The Landscape Guide

Chinese Garden Design

From one point of view Chinese art is the purest of all, and the questions of origin and history are most enticing. But there are difficulties which we cannot overcome, since there is no country that shows fewer traces of old historic gardens. The curious etiquette of Chinese emperors, and indeed in a great degree of other important men, forbids them to live in the home of their predecessor; moreover, each new dynasty is apt to make a new capital. Then, since in China more than in any country the imperial court was the centre of art and culture, the earlier Residences fell into decay. Even till quite recent times there were continual complaints of the bad condition of the homes of the emperor and of the great men, when they were not being occupied as Residences. It was really a help to the country when the emperors were fond of travelling, as were most of the members of the Manchu Dynasty, who after 1644 took a great many journeys into their Tartar lands. For all the palaces which were visited had to be kept up and well cared for. But this can only have been for a short time, since complaints about decay always arose as soon as any emperor had grown old and given up travelling. Sums of money were often embezzled that had been earmarked for keeping up the estates. It was useless to hand over one or other of the imperial palaces to a rich man on condition that it should be kept up. The Emperor Kienlung entrusted the beautiful gardens at his palace at Ou-yen to a wealthy salt merchant, but this man was certain that as the emperor was old he would never come back, and so he did nothing for the place. Travellers from Europe found it in such a state of decay a few years later that they scarcely ventured to step on any bridge or wooden veranda.

On the other hand, there is an unexampled continuity about Chinese culture in every department, and not least in gardening, for the centralisation at the emperor’s court was a great help. Etiquette at the Chinese court has always been an asset to the historian. To the Chinese nation the love of what is old is truly a passion. They were not wanting in historical research of every sort, though the unbroken development of centuries offered so little in the way of contrasts that the origins of an art which grew slowly were lost in the darkness of antiquity.