The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 5: Gardens in Asia, America, Africa, Australia

Chinese design taste in gardening

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793. The national taste of the Chinese in gardening must have had something characteristic in it, even to general observers; and, from Sir William Temple's Essay, written about the middle of the seventeenth century, this character seems to have been obscurely known in Europe. He informs us, that though he recommends regularity in gardens, yet, there may be more beauty in such as are wholly irregular. 'Something of this sort,' he says, 'I have seen in some places, but heard more of it from others, who have lived much among the Chinese.' Referring to their studied irregularity, he adds, 'when they find this beauty in perfection, so as to hit the eye, they say it is shanawadgi; an expression signifying fine or admirable.' It appears from this passage, that the Chinese style had not only been known, but imitated in England, nearly a century previous to the publication of the Jesuits' Letters, and at least sixty years before Kent's time. Sir William Temple retired to East Sheen in 1680, and died in the year 1698, aged 70. Sir William Chambers's account of the Chinese style has given rise to much discussion. This author, afterwards surveyor-general, resided some time at Canton, and, on returning to England, gave a detailed account of Chinese gardening; first in the appendix to his Designs of Chinese Buildings, &c. in 1757, and subsequently at greater length in his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, in 1772, commended, as G. Mason observes, by so good a judge as Gray. Sir William Chambers avows that his information is not derived entirely from personal examination, but chiefly from the conversation of a Chinese painter; and It has been very reasonably conjectured, that he has drawn, in some cases, on his own imagination, in order to enhance the reader's opinion of Chinese taste, with the laudable view of improving that of his own country. In his essay of 1757, which was published in French as well as English, and was soon translated, as Hirschfeld informs us, into German, he nays, 'the Chinese taste in laying out gardens is good, and what we have for some time past been aiming at in England.' With the exception of their formal and continual display of garden-buildings, and their attempts of raising characters, not only picturesque and pleasing, but also of horror, surprise, and enchantment, Sir William's directions, especially in his second work, will apply to the most improved conceptions of planting, and forming pieces of water, in the modern style; or, in other words, for creating scenery such as will always resemble, and often might be mistaken for, that of nature. But whatever may be the merits of the Chinese in this art, it may reasonably be conjectured, that their taste for picturesque beauty is not so exactly conformable to European ideas on that subject as Sir William would lead us to believe. Their decorative scenes are carried to such an extreme, so encumbered with deceptions, and what we would not hesitate to consider puerilities, and there appears throughout so little reference to utility, that the most mature and chastened taste of Europeans cannot sympathise with them. Chinese taste is, indeed, altogether peculiar; but it is perfectly natural to that people, and therefore not to be subjected to European criticism. Horace Walpole's opinion of the Chinese gardens is, that they 'are as whimsically irregular as European gardens were formerly uniform and unvaried; nature in them is as much avoided as in those of our ancestors.' In allusion to those of the emperor's palace, described in the Lettres Edifiantes, he says, 'this pretty gaudy scene is the work of caprice and whim ; and, when we reflect on their buildings, presents no image but that of unsubstantial tawdriness.' Lord Macartney's remarks on these gardens show, that at least picturesque scenes are seen from them. 'The view,' he says, 'from one of the imperial gardens might be compared to that from the terrace at Lowther Castle. This view is altogether wild and romantic, and bounded by high uncultivated mountains, with no other buildings than one or two native cottages. In what degree of estimation such a view is there held, does not, however, appears it would be too much to conclude that, because it existed in that situation, it had been created or left on purpose, or was considered as eminently beautiful or desirable. 'It is our excellence,' observes his lordship, 'to improve nature; that of a Chinese gardener to conquer her: his aim is to change every thing from what he found it,-a waste he adorns with trees; a desert he waters with a river or a lake; and on a smooth flat are raised hills, hollowed out valleys, and placed all sorts of buildings.' 'Nature is the model of the Chinese, observes Hirschfeld; 'but their aim appears to have been to imitate her only in her irregularities. As the Chinese are not fond of walking, we rarely find avenues or broad gravel walks in thelr gardens; and their grounds, however extensive they may be, are broken up into a variety of small scenes, each perfect in itself, but so totally unconnected with everything around it, that it might be removed without any injury being done to the whole. Gardens of pleasure are almost entirely confined to the rich, and the gardens of the great mass of the people resemble fields set aside for the culture of vegetables.' (Hirschfeld Theorie des Jardins, vol. 1. p. 109.) Chinese taste in gardening, it thus appears, partakes of the general character of the people, and is characterised by their leading feature, peculiarity. The love of the grotesque and of monstrosities is seldom accompanied in individuals of any country with enlightened views and liberal sentiments, which are almost always found combined with simplicity.