings with an endless succession of interlinking views operating as something like the unwinding of a landscape scroll, or ‘a painting to walk through’. Of these views, the act of ‘borrowing views’, often through a careful (re)framing of landscapes beyond the confinements of the garden walls is accorded a special place. Yet as Australian writer Stanislaus Fung has suggested of Ji Cheng’s classic garden text: “Yuan Ye asks designers to take on reinterpretation as the process of creation. It offers not a method of borrowing views, but a way of designing a process of thinking ….. The implied contract with the readers is that they too will metaphorically extend it to other situations.” (3) As a visual artist such processes of thinking fascinate me.
“…deep hollows, eyeholes, twists, and strange grooves.” Ji Cheng, 1635 (4)
In the particular contemplation of rocks much attention is rightly given to their aesthetic appeal, even when or especially when of a grotesque fantastical nature. But in their compiling into mountains, free standing or stacked against a wall, they also help demonstrate the notion of touring and a kind of active looking (guan) over the passive picture (tu). To make an imitation mountain was to make it real, with definitions of artificial and natural in the Ming proving fluid. (5) Further installed as formations in garden space, the stones can be thought of as large, complex, three-dimensional sculptural compositions. (6) These compositions however, as with the idea of sculpture in the round require a moving, perceiving viewer. They take on a performative role encouraging a particular physicality over passive acts of viewing.
Even in the case of an individual free-standing scholar stone the thinking is that in their natural crevices, their balance of tou, shouand lou the audience is being invited into a state of touring this space as a ‘real’ experience. This may be aligned with Zong Bing (375-443) who wrote that a landscape painting could offer a spirit journey equivalent to hiking, with a three-inch vertical stroke equaling thousands of feet. (7) In the scholar stone we also see appeals to a magic space with their holes frequently thought of as portals to the immortals or the Shangri-La of Tao Yuanming’s Peach Blossom Spring.These eyeholes then are conceptually framing a way of thinking another space as much as framing of a view. For some this thinking might also embrace an existence beyond socio-political realities of the times. The saying goes:
“Confucianism is the doctrine of the scholar when in office and Daoism the attitude of the scholar when out of office.” (8)
Furthermore, listings of early scholar-hermit practices associated with the garden culture point to a mix of creative solitude and socializing with activities like meditation, philosophizing, composing and reading poetry, painting, and playing the zither, along with drinking wine, fishing, and making pills for immortality. (9) The gardens were also places of late night trysts, of festivals, public engagement and even growth of cash crops. If these are aesthetic sites they are clearly also ones capable of multiple economies including that of a resistance to established hierarchies. By the time of the Ming even the favoured aesthetic standard was one beyond usual viewing norms with a strong turn in the literati towards the idea of zhuo or a kind of humble even amateur approach to the arts set up as the antithesis of the professional court artist (and one supposes the life going with it). There is a signaling of a desire for authenticity escaping established viewing norms that fits best with Taoist practices.
“The painter was in a former life the judge of horses Chiu Fang-kao, thus he also understands painting.”
Wu Chen, 14thcentury (10)
Although the gardens are intrinsically linked to painting, even as the most visual of mediums painting still relies on a multitude of orders. For one, in rejecting singular optical perspective, much Chinese painting tends to time as well as space in asking the viewer to move from motif to motif, rather than reading from a single fixed viewpoint. (11) Instead of lines, planes and solids, plus time as straight lineal duration, comes the classical Chinese idea of boundless transformation or wu hua(12).This aspect of space and time in turn is paramount in the garden experience as the viewer meanders through continually changing scales, multiple viewpoints, intervals between these views, and constructive use of memory in appreciating traditional scenes and poetic allusions. (13) Thanks to notions of the Void in both Taoism and Ch’an, the perceived emptiness of the interval, of a room, a courtyard or an object in itself can be read as signifying infinite potential. (14)
“The sounds of pine trees, of brooks, of mountain beasts, of nocturnal insects, of cranes, of lutes, of chess pieces falling, of rain dripping on steps, of snow splashing on windows and tea boiling are all sounds of the utmost purity. But the sound of someone reading is supreme. “ (17thCentury, 15)
Sound, along with colours and fragrances could be borrowed (like the views) from a larger environment beyond the garden (16). Closer at hand, acoustic effects of plants were also used, so a designer might work with rain dripping on the leaves of banana trees or lotus flowers, or the wind through pines. (17) This is frequently reflected in the names of sites within gardens such as Liu Yuan’s Refreshing Breeze Pavilion’, or Zhuozheng Yuan’s ‘Listening to the Rain Pavilion’.
