Thoughts about the Cultural Inheritance of Classical Garden Art

It is safe to say that garden art is the aggregation of traditional Chinese arts like philosophy, poetry, painting and calligraphy and architecture, or that it is the comprehensive reflection of these arts. 2017-09-14

It is safe to say that garden art is the aggregation of traditional Chinese arts like philosophy, poetry, painting and calligraphy and architecture, or that it is the comprehensive reflection of these arts. Thus, a good method of inheriting can be to reintegrate these related arts into garden art by deeply analyzing their current development situation, absorbing the essence with eternal significance, and avoiding the rigid components without existent value. This article tries to analyze which components of traditional arts like poetry, painting and calligraphy and architecture can be discarded for inheritance of garden art, and which of them can stay.

1.Culture related to classical Chinese garden art changes from prosperity to decadence, and the phenomenon of “cultural discontinuity”occurs in modern times.

The whole ideology of China had entered a closed and subtle state since the Northern Song Dynasty. Culture and arts had changed into internal excavation in depth from external expansion on the surface, and it showed a degree of subtleness and delicacy which was impossible for the Han and Tang dynasties to achieve. This subtleness and perfection led traditional Chinese arts to the peak of excellence, but it also laid hidden dangers, bringing about intensifying constraint for further development of culture and arts. According to induction of the author, this cultural constraint mainly has three features including diversion of view of nature from the whole to the part, “learning from the predecessors, pursuing classics without innovation” and too many regulations and restrictions. These drawbacks are fully embodied in poetry, painting and garden.

After the Tang Dynasty, fewer and fewer scholars possessed the broad mind of “being tolerant of others’ differences like the sea embracing many rivers”. Poetry expressed ambition, but lyrics were inferior to poetry. They were considered as a simple trick which was unqualified to take its place in higher circles. This indicated that in the heyday of two major verses of Tang poetry and Song lyrics, the world view of Song people had been less broad than that of Tang people. The practice of “no parts without allusion” of Jiangxi Poetic School, which flourished at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, led later scholars to indulge in quoting and piling up words and sentences and making allusions rather than innovation.

As landscape painting developed in the Northern Song Dynasty, it reached its peak. The abundant springing and remains of panoramic landscape paintings, including Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival which describes the local customs of a vast region of towns and counties, the magnificent Great Yangze River and Ten Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains with continuous scenery, are also rare in other times. Till the Southern Song and Tang dynasties, the style of landscape painting changed. There was composition of “a corner and half edge” and so-called “imperial court” style, which had a great impact on creation of landscape painting of later ages. The evolution of style from “panoramic landscape” to “a corner and half edge” had already reflected the change of painters’ view of nature. The general development tendency of painting style of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties was focusing on inheritance of ancient tradition and the pursue of the ancient spirit. Zhao Mengfu and “four masters of the Yuan Dynasty” did so. “Nine painters in the painting” headed by Dong Qichang and “four Wangs” exclusively touted imitating the tradition with every painting marked as imitation of a certain ancient painter. They focused on the form, but lacked innovative content. Landscape painting declined gradually.

It was inevitable for garden which stresses poetic feeling to be influenced by these artistic constraints. Compared with the relatively genuine garden of the Tang and Song dynasties, garden of the Ming and Qing dynasties stressed more good forms and clever skills. It developed from complying with nature to beautifying nature, stressed human’s transformation of natural environment, and pursued external substance creation. This approach of blindly pursuing beauty of art and form made garden lose more and more neutrality, authenticity and life, as well as separated them from the foundation of public life. Scholars of the Ming and Qing dynasties whose view of nature changed from great mountains and rivers to a corner of mountain and half of river built intellectuals’ gardens, such as Classical Gardens of Suzhou, which pursued unmeasured vastness of the vast rivers and mountains with the small place of urban house. With ever-changing techniques of expression which went to extremes, its achievements in technique and craft reached an unprecedented peak. However, everything goes to extremes once it becomes excessive. “A rock could show the steepness of a thousand xun of the Huashan Mountain, a spoon of clear water could show the surging scene of ten thousand miles of rivers”. Showing as a bonsai, the setting of every rock and bush reached the level of artistic conception of the whole garden. It was not in accordance with real natural landscape, as well as being morbid and pretentious. However, garden builders who were addicted to “world in the pot” and “Mount Meru in the mustard” admired these techniques so much that they were gradually restricted by these skills. The greatest achievement of Classical Gardens of Suzhou was successfully creating miniatures of natural landscape, but it stepped into the path of repetition and pursuing pattern like poetry and landscape painting in artistic development. These gardens focused on enjoyment of life, and expressed their ambition only through the characters implied by the miniatures of landscape, flowers and trees. In fact, this artistic technique for expressing the artistic conception of garden was not brilliant. It seemed trivial and messy due to excessive subtleness, which made it lose previous poetic simplicity and magnificence, and cover the original artistic conception of garden that was natural and simple with excessive artistic techniques.

