Beyond Suzhou: Region and Memory in the Gardens of Sichuan

Article excerpt

The title of Maggie Keswick's book The Chinese Garden, which has served as American readers' most popular introduction to this topic since 1978, provides both a label and a limit for the study of Chinese gardens.1 Put in the singular, it suggests an isolated species so self-contained, so coherent and distinct from other varieties, that little or no internal differentiation need be discerned by the armchair audience.2 The title of Osvald Siren's earlier classic on the subject (1949), which Keswick's book supplanted, suggested otherwise: Gardens of China. Yet Siren's first chapter, entitled "The Chinese Garden-A Work of Art in Forms of Nature," brings us right back to the point, as does the very first sentence of his text, which begins, "The Chinese garden, considered as especial type of landscape gardening. . . ."3 To give them their due, these books and various others of their class do differentiate, and they recognize not just one type of garden but two: imperial gardens and scholars' gardens. This duality is based not so much on historical evolution or geographic diversity as it is on royal versus private patronage and the predictable differential in physical scale and degree of visual grandeur-in other words, a sumptuary distinction.4 Only coincidentally do two different regions tend to provide the essential examples of these two different types: in the north, capital sites along the Wei and Yellow River valleys, Xi'an and Luoyang, originally offered up the grand imperial style, now hard to reconstruct, while Beijing and the Manchu summer palaces at Chengde today supply the only actual surviving examples; in the south, the Yangzi River delta towns give us the smaller, more austere private gardens, ranging from Yangzhou to Hangzhou, with Suzhou at their center. Siren wrote in his preface, "The present work is not the result of any systematic preliminary studies, it has not been prompted by the ambition of scientific research, but is simply a resume of memories I have preserved from former years of wandering abroad, of impressions I received in the course of rambles in Peking parks and the gardens of Suzhou."5 Later writers have been scarcely less circumscribed in their wanderings, and this includes Chinese writers as well. As demonstrated by the map from Peng Yigang's excellent Zhongguo gudian yuanlin fensi [Analysis of the traditional Chinese garden] (Fig. 1), the author has made his way south to a few of the gardens in the Guangzhou area, but vast areas of China remain unexplored by him and by others.6

There's a hole where Sichuan ought to be in this map of our architectural knowledge, so it is a map of our present ignorance as well. It is also a reminder of the historical isolation of this huge province: traditionally, larger in area and population than any European country, it is walled off from the rest of China in all directions by impassable mountains, like a huge Switzerland, and distinct in its own history and regional customs. Sichuan's landlocked isolation has been famously described by the mid-eighth-century poet Li Bo (Li Bai), who wrote, "It would be easier to climb to Heaven than to walk the Sichuan Road, / And those who hear the tale of it turn pale with fear."8 Readily accessible only through the treacherous Yangzi River gorges,9 Sichuan was the nearly impregnable stronghold to which the Chinese government retreated for safety during its twentieth-century war with Japan. In earlier centuries, Sichuan became independent of the rest of China during nearly every major national upheaval, including the third, the tenth, the thirteenth, and the seventeenth centuries.10 In each of these periods, as China experienced decline, Sichuan flourished, benefiting from all those who fled the turmoil of the national capital and other cultural centers and Riled Sichuan's cities with refugee artists and poets.11 Its cultural history resembles a light flickering on and off, sparkling when the rest of China goes dark and dimming while the rest of China glows. …