Ideas of Chinese Gardens: Western Accounts, 1300-1860

Ideas of Chinese Gardens: Western Accounts, 1300-1860

Ideas of Chinese Gardens: Western Accounts, 1300-1860

Ideas of Chinese Gardens: Western Accounts, 1300-1860

Synopsis

Europeans may be said to have first encountered the Chinese garden in Marco Polo's narrative of his travels through the Mongol Empire and his years at the court of Kublai Khan. His account of a man-made lake abundant with fish, a verdant green hill lush with trees, raised walkways, and a plethora of beasts and birds took root in the European imagination as the description of a kind of Eden. Beginning in the sixteenth century, permanent interaction between Europe and China took form, and Jesuit missionaries and travelers recorded in letters and memoirs their admiration of Chinese gardens for their seeming naturalness. In the eighteenth century, European taste for chinoiserie reached its height, and informed observers of the Far East discovered that sophisticated and codified design principles lay behind the apparent simplicity of the Chinese garden. The widespread appreciation of the eighteenth century gave way to rejection in the nineteenth, a result of tensions over practical concerns such as trade imbalances and symbolized by the destruction of the imperial park of Yuanming yuan by a joint Anglo-French military expedition.

In Ideas of Chinese Gardens, Bianca Maria Rinaldi has gathered an unparalleled collection of westerners' accounts, many freshly translated and all expertly annotated, as well as images that would have accompanied the texts as they circulated in Europe. Representing a great diversity of materials and literary genres, Rinaldi's book includes more than thirty-five sources that span centuries, countries, languages, occupational biases, and political aims. By providing unmediated firsthand accounts of the testimony of these travelers and expatriates, Rinaldi illustrates how the Chinese garden was progressively lifted out of the realm of fantasy into something that could be compared with, and have an impact on, European traditions.

Excerpt

For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europeans, China represented both an irresistible model of reference and an exotic mode of sophistication. Its culture, celebrated through widely read publications, and its refined products imported to Europe held an intense fascination for Westerners and exerted significant influence on Western culture and taste. An emblematic case of that influence was the constant reference to the Chinese garden in the scholarly debate accompanying the evolution of Western garden aesthetics from compositions inspired by geometry to those inspired by nature. References to the apparent naturalness of Chinese gardens were first cited in England, beginning in the last decade of the seventeenth century, to support the reaction against the geometries of the French garden style, as well as the development of the English landscape garden. The importance of the Chinese garden as a model for Western gardens was made explicit by the name given to the English landscape garden when it was transposed onto French soil during the second half of the eighteenth century: the jardin anglo-chinois.

In the diverse phases of the European landscape garden, knowledge of the Chinese garden, or rather the idea of that garden, took its inspiration from the accounts of Western travelers visiting China. Jesuits and other missionaries, merchants, diplomats, casual tourists, and plant hunters provided Europe with their understanding of Chinese gardens through journals, letters, travel accounts, missionaries’ reports, and general descriptions of China and its culture. These writings unveiled gardens characterized by irregularity and a diffused naturalness. Over time, they included an increasing wealth of details about the variety and surprising sequences of scenes of Chinese gardens. Based on the travelers’ personal experiences of China, these accounts were considered authoritative sources on Chinese garden design and offered literary support to the theoretical debate on the evolution of Western garden art.

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