When classical garden art and related arts gradually declined due to their own constraints, they also ran into the great era of world opening. Traditional culture like poetry, painting, calligraphy and architecture all lost the living soil where they existed, stepping into or about to step into their stage of “cultural discontinuity”.

(1) Discontinuity of poetry culture

The main reason for the emergence of a “bottleneck” in poetry when it developed to the present state is the rules of form and rhyme scheme. Rules of form and rhyme scheme are one of the charms of poetry, as well as one the constraints of poetry. Chairman Mao said that classical poetry had rules of form and rhyme scheme which were too restrictive and constrained people’s thoughts, so he did not recommend young men to put great efforts into it. Besides, the Vernacular Movement during the May Fourth period and reform of traditional Chinese characters after the founding of the People’s Republic of China even deleted everything that confined Chinese language and characters. And the basis of rhymed poetry – some collections of tunes for lyrics and rhyme schemes for poetry, also withdrew from the area of fundamental knowledge popularization. Afterwards, most people who received cultural education could not acquire this knowledge. Thus, rhymed poetry lost its growing foundation.

(2) Discontinuity of painting and calligraphy culture

Calligraphy art had a long and profound history in China, but it lost its living soil in modern times. As the writing instrument changed from the writing brush to the pen, even the most basic instrument for calligraphy disappeared from people’s daily life. Without long term use by most people, how can we talk about popularization and appreciation of this national quintessence? Let alone inheritance and revitalization. Traditional Chinese painting technologically based on calligraphy stressed strength in the brush work and artistic spirit in the ink work, both of which were the essence of calligraphy. However, traditional Chinese calligraphy which was written with writing brush gradually lost the soil where it existed due to the reform of writing instrument. Because traditional calligraphy was far away from daily life, the decline of traditional painting and calligraphy became inevitable.

(3) Discontinuity of ancient Chinese architecture culture

Ancient Chinese architecture characterized by wooden framework is best known for its exquisite structure, rich color and various forms. However, in consideration of structure safety and function of buildings where electricity is widely applied in modern life, buildings with wooden structure almost vanished in people’s living environment.

All of the above illustrate that development of traditional arts like poetry, painting, calligraphy and ancient architecture has its cultural background and living soil. Without a cultural background and a living soil, their development becomes unsustainable like water without a source, and thus classical garden will lose these artistic foundations from which it can absorb nutriment as well.

2.We should discard the dross and select the cultural essence related to garden

As poetry, landscape painting and architecture changed from prosperity to decadence and lost the living soil in modern times, it is extremely blind and unlikely to succeed to ignore this phenomenon and merely talk about inheritance and development of classical garden. Of course, we can neither accordingly say that classical garden art also lost its living soil with these related arts. The author also disagrees with the opinion that “classical Chinese garden has been closed and terminated regretfully by this time”, as mentioned by Professor Shen Fuxi in Artistic Analysis on Chinese Garden. Professor Shen believes that classical garden art and other related traditional arts still have their eternal artistic component, as well as wonderful components which can fully continue to be adopted. Thus, an important task for the inheritance of classical garden art is to continue to absorb nutriment from these traditional arts, retain something eternal of these arts and avoid any constraint, dross and drawback brought by its development, which means absorption by discarding the dross and retaining the essence.

Poetry is the main structure of artistic conception of classical gardens. “Building a garden is like composing a poetry” (Qian Yong). “An article should be based on content, supplemented by strength, and make good words, phrases and sentences serve as its guards” (Du Mu from Tang Dynasty). We can say that water, rocks, flowers and trees are like the guards of a garden, and a disordered and listless garden is just a simple list of mountains, water, flowers, trees and architecture. Thus, it is equally necessary and practical to construct modern Chinese garden with the artistic conception of poetry.

