The birth of traditional Chinese gardens, known as Yuan Lin (园林) can be traced to prehistory in the form hunting and gathering grounds. (Xu, Chen and Xu 2018) It metamorphosed in function and style to serve diverse settings – notably in temples, palaces and aristocratic residences. For centuries, an elite class of men perfected artificial landscapes which they saturated with symbols, giving it larger-than-life status. Written and painted records detail unearthly gardens like Sima Guang’s Du-le Yuan, or the Garden of Solitary Delight and the Song Emperor Huizhong’s Genyue – a garden that boasted among other things, a topography of engineered mountains.
Born of cultural and economic affluence, imperial gardens in China were miniaturised ‘good place’. Most salient was the Old Summer Palace of Beijing known as Yuanming Yuan, or the ‘Garden of Perfect Brightness’ conceived at the height of the Qing dynasty. The emperor Qianlong devoted himself to make the garden not only an artistic gem but a fitting abode for a sage ruler – as a matter of fact, it was the preferred residence and place to conduct official duties for later Qing rulers.
Scholarly men in ancient China built reputable gardens to speak for their virtues - a parallel that was subject of public interest and scrutiny. A collapsing Qing dynasty saw the Old Summer Palace looted and razed in a histrionic display of colonial aggression and in the following decades, ravaged by rebels, warlords and opportunistic civilians. (Wong 2016) Embodying the shame that accompanies a harrowing period of Chinese history, the vacuum left by the garden is intertwined with nationalistic sentiment and longing, fortified by its existence as historical text, photographic memory and architectural ruin.
In spite of its complex design and administrative importance, the Yuanming Yuan was the utopian declaration of the individual who reigns over garden and empire. The eventful dissolution however, made it an untenable icon, a shared memory that forms part of the modern Chinese identity.
It was thought to be a psychological ailment arising from a person’s yearning for home, a plague which resulted in widespread depression and trauma. (Routledge 2016) Today we regard nostalgia with a warm solace. On a collective level, it has been a welcome emotion for state and business, whose influence along with academic interest in the subject lend it gravitas.
As an age-old label for traditional garden, ‘Yuan Lin’ carries dated and elitist undertones. Contradicting it is Hua Yuan (花园, lit. floral garden), a vocabulary of socialist commons where children are deemed ‘blossoms’ of the nation. (Barmé 2008) But as China experienced economic reform and media boom from the 80s on, Hua Yuan acquired a new interpretation. It started to appear as consumerist images – luxurious estates like the Versailles, English country houses and the all-too-familiar American lawn. Yet for the masses, the term Gong Yuan (公园, lit. public garden) is likely most endearing as local governments make the installation of parks an imperative to provide venue for exercise, gathering and performance.
The process of turning private garden into park or tourist attraction began in the Republican era. (Dong 2019) Parks represent a modernising effort to elevate urban conditions and to inculcate citizenry with good values. Zhang Jingsheng, an intellectual active in the 1920s drafted a utopian blueprint for a ‘Beautiful Beijing’, stressing the importance of ‘imparting aesthetic values onto the Chinese people on an everyday basis.’ (Rocha 2017) Like many of his contemporaries, Zhang’s plan would treat history as a burden. Instead, parks, roads and monuments would be built from the ground up. Yet history in my opinion, has not only proven to oppose forces of change, but serves as a mandate for pursuit and development: in mainstream Chinese media, nostalgic glorification of the medieval, like staging the Tang dynasty as cosmopolitan, justifies the resurgence of China as a global power. A flawless past dreams up collective hope for utopia and stands in sharp contrast to entrenched national shame as the two lock in a narrative cycle.
Dai Jinhua wrote in a 1997 essay about the urban process which swept over historic China (examples being Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai) and tilted the balance towards a thriving coastal region in the South. Residents in a new urban environment began to experience the pain of alienation. (Dai and Chen 1997) Decades later, the old cities she mentioned not only regained economic significance, but more importantly became reservoirs of Chinese nostalgia where people yearning for the bygone search in gardens and alleyways. As recent memories take on a patina, early modern and post-industrial sites are celebrated in a manner once reserved for antiquity. Residual signs of the past are perhaps more keenly felt by the senses that they resonate with personal experience of loss and displacement.
Acknowledging the prominence of place-based memories, some proposed an alternative way to construct the ‘authentic’, departing from neoclassical Chinese-ness and Modernist anonymity. To achieve this end, attempts at recycling building material, structure or craftsmanship were crucial. The Xiangshan Campus for China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Riverside Passage in Shanghai and Red Brick Museum in Beijing are just several examples of new architecture created with debris – in the museum’s case, while no old material was used, the red brick is suggestive of a spectral cityscape.
