Updated: 2012-07-13 12:34
By Zhang Lei (China Daily)
Chinese gardening reflects the epitome of Chinese wisdom that boasts of the harmony between nature and humans. Zhang Kaixin / for China Daily
Chinese gardens opening up to rest of the world
Cross-cultural exchanges between East and West are increasing on the back of a growing need to understand China's rise in global influence, but there is at least one area that some believe remains solely in the realm of Chinese hands.
"The concept of transferring real Chinese gardening to the West is impossible, not only because the climate and environment are totally different," says Han Zenglu, professor at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture. "Unless Westerners totally grasp the true Chinese definition of molding architecture after nature itself, these gardens are simply piled-up Chinese symbols."
Han himself is reluctant to see the development of Chinese gardens in the West. From the layout of rock and water features to the choice of plants and angles of views, many other puritans also believe traditional Chinese gardening reflects the epitome of Chinese wisdom that boasts of the harmony between nature and humans.
Many say there are no strict rules governing the process of making a Chinese garden, as it changes over time, and even the same designer can come up with different results using the same design.
Despite this resistance to transplanting Chinese gardening thought onto Western soil, interest on the other side of the world grows.
Michigan State University is widely considered a pioneer in teaching garden design and landscape architecture.
Professor Jon Bryan Burley at the university teaches landscape history, including lecturing on many styles and types of Chinese landscape gardens and environments.
Burley and his wife recently participated in designing a Chinese-inspired garden for the popular 2012 Chaumont sur Loire Garden Festival.
The creation is a fusion garden with some feng shui principles and properties of Chinese gardens, along with ideas from French students and professors. It has been well received and is expected to be viewed by about 300,000 visitors this summer.
"It does not look exactly like a Chinese garden, but if you know the principles about Chinese garden design, you can notice the similarities and inspiration," Burley says.
Westerners continue to be very interested in traditional Chinese gardens, he says. One recent garden he visited in Vancouver, Canada, is called the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
It is primarily based upon the gardens of Suzhou and feels like a garden of the Chinese city in Jiangsu province. But the gardens in Suzhou alone are varied and can be quite different with different concepts, designs and messages about life.
Still, Burley suspects that there will be numerous Chinese-styled gardens installed at arboretums and botanical parks in the West.
"In France (near Angers), there is a new large botanical park called Terra Botanica. It includes the knowledge, history and stories about both Japanese and Chinese gardening. As the West learns more, people can also easily tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese styles, and learn how varied the Chinese style is and how much more ancient it is. The West is learning how much of the Japanese style is simply borrowed from vast Chinese accomplishments," he says.
The interest in Chinese gardens in the West can be traced back to the late 17th century. Sir William Temple (1628-99) noted in his essay Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, or of Gardening in the Year 1685 the scorn that the Chinese held for the symmetries and regularities of the European style.
In comparison, he praised the Chinese design and wrote: "But their great reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eyes, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed."
Temple even came up with a word for Chinese gardening design, sharawadgi, to describe its irregularity, asymmetry and its picturesque qualities of being "surprising through graceful disorder".
He even dissuaded Europeans against adopting the Chinese way of gardening, "not because of its lack of beauty but because of the difficulty of achieving success".
During that time, English landscape parks covered the UK, gradually replacing classical garden designs.
The interest in Chinese gardens, which hit a peak when Scottish architect William Chambers (1723-96), after two visits to China, published Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (1757). He made many Britons realize their landscape parks were quite dull compared with the Chinese gardens' maneuvering of surprising aspects from common scenes.
The advocate for Chinese gardens soon helped spread the Chinoiserie in English garden design. One of his best-known works is the pagoda at Kew Gardens in London. The 10-story octagonal tower is nearly 50 meters high and was the tallest reconstruction of a Chinese building in Europe at that time. Its prototype is believed to be the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.
Chambers' design was later deemed "Anglo-Chinois", becoming arguably the first that fused Chinese and Western gardening. Jardins de Trianon and Parc d'Ermenonville in France, and the Chinese gardens in Oranienburg, Germany, are also remnants of Anglo-Chinois gardens.
Although these were deeply influenced by Chinese traditional gardens with many Oriental features, they are still exotic to Chinese eyes and are essentially the result of Westerners' understanding of nature.
But Chinoiserie in garden design dwindled after the French Revolution in the late 18th century brought new ideology throughout Europe. With the Europeans knocking on the door of the Orient and the decline of Chinese power, such interest in garden design was put on hold for more than a century.
Burley says that in its first incarnation Chinoiserie was the subject of feverish interest, and now the interest can be seen again, but in a more measured way.
"Trends come and go," he says. "Instead, there is now a steady and consistent interest in the ideas about the Chinese garden and environmental design, and it pervades everything from the materials, sculptures and features that homeowners can purchase in their garden, to ideas about how to compose them, such as placing stone, creating views and plant compositions."
Chinese cultural ideas about design are now ever present in the West and it is everywhere, he says. That makes for better more beautiful environments - similar to the food industry.
"There is fusion cooking. So too there is fusion garden and environmental design. So we have traditional places with Suzhou-like gardens, the English Landscape School, Italian Gardens, Modern American Gardens, and interesting fusion gardens. China plays a vital role in developing a world culture and maintaining traditions," he says.
"The world has become a better place because it has embraced many of the ideas embedded in Chinese culture."
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