Academic journal article Asian Culture and History

Art and the Shift in Garden Culture in the Jiangnan Area in China (16Th - 17th Century)

Academic journal article Asian Culture and History

Art and the Shift in Garden Culture in the Jiangnan Area in China (16Th - 17th Century)

Article excerpt


The remarkable growth in interest in aesthetic gardens in the late Ming period has been recognized in Chinese garden culture studies. The materialist historical approach contributes to revealing the importance of gardens' economic functions in the shiftof garden culture, but is inadequate in explaining the successive burgeoning of small plain gardens in the 17^sup th^ century. This article integrates the aesthetic and materialist perspectives and situates the cultural transition in the concrete social and cultural context in the late Ming period. Beginning with describing a taste change and an expansion in the number of gardens, this article focuses on the small plain garden phenomenon by exploring the unique role that the arts (e.g., poetry and painting) played. A series of artistic criteria were established in the late Ming period. The application of these aesthetic rules to gardens enabled more people to own gardens. This is process that economic requirements for owning gardens were lowered, giving way to the aesthetic appreciation and exploration of literati individuals' artistic talents. Gardens thus became more widely accessible and provided enhanced pleasure to the middle and lower class families. The conclusion is that the 'major shift' in garden culture was closely associated with the change of garden owners' aesthetic tastes, in addition to the economic conditions in the Jiangnan area. Tn the increased popularity of gardens, the arts played a significant role.

Keywords: Chinese garden, gardens in the Ming and Qing period, gardens in the Jiangnan area, literati garden, literati aesthetic taste

1. Introduction

Historians in Chinese garden culture studies have reached a consensus on the remarkable expansion of interest in aesthetic gardens in the Jiangnan area (Note 1) in the late Ming period (16th - 17th century) (Joanna, 1992, pp. 55-81). By exploring the phenomenon from a materialist perspective, Craig Clunas asserts that there was 'a major shift' signified by the change of the 'garden' concept (Clunas, 1996, p. 21). The methodology that he draws upon breaks away from previous patterns and reveals the significance of gardens' economic functions in the shift. He states that 'in laying so much stress on the productive potential of the garden landscape, 1 may be overstating the case, as a way of correcting an equally unbalanced concentration on aesthetics in the study of Chinese garden practices' (Clunas, 1996, p. 49).

However, more recent scholarship on culture and economy suggests that aesthetics and economy is often not situated in a relationship of antithesis. In other words, the aesthetics is not as counterpoised to economic considerations. In particular, if light is to be cast on the continued expansion of interest in the garden into the Qing period, a pure materialist perspective often appears to be inadequate in explaining the 'major shift.' The other gap in Chinese garden history studies is the neglect of social historical context in which the garden culture is embedded. Georges Metailie remarks that past researchers like Maggie Keswick and Stewart Johnston idealized the Chinese garden 'by identifying an ideal model based on the gardens of some southern Chinese cities, particularly those in Suzhou with an 'unhistorical picture' (Metailie, 1998, p. 248). Chinese gardens have long been regarded as a certain reflection of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism, or the painting theories of the Northern Song master: Guo Xi. Seldom is garden culture placed in a concrete cultural context as in the late Ming and Qing period.

To fill the two gaps, this article presents a perspective that integrates the aesthetics and materialism; it provides new accounts for what caused the expansion in the number of gardens as well as the shiftin the Jiangnan area garden culture. Documentary analysis of the key literature is the major research method. Signs, symbols and other visual components are extracted in the process of analyzing garden, painting, calligraphy and literature. …

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