In addition to reincarnating the local, the aforementioned projects pay homage to the craft of traditional gardens through symbolism and spatial strategies like the ‘borrowing’ of views. Claims about the Chinese garden as source material are in fact so common that it is reasonable to credit a prevalent atmosphere among artists and designers. One that could be said to ‘repair “longing” with a particular “belonging”’. (Boym 2001)
Private gardening in the wake of economic reform was evident in cities as miniature neighbourhood farms and omnipresent flora planters sitting inside metallic window encasements (anti-burglary windows).
Barmé (2008) deems such phenomena ‘a thrifty, self-sufficient means to improve a life impoverished by communalism and ill-managed state planning’. The people, he argues, are ‘ideologically resistant (or incapable) of becoming active modern consumers.’ Indeed, gardening sprang from idealism and improved life’s quality, albeit not necessarily as resistance but adaptation to the limits and estrangement of urban living. When innate desires are visibly exhibited, they inspire communitarian response. These tiny green spaces thus attain a collective influence rather unlike the publicness of state-led gardening. From jasmine to coriander - little surprise then to see flora of all kinds in older communities across the country as if orchestrated by a single mind.
The Chinese love for gardening might have been a fruit of agrarian culture. Even sophisticated garden-owners like Emperor Qianlong himself had crops sown in the Yuanming Yuan which, ironically, was turned into an agricultural production site during Japanese occupation and remained so throughout the Great Leap Forward into the 60s. (He and Bowring 2018) Somehow admirers of traditional Chinese garden tend to overlook its functionality. Imbalance towards aesthetic fetishizing renders it a perfect Other in the Western gaze, as Clunas (1996) bemoans. Chinese people too are perpetually fascinated with the lofty lifestyle and value system supporting the perfect garden that integrates the high arts (poetry, painting and calligraphy). It is not simply because culture has been lost among contemporary generations that a grand tradition becomes problematic to inherit. High-flown ways of life in written records were always a luxury for most civilians, whereas for artists or historians, gardens of the common capture no imagination.
The high-rise utopia of architects and city planners is humanised by incorporating gardens. Images of vertical greenery and hanging gardens are often seductive but inaccessible to the majority of urban population. For all technocratic goals of sustainability, construction and development take a heavy toll on the city. Many Beijing residents who were relocated in the 90s find themselves reminiscing life in the original neighbourhoods and those still living in the city’s historical centre are among the poorest. (Wang 2016) Like the rest of the world, China embarked on old neighbourhood renewal since 2007 to alleviate urban inequality and degradation. (Zhu, Li and Jiang 2020) Although piecemeal efforts in Beijing’s urban regeneration are limited, some prove to be essential.
Take for example, the installation of external elevators in older residential complexes – such policies pre-empt the need of an aging population. Not to mention that vertical transport has long been a symbol of modernisation. Bernard and Dollenmayer (2014) stressed that ‘the way technical innovations become established continues to be portrayed as a chronicle of triumphant progress, an unbroken series of adjustments and improvements: an apparatus that is at first imperfect and exotic becomes progressively improved, right down to the present day.’ The same cannot be said about how utopia is portrayed – a panacea to problems and a resolved future to replace the undesirable Now.
Ernst Bloch used ‘concrete utopia’ to describe the idea of a ‘real possible future’ which legitimises the role of utopia as a progressive entity within practical framework. (Levitas 1990) Though more relevant as a political notion, utopia-as-process is a suitable analogy to how everyday actions anticipate change, with the present situated in the continuous movement of time. What has happened and what has yet to happen are simply points of reference.
Pods of personal planting and public parks are in my eyes, ‘intimate utopias’. They offer emotional retreats, representation and expression of the self in a bustling city, accommodating both communicative urge and withdrawal – picture balconies planted with bright azalea or fragrant Osmanthus, or a lone accordion player in Beijing’s Ditan Park (formerly 地坛, or the Temple of Earth). Photographs of potted succulents shared on social media suggest how a private dimension of happiness takes place within broader connections.
Through the totality of a city’s garden spaces, we seek familiarity and comfort away from the home of our mothers, their parents and obscure ancestors. Many in China know the ancient tale ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ (桃花源), an enclave of recluse who led a hidden life untouched by external drifts. To this day its name lingers in the language we use, as do extraordinary gardens of the past. They intersect with one’s own memories – venturing up rockeries in a park or seeing the countryside – and fall into places of living.