Now we can often see that most of some emerging so-called poetic gardens are application of ancient poetries in a way of quoting and piling up words and sentences and quoting remarks out of the context, without new poetries for creating the artistic conception and new embodiment of excellent ancient poetries. Lines of ancient poetries which describe scenery are interspersed in quotation, without any integral coherence and harmony in artistic conception. The setting of Rice Garden in the Grand View Garden of A Dream of Red Mansions is rather disputable. “No remote neighboring villages, no near city walls. No ridge for the mountain in the back, no source for the water in the front. No tower rising up from the hidden temple, no bridge stretching down toward the busy market.” Present garden designers even absorb and accumulate various knowledge across different regions, at all times and in all countries, and put all of them into the “landscape supermarket” garden. Thus, one of the methods of inheriting classical garden culture is to cultivate the quality of garden designers and the masses’ appreciative ability for landscape from the aspect of composing poetry and writing articles.

Speaking of learning and referencing poetry, it is inevitable to return to the issue of rules of form and rhyme scheme. Rules of form and rhyme scheme are a kind of rules of the game. But nothing can be accomplished without norms or standards. Chinese poetry art only possesses the magical charm in rules of form and rhyme scheme, which is the reason why poetries lose their savor after being translated into foreign languages. The magical and changeful style of structure of classical Chinese garden also comes from this style of poetry. Poetry of early Tang Dynasty has the lofty ambitions of traveling far with a sword and bearing the spirit that can conquer mountains and rivers which are generated during the journey for visiting great mountains and rivers, but it is uninhibited in rules of form and rhyme scheme. We can learn such techniques for building gardens from it: it needs to take big moves to construct mountains, with wide vision, a thousand gullies in mind and informality; the elegance of smoke-like willows, painted bridges, curtains for keeping off the wind and emerald tabernacles in lyrics of two Song dynasties is generated in a delicate superior life. Its rules of form and rhyme scheme are both strict and ever changing, with multiple forms of poetry like couplet, stele, palindrome and parallel phrases, etc. We can also flexibly apply them to all kinds of garden sketches and disposal of details, making them elaborate and full of variety. As for drawbacks in development of poetry like “no words without a source” and “pursuing classics without innovation” should be avoided in development of poetry, and its influence on garden making should be precluded as well.

Chinese landscape painting is an understanding and representation of nature. Chinese gardens, whose motto is “following nature”, certainly need to draw on many things from landscape painting. The application of lines and structure in landscape painting is very successful, and the strength and artistic spirit are also like a stroke of genius which is beyond description. Landscape painting is divided into blue and green landscape and Chinese ink landscape, as well as panoramic landscape and composition of “a corner and half edge”. We can say that learning from lines, structure, strength, artistic spirit, color and composition of the whole and the part of the landscape painting, garden builders have acquired an unlimited supply of its techniques.

Lines of French formal garden which directly derive from geometric figures have been discarded by modern gardens; simple lines of British landscape gardens are primary imitation of nature, but neither are a superb technique. Chinese landscape painting uses lines as modelling foundation, including lines of building with undulate outline, lines of sloping roof which are soft and freely, lines of rocks which are seemingly wrinkling, tortuous lines of pool and crooked lines of branches and trunk of flowers and trees etc. All these techniques of using lines can be applied to gardens and disposal of details, creating transparent and light garden landscape. Modern buildings are often characterized by being lofty and functional. We may build more buildings with small volume and ingenious structure in the gardens, which would be harmonious with the lines and structure of the whole garden.

Landscape painting uses the structure of symmetrical centroid which is flexible for both realistic painting and free style, both simple and complicated. What is more, the structure of symmetrical centroid can be considered as harmonious, which means the stroke is even, neither too thick nor too thin, avoiding a situation of one side looking heavier than the other. These techniques are also very important for garden builders. Both French formal garden and British landscape garden have a considerably single structure which lacks change. It is completely inconsistent with the ever-changing phenomenon of the nature, which can be best described by the verse: “Just as the weary traveler despairs of finding a road, a village appears and the shade of willows and riotous flowers beckon.”


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