Garden design in Japan and China

August 5, 2009

in Articles, General Interest

I recently received the following information in an email from Louisa Jones, in relation to her new book, ‘The Garden Visitor’s Companion’:

“In working on Japanese gardens for this book, I was amazed to find people still using a Medieval design manual the Sakutei-ki (some sources say 1200, others twelfth century). Evidence of the continuity of Zen gardens through centuries, even today, implies shared references through time. I wonder if the Chinese are not more like this?

Eric Borja told me about a Japanese designer Mirei Shigemori, who worked in the thirties, who, according to him, tried to be western and became ‘fashionable’ and as a result his work ‘dated’, in a way that gardens by his contemporaries, who stuck closer to home design, did not. (Two books came out about him last year, one with the title ‘Modernizing the Japanese Garden.’)

But I don’t know exactly what the differences were, what he did that made him less than timeless.”

I asked Yue Zhuang for her comments from a Chinese perspective:

by Yue Zhuang

The story of the unsuccessful Japanese gardener implies, it seems to me, a genuinely ‘human’ attitude of the Japanese, or more broadly, the oriental, towards the world, in a sense that is against the mechanical and the absolute, which is quite the core of Western thoughts and the root of the modernism as well. (I suppose ‘modernism’ is what the Japanese gardener was pursuing as ‘western’ and ‘fashionable’?)

In some sense it is really worth applause that he failed, which, for me, is not very surprising, as it is in accord with the Japanese cultural sensibility. The Japanese have an extraordinary tradition of studying and assimilating the good from other cultures. They have a very open or even radical way in taking in the new, whereas sticking firmly to the core of their own culture. It sounds contradictory, but it worked out so well in the 9-12 centuries when they were modelling on China, and similarly on the West since the 19th century.

I am not surprised that the 12 century manual is still in use there nowadays. When I was there in 2000, I saw mostly traditional gardens everywhere. At the same time, I was so amazed to find the most refined ‘modernism’ works with such an appealing sense of ‘Zen’! What could exemplify being innovative and ‘original’ better than this? Only by rooting deeply into the tradition and being able to interpret or adapt it to the present, could it be possible to be innovative.

How about China then? Compared with the Japanese, I feel it really a shame that we have so lost our tradition, not only just the material one, but more importantly an attitude that would ‘consider the weight and respect’ of it! I was brought up in the slogan of ‘Fulfilling Four Modernizations’, in its most radical sense, and tradition had been so condemned as shackles which only hamper one from progressing. (Such an attitude was not initiated by the Chinese communists, – although certainly they reinforced it considerably, especially during the Cultural Revolution,- but should be traced back to a prevailing nihilism in the 1910s, when imperial China, having failed all the challenges from the West, was demolished.)

Nowadays it seems to get better. The government tends to change their attitude to the tradition – considering the new slogan of ‘constructing a harmonious society’ which is borrowed from Confucianism— but the influences it has already got on each individual still remains strong.

For most intellectuals, tradition still bears a negative sense as the Enlightenment accuses, whereas science and technology are playing the role of ‘truth’: maybe an exposé on this would be the best ‘garden’ for them.

Yue Zhuang – Phd student at the University of Edinburgh

Read Chris Young’s review of “The Garden Visitor’s Companion”

Thames and Hudson
Louisa Jones
ISBN 9780500514634

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