Specific varieties of rocks when struck make differing sounds and were catalogued by Ji Cheng. Rocks from Lingbi when struck “make a ringing, bell-like sound.” From the Great Lake: “When tapped the rocks give out a faint sound.” Ji Cheng (18)
The sensory input of sound might even be considered so essential as to be built into architecture:
To the south of the Daohe House is the Music Chamber in the shape of a half pavilion…the brick is hollowed out, imitating a seven-stringed zither laid on a brick. If one knocks it, the brick will give out pleasant sounds. Yuan & Gong 2004 (19)
Also within Zhuozheng Yuan,‘The Hall of Distant Fragrance’ actively incorporates the scent of blossoms from the Lotus pond it sits beside (20). Walkway mosaics, rather than being purely decorative, use texture and the accompanying ‘sense of touch’ underfoot as well as pattern to move the visitor beyond the purely visual into an animated participant. These mosaics as such have an active role in defining different spaces, providing changes in rhythm and mood (21).Similarly these paths zig-zag or meander and unwind like a scroll. In both cases the effect is in an expansion of space, and increase in the duration of experience alongside simple viewing.
“Washed clear of mist and rain, the moonlight falls on the book-lined study walls.”Ji Cheng (22)
If the gardens are physically and conceptually linked to painting they are regularly also described as “embodied poems”. (23) On a direct level this can appear through the use of poetic couplets or in the naming of a ting or a whole garden. On another level Wai-Lim Yip describes the open syntax of Chinese poetry as encouraging its reader to perceive it from a mobile point of view (24) and this thinking may also feed into the way the gardens have been designed by their painter poet masters. This mobile point of view is structural (zig-zag pathways, layered views etc) as well as literary and allegorical.
The use of naming is a key conceptual element in the Chinese garden. (25) It is given many roles moving between social, historical, and literary allusions, which as well as a kind of intellectual game playing, allows the owner/artist to express individual taste while reaffirming community through shared knowledge. (26). At the same time the ambiguities of naming allow for the audience to bring their own interpretative stance. A name such as Master of the Nets (Wangshi Yuan) might express the owner’s desire to enjoy the simple life of a fisherman, while publically signaling a retirement from the dangerous world of political office for that owner. On yet another level it illustrates what has been described as gardens “extending indefinitely in a literary sense”. (27) Others have proposed that naming might even provide “…a means of effecting – not merely representing – social and political change.” (28) This is, after all, a game that everyone can play.
Finally a garden might not need to exist at all. Liu Shilong’s imaginary garden The Garden That Isn’t Really Here (circa early 17th C.) was considered by its owner the superior garden as it would remain untouched by time (29) – And one supposes ungrateful children or new masters. This is a garden we literally read and construct in the mind.
“If I constructed such a garden in reality, its arrangement would be restricted. Constructed in the imagination, however, there are no limitations on its structure. This is what makes my garden superior.”
Liu Shilong (30)
Following this most cursory sketch it is not my intent to relegate one form of communication or one story over another. In highlighting the non-visual I leave behind for a moment visual qualities we all know exist. I am sure the reader is adept at considering such thoughts concurrently rather than in opposition. There is usually more than one narrative journey. With art especially so.Ironically it is through embracing these non-scopic aspects that the aesthetic frame expands exponentially just like the Wen Zhengming painting that so intrigues me. Vision is a complex beast.
The point here is that the garden was never just one thing, one economy of being. If today we have a tendency to aestheticizing the garden experience into a site of antiquities I think it is important to remember how its aesthetics were always in tandem with many other ways of thinking and therefore ‘being’ in the world. [(31) Of these I consider the most essential one is of that of a participatory viewer. As opposed to the more static orientation of the axial gardens of Northern tradition or classical European gardens (or indeed the single perspective of much European painting that posits an external viewer) Chinese gardens are configured to garner the viewer as active participant inside the work. Arguably it is only in this moment of participation, where space and movement create time, that the garden truly exists.
In the literati garden there is a call upon the visitor’s totality of perception via a multitude of devices. This includes a self-awareness moving in space and time, attention to seasonal and diurnal change entwined with an intellectual game play of historical and poetic references with all their attendant socio-political conversations (then and now). The call upon a thinking viewer is not just some elite game play but a thoughtful demonstration of ‘community’ and active call for participation by the visitor in the full democratic experience of these alternative world spaces. In this the gardens, rather than presenting a closed aesthetic and historicized space, might be read as a well-tuned conceptual machine for our contemporary present – where mere spectators are replaced by empowered, constructive participants. In such ways we all become artists.
