Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Vision of the mandarins
H. Y. Mohan Ram
The author is former professor of Botany, Delhi University, and an eminent scientist.
Contemplation of nature is inherent to Chinese culture. Not only Daoists but all Chinese philosophical schools believed that mountains and streams were possessed by spirits and like all things that exist - plants, animals and humans- are made of the same fundamental qi or vital breath. Dao, or the way, brings all things, present, past and future, into existence and governs their continuous transformation and renewal. The yearning for mountains and water is synonymous with the life of the spirit. In early spring, pilgrims ascended sacred mountains, brought back with them images of mystic experiences and depicted them in calligraphy, paintings and poetry. They had the urge to heighten human understanding of the cosmos and simultaneously bring the cosmos within the domain of human experience. The creation of gardens was the natural outcome of this urge.
Historically gardens in China were laid out by kings around 221 BC as hunting grounds and as places where the booty of plants, animals and artefacts were preserved and designs of the conquered palaces were replicated. The descriptions of these microcosms have been traced through hieroglyphs on tortoise shells and oracle bones. Believing that the Chinese immortals who flew on storks could be enticed to return to reveal their secrets, emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty (206 BC-9AD) excavated an enormous lake with three islands and stocked them with exotic trees and animals. The immortals did not return but the tradition of gardens continued. Hangzhou (Hangchow) situated South of Shanghai is famous for the large landscape gardens in their natural setting.
Buddhism, which gradually spread to China from the first century A.D., assimilated the indigenous concept of gardens. Monasteries built on mountain peaks, far away from worldly distractions, provided sacred spaces for meditation. The silent valleys with rising clouds provided the void. The monks preserved lofty and aging cedars, cypresses and camphor trees. This practice is being continued in Buddhist temples all over China and Japan.
Daoits had opened the way for man to leave his earthly desires to integrate himself into the great universe. In contrast, Confucius believed in rites and duties of a well-organised society. He advocated the importance of an ethical person to live harmoniously amongst his fellows and serve the State. In the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD ) teachings of Confucius, suitably modified, became state orthodoxy. For almost 2000 years, rigorous imperial examinations in the Confucian classics were conducted and those who achieved excellence were appointed as civil servants across the land. This educated elite, the mandarins, was held in high esteem in society. The mandarins' need to contemplate nature was met by creating gardens, a fashion that spread throughout the social elite. These were designed as secret gardens enclosed by high walls or fences. Even on entering, the garden revealed little, leading to more walls and enclosures, finally opening up an aesthetic vision of jagged rocks, water courses, plants and artistic buildings. Elegant gatherings of scholars were held in the gardens to enjoy painting, poetry, calligraphy, music, drinking and sometimes women. This was a way of escaping from the outer world and returning to nature within.
These gardens are among the most beautiful in the world, with a glorious history, available to us through paintings and literary works from the Song (Southern) dynasty (1127 AD) until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Ji Cheng has left behind Yuan Ye (Craft of Gardens) written between 1631 and 1634, considered as the first surviving manual of landscape gardening. Translated to English by Alison Hardie (1988) and profusely illustrated, with an outstanding foreword by Maggie Keswick, it is a treasure for garden lovers all over the world. Ji Cheng's work is not a manual, as one would expect, as it neither contains a list of plants nor instructions on how to grow them. Instead it emphasises architecture, an integral part of the Chinese concept of garden design, and elaborates on the selection of various types of rocks and structures.
Essentially, a Chinese garden is made up of rocks and water bodies following the concept of Shan shui (which literally means "mountains and water"). Jagged rocks are carefully chosen and piled in groups, often with wires and gravel, leaving hollows and crevices. Pools of water, running or still, are created around the rocks lined with trees or bamboos, often with winding paths paved by water-worn pebbles and tile shards in decorative patterns. Rocks are hard, stable and strong, representing the Yang (masculine) force, which harmonises with the reflective flowing Yin (feminine) of water. In Chinese philosophy Yin and Yang share the same relationship to each other and each contains within itself the generating germ of the other.
Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement that deals with principles by which needs and emotions can be brought together, was followed in planning gardens. Various kinds of pavilions with little roofs and walkways, leading to studios and a library are built in the garden for artistic activities. Gateways and windows of several shapes are placed to give different views of the garden in different times of the day and in the four seasons.
Chinese Garden at the Munich Garden Show.
In ancient China a gentleman could recline under a grove of bamboo, listening to the sound of a waterfall, or a scholar could have contemplated a crane. A group of friends might have spent a whole afternoon in the courtyard watching the sun move over the rocks or the dancing shadows of the graceful bamboos on the whitewashed walls. The Yuan Ye records how, when a remarkable tree was about to bloom, people moved their beds outdoors in order that they might be able to observe how the flowers developed from buds to full bloom and finally faded and died, reminding them of the transience of life. In a garden a person recognised the picture of his own life. The cedar resisting the storm represented the beholder's own battle against misery.
China abounds in a rich variety of plant wealth and had attained a remarkable system of horticulture even by the 11th Century. A few plants had special attributes and were raised in most gardens. The orchid (lanhua) is the emblem of refinement and the ancestor of all fragrances, to be likened to the breath of beautiful women and the fame of great men. The plum blossoms arising in early spring from the knobbly branches are symbolic of renewal and courage. The graceful bamboo stands for all seasons. Some Buddhist scholars believe that its hollow stem is synonymous with nothingness or sunyata. The Chrysanthemum is a symbol of joviality, a life of ease and retirement; yet it defies frost and is triumphant in autumn. Lotus is a complex symbol with several meanings. It stands for transcendence or purity, growing from the mud, but showing nothing of its origins just as the Buddha after his enlightenment lived within the world but was not affected by it or by the passions that normally govern human life.
The Japanese imbibed various elements of Chinese culture, including the concept of gardens. They evolved their own elaborate style of planning gardens, constrained by their own landscape and limited space.
Explorers who went to China to collect plants called the country the mother of gardens. They took back with them prized ornamentals such as chrysanthemum, magnolia, camellia, gardenia, rhododendrons, forsythia, wisteria, China roses and pinks and transformed the flower culture and trade of the west. Chinese gardens have been created to give an enlightened public a taste of the East in the West.
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