The Landscape Guide

Influence of the East on Western Gardens

As regards the effect of the East on the West, while the many tales sent to their homes in Europe by missionaries in the Far East, and the accounts brought by travellers on their return, had their influence, the Western mind could only grasp slowly the garden ideas of the East. It was the first time in history that an entirely new style had appeared with nothing in the least foreshadowing it—the style of the picturesque, opposed in fundamental principles to that garden art which all the rest of the world had adopted.

The first ample accounts of the gardens of China are given in the history of his travels by Marco Polo the Venetian, undertaken in the years 1272—93. When Marco arrived at the court of Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor, he saw the deer-park at the summer Residence at Xanadu, which one could only reach, as is the case in all Chinese gardens, by going through the palace, in the middle of a small wood with a summer-house supported on pillars. He also saw the palace of the Great Khan at Cambalu (Kambalu), and described its double row of encircling walls, between which there are animal parks. The footpaths were paved and somewhat raised, so that the rain ran off them; thus they were never dirty, and the vegetation through which they ran was always well watered. At the corner of the circumvallation, on the north-west, there was a fish-pond. A river ran through it, with gratings at each end to prevent the fish swimming through. In the garden proper Marco Polo especially admired an artificial mound, fully a hundred feet high, standing on a base of  “about a mile“ (perhaps a thousand feet ?). This mound was made of earth dug out for the lake, and on it there were handsome evergreen trees, As soon as the emperor heard of a beautiful tree anywhere, he had it dug up with all its roots and a great deal of earth, and conveyed to this mound by elephants, however heavy it might be: thus he acquired the finest collection of trees in the world. He had the mound itself covered with green earth, so that not only the trees but the place on which they stood were green; therefore the mound was called the Green Hill (Fig. 550). 

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On the top a palace was set up, which was also entirely green inside and out. The whole conception, hill, trees, and building, produced an impression of wealth and splendour; moreover, the blending of shades of colour was wonderful. Between the Great Khan’s own palace and that which he built for his son, lay a wide lake, over which a bridge passed, connecting the two.

The description of the capital of the conquered dynasty, Kin-sai, now Hang-chu, makes it even more wonderful and grand than Peking (Bejing), which the Mongol princes first used as their Residence. To Marco Polo, and to all travellers of his time, it seemed the greatest and most beautiful town in the world. It was bounded on one side by the river Tsien-tang, and on the other by the Hsi-hu or Western Lake. This landscape has always been, and still is, considered by the Chinese as their very loveliest. It has been praised by artists and poets alike.

On the borders of the lake [says Marco Polo] are many handsome and spacious edifices belonging to great magistrates and men of rank. There are likewise many idol temples. . . . Near the central part are two islands, upon each of which stands a superb building (Fig. 551). . . When the inhabitants of the city have occasion . . to give a sumptuous entertainment, they resort to ône of these islands, where they find ready for their purpose every article that can be required, such as vessels, napkins, table-linen, and the like. . . . There are upon the lake a great number of pleasure vessels or barges . . and truly the gratification afforded in this manner upon the water exceeds any that can be derived from the amuse- ments of the land; for as the lake extends the whole length of the city on one side, you have a view, as you stand in the boat, at a certain distance from the shore, of all its grandeur and beauty—its palaces, temples, convents, and gardens, with trees of the largest size growing down to the water’s edge.

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Marco Polo’s account was confirmed, and even added to, by later travellers, who admired the pavilions built on pillars. They stand either on paved terraces or artificial mounds, and are connected by arched and balustraded bridges (Fig. 552).
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 In this town is the palace of the deposed emperor. Although it was half in ruins when Marco Polo saw it, he was able to give a good description of it from the accounts of his guide and from Chinese writings. He saw wonderful gardens between the walls, orchards, hunting-parks, groves, and lakes of fish. The women’s quarters, now entirely gone, were on a lake, and the emperor laid aside the cares of his exalted station and held splendid fêtes on its lovely banks with his wives. He was to lose all these pleasures eventually at the hands of the usurper.

