Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Gardens of the Far East

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Gardens of the Far East

Article excerpt

In the early eighteenth century English landscape gardeners began to rebel against the straitjacket of French classicism. They were weary of gardens divided into symmetrical blocks by rectilinear paths punctuated with statues and fountains, gardens where no plant had a right to grow outside its appointed place. When the fashion for informal landscaped gardens appeared in England, the hand of Chinese influence was widely felt. "Everyone knows that English gardens are nothing more than imitations of Chinese gardens," wrote Georges Le Rouge in 1774 of the fashion for what were known as "Anglo-Chinese" gardens, which later spread to many parts of Europe. In point of fact, Chinese influence went no further than a pagoda or pavilion placed at the edge of a stream in the middle of a park.

The gardens of the Far East are small enclosed worlds that awaken the senses and calm the mind. Everything in them seems designed to encourage meditation: murmuring water, birdsong, the sound of frogs and crickets, wind rustling in bamboo leaves, the delicate smell given off by lotus leaves after a summer shower, and succulent fruit ripen-ing on the stem.


"In Chinese," writes Antoine Gournay, assistant curator of the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, "the word yuan (garden) means not so much an area set apart from built architecture and mainly used for growing plants, as a specific way of distributing and arranging the space of a dwelling." He goes on to say that "House and garden in China are more often dovetailed together than juxtaposed; what's more, the vegetation that decorates this ensemble is considered as secondary to rocks and water." The regularity of architecture contrasts with the irregularity of the garden with its twisted rocks and ponds in a variety of shapes.

Rocks symbolize mountains, the place where sky and earth meet. They are chosen carefully. The more unusual their shape, the more they are worth. Their size depends on their creator's resources and ambitions. In the 11th century, the Northern Sung dynasty emperor Hui Tsung spent twelve years creating the Lake of Golden Clarity, Longevity Mountain (5,000 [m.sup.2]) and Gen Yu rockery (150 metres high) in the imperial city of Bian Liang. In his book Classic Chinese Gardens, Qiao Yun tells how the emperor "did not hesitate to knock down bridges or destroy roads and canals to transport these rocks." In China, where mountains are worshipped (e.g. Kunlun shah, the residence of Taiji, the "immensely great one"), there are no gardens without rocks.

Water is as essential as rocks, to which it is a complement, since water and rocks are yin and yang. Sun-drenched, angular and hard, rocks are yang. Cold and dark but also free, pure and regenerative, water is yin. Liu Bang, Gaozu (founding emperor) of the Hah dynasty in the third century B.C., created three artificial islands in Tai Yi Lake, to symbolize paradise. From that time on all imperial gardens used this symbol.

The first private gardens are recorded in the year 900, the finest examples being in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province. Many men of letters went to live in the city in isolation from the world, and there they practised gardening and painting on silk. The format of traditional painting on hand scrolls, which is read either vertically or horizontally, is said to correspond perfectly with the thought processes of the lover of gardens.

Enclosed by walls, which provide a neutral background, the Chinese garden contains buildings for various leisure activities. The landscape is arranged according to the rooms from which it is viewed. No single point affords an overall view. Natural compositions are framed by open-work, round, rectangular or fan-shaped windows, and doors shaped like full moons or vases. Non-structural walls are replaced by moveable partitions. Covered walkways meander through the garden so that it can be enjoyed in all weathers. The fusion between the inside and outside areas is complete. …

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