For now these remain foggy notions or remote thoughts. Further explication will have to wait for another time. And space..
Shanghai, October 2018
Dr Craig Easton is a visual artist, writer and educator. He holds a PhD from the VCA, University of Melbourne (2014), A Strange Arrangement: Constructing Contemporary Reductive Abstract Painting Through The Ancient Chinese Garden.
Note:sections of the present paper directly source: Craig Easton, “A Strange Arrangement: Constructing Contemporary Reductive Abstract Painting Through The Ancient Chinese Garden” (PhD diss., VCA University of Melbourne, 2014). See the University of Melbourne digital repository at http://hdl.handle.net/11343/42162.See also Craig Easton, “Art & Chinese Gardens & Design & Abstract Painting &” in Peter Stupples and Jane Venis, Art and Design: History, Theory, Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017)
Illustration: Wen Zhengming, Elevation for Remote Thoughts1533.
In Kerby, Kate, 1922. An Old Chinese Garden: A Three-fold Masterpiece of Poetry, Calligraphy and Painting by Wen Chen Ming.Chung Hwa Book Company, Shanghai
1. Chang Yen Yuan cited in Siren, Oswald. The Chinese on the Art of Painting; Texts by the Painter-Critics, from the Han through the Ch’ing Dynasties.(New York: Dover 2005, orig.1936) 29.
2. Chen Congzhou. On Chinese Gardens(Shanghai: Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company, 2008, orig. Tongji University Press 1984), 26.
3. Fung, Stanislaus. “Self, scene and action: the final chapter of Yuan ye.” 133-34. In Landscapes of Memory and Experience, edited by Jan Birksted, (London: Spon Press, 2000) 129-136.
4. Ji Cheng cited in The Craft of Gardens, (Trans. Alison Hardie. New York: Better Link Press, 2012 (orig. 1635) 112-113.
5. Stuart Jan, “A Scholar’s Garden in Ming China: Dream and Reality,” Asian Art 3: 4, (1990) 39.
6. Johnston Stewart R. Scholar Gardens of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991) 79.
7. Stuart 1990, 38-39.
8. Cited in Johnston 1991, 45.
9. Wang, Joseph, Cho. The Chinese Garden.(Oxford and New York: Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1998) 19.
10. Wu Chen cited in Siren 2005, 111.
11. Johnston 1991, 51.
12. Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. 1998. “The cosmological setting of Chinese gardens.”
180-181 In Fung, Stanislaus & John Makeham, guest eds. 1998. Chinese Gardens, special issue of Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 18 (3) July-September. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks) 175-186.
13. Ibid 182.
14. Hu Dongchu, The Way of the Virtuous: the Influence of Art and Philosophy on Chinese Garden Design (Beijing: New World Press 1991) 15.
15. 17thcentury. Cited in Fung, Stanislaus. 1996. “Gardens of South East Asia.” CHINA. In Turner, Jane, ed. The Dictionary of Art. (London: Macmillan Publishers, vol 12) 85 – 93.
16. Wang 1998, 32.
17. Fang, Xiaofeng. The Great Gardens of China: history, concepts, techniques (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2010) 116
18. Ji, 113-115
19. Yuan, Xuehan & Gong Jiianyi. The Classical Gardens of Suzhou (Shanghai: Book Wind, 2004) 89.
20. Fung 1996, 92.
21. Keswick 2003, 160
22. Ji Cheng 1635, 47
23. Yang, Hongxun. The Classical Gardens of China: History & Design Techniques,trans. Hui Min. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982). 9.
24. Yip, Way-Lim, ed. & trans., Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres(Durham: Duke University Press, 1997). 13.
25. Makeham, John. “The Confucian role of names in traditional Chinese gardens.” 192. In Fung, Stanislaus & John Makeham, guest eds. 1998. Chinese Gardens, special issue of Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 18 (3) July-September. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks 1998) 187-210.
26. Ibid 204.
27. Keswick, Maggie.The Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture.ed. Alison Hardie. (London: Frances Lincoln,3rdrevised edn. 2003) 24.
28. Beattie, James, ed. Lan Yuan: The Garden of Enlightenment. (Dunedin: Dunedin Chinese Gardens Trust, 2008) 39.
29. Stuart, Jan, 1990(a). “Ming dynasty gardens reconstructed in words and images.” 164. Journal of Garden History 10 (3): 162-172.
30. Cited in Makeham 1998, 203.
31. Here I would direct the reader to two essential readings by Craig Clunas: Fruitful Sites, Garden Culture in Ming DynastyChina (Durham: Duke University Press 1996) and Pictures and Visuality in early Modern China, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1997).
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