It is clear from later writers that Marco Polo’s descriptions were accurate. The fact that they did not produce the effect they should have done in the West was partly due to their being taken for fairy-tales, partly to the absence of any standard of measurement or comparison; the great difference between Eastern and Western gardens was not under- stood. The other travellers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the monk Odoric, who attempted to convert the heathen in China in the years 1325 to 1327, bore out what Marco Polo had said. But Mandeville’s fanciful stories of other lands at about the same date reacted on Marco Polo and brought him into discredit; thus, China was again lost so far as the West was concerned, and remained so until the Portuguese arrived in the country, or at any rate at its boundaries, in the middle of the sixteenth century. For more than a hundred years repeated attempts, for the most part in vain, were made to force a way into the interior of the country. One finds a few accounts, but they are very confused and inconsistent. At last, in 1644, the old Ming Dynasty was succeeded by the Manchu Dynasty and the position of the Jesuit missionaries was immediately changed. Ever since the death of Xavier, they had waited expectantly for this moment, and now proceeded as victors to the capital, where they were destined very soon to exercise their political skill and to play a great part at the court. For it was not only as men who taught the truths of salvation, but as engineers, mathematicians, and astronomers, that they gained influence and won the position which they sought. The Jesuit Adam Schall, an accomplished man from Cologne, became president of the Imperial Astronomical Tribunal in 1643 and filled the post till 1645. Other Jesuits held it, with only short interruptions, to the worst days of the persecution, and into the nineteenth century. In 1655 appeared the Novus Atlas Sinensis, by the Jesuit Martinus Martini. It was published at Amsterdam, and in 1663 was included in the magnificent work of Blaeus, the Welt-Atlas. It was compiled from Chinese authorities and maps, and supported by the author’s own observations. The merchants followed the lead of the Fathers. The accounts of the first legations of the Dutch in the sixties received the authority of the Jesuit settlers, and were endorsed by them.

After the arrival of the five French Jesuits, when from 1688 regular news and letters came to Paris from the Fathers, it was supposed that the doors of China were to remain open for ever to the Christian mission; and the desire to press on into the intimate secrets of this marvellous civilisation grew in foreign countries beyond all bounds. (We shall see how the reaction in Europe affected garden art.) The original hopes very soon proved deceptive, for in the first quarter of the eighteenth century there began the persecutions of the Christians, which were carried on with deliberate intention by the Emperor Kien-lung, whose long reign extended into the last two-thirds of the century. He kept at Peking the Jesuits who were so useful to him, got all the good he could out of their learning, gave them tasks of a lofty scientific character, paid great honour to the Italian painter Castiglione, and made European houses and gardens; but in respect to their own calling he left them severely alone. Thus it came about that China was completely closed to foreigners in the eighteenth century, for even the famous embassy of Lord Macartney was economically fruitless. All the same, there arrived an uninterrupted stream of news from the interior of China. Indeed, it was the eighteenth century that first brought about some real understanding and some sort of comparison with the West.

This short sketch indicates the sources from which the nature of garden art in the countries of Eastern Asia came to be known by Europeans. This art, with its own technique and its own sentiment, is perhaps easier for us moderns to understand, despite its marvellous foreign nature, because we are able to place it among other kinds of art in Eastern Asia. We have passed out of a period of the picturesque style in Europe, and we are able to compare it with a similar effort made in Asia, taking into account the great difference in the means at the disposal of the two, and in their aims. For Europeans in the seventeenth century both the name and the nature of “ Landscape Gardens,” about which travellers spoke, were something quite foreign and unfamiliar.

Sir William Temple writes of it with some surprise in his Essay in 1685, in which he collects with much discrimination the various tendencies of gardening art in his time.

What I have said of the best forms of gardens [he writes] is meant only of such as are in some sort regular; for there may be other forms wholly irregular, that may, for aught I know, have more beauty than any of the others. . . Something of this I have seen in some places, but heard more of it from others who have lived much among the Chinese, a people whose way of thinking seems to Iie as wide of ours in Europe, as their country does. Among us, the beauty of building and planting is placed chiefly in some certain proportions, symmetries, or uniformities ; our walks and our trees ranged so as to answer one another, and at exact distances. The Chinese scorn this way of planting. . • . Their greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed. . . . And whoever observes the work upon the best India gowns, or the painting upon their best skreens or purcellans, will find their beauty is all of this kind, (that is) without order.

A comprehension, however slight and imperfect, of the true Chinese feeling was a great help to the next generation, which brought the picturesque style to the front. People laughed at Sir William Temple’s concern lest the difficult job should be attempted of imitating a Chinese garden, and nobody suspected how right he really was. His idea that people should study Chinese gardening by way of their paintings ought to have been a fruitful one, for the two are connected very closely.

This new and peculiar kind of art came into our circle of vision as a complete, perfected thing—a style built upon a distant tradition, which is disengaged from what we call garden architecture, and from any of those useful purposes that we found to be fundamental elsewhere.