Monday 30 January 2012

Chinese & Japanese Gardens

Walking further along our path of time and looking east, we encounter the gardens of China and Japan.  Thick academic tomes can be, and have been written on these gardens.  What follows, therefore, is nothing more than an overview.  In fact I am not sure Westerners can ever fully understand the nuances of garden styles that are an physical expression of a far deeper and ingrained psycho-philosophical nature-centric view of the world and our place in it. 
The Silver Temple, Kyoto
Certainly, and however hard we try to imitate Chinese and in particular, Japanese garden, we never do more than that - create an imitation.  And in so doing we loose their essence - five minutes spent in a garden in Kyoto or Suzhou drives that point home subtly bur emphatically.

In China, hunting parks., somewhat similar to the Persian pairidæza, were made during the Zhou period (1066-221 BC).  Perhaps the most famous was the Shanglin Park created by Qin Shi Huang as ‘ a symbol of the empire's worldly supremacy and cosmic grandeur.’

The spectacular Chinese landscape was seen as something to be used - the impact of man being considered adornment rather than subjugation - an attitude which can be said to have direct parallels with the English Landscape Garden of the 18th century.

The landscape was also associated with the legendary eight Immortals or xian, who lived amongst the peaks of the mythical Mount Kunlun (the Himalaya) in the west, and on the Isles of the Blessed in the eastern sea, with their misty valleys, blue rivers, delightful flora and pleasure pavilions.
The Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
This concept of Immortality and the eternal unity of all things in nature became an intrinsic part of Taoism and, together with the legends of the Islands of the Immortals became fused with the teaching of Buddhism which arrived in China in the 1st century AD.

All had a strong impact on Chinese garden styles.  By the 3rd century a cultural matrix of mythology and nature philosophy (together with a hefty dose of imperial authority) melded with the arts of gardening, painting, poetry and calligraphy in an approach that was going to last for 1,500 years.
The Lingering Garden, Suzhou
For the literati, the garden was a place of enjoyment, repose, study and discussion.  Within the enclosing walls, a variety of sensory experiences were created through the medium of ingenious spatial connections and the core design elements of water and rock, symbolic of mountains and the sea, with pavilions  from which to view the garden.

In Japan, the dominant religion before the arrival of Taoist and Buddhist ideas from China in the 5th and 6th centuries was Shinto which teaches that everything contains a kami or spirit power.  Indeed, The Japanese word for garden, niwa, was first used to denote a sanctified space in nature set apart for the worship of Shinto.

Pure Land Buddhism was particularly influential on the development of gardens during the Heian period (794-1191) when architecture followed the symmetrical shinden style.  Gardens, with their water and rock symbolising both the Pure Land the Islands of the Blessed were large and to be used.  A rare survivor (albeit much modified) is Byōdō-in near Kyoto.
The Kamakura (1185-1333) & Muromachi (1333-1547) periods saw rise of the samuri and a shift to asymmetrical shoin architecture with the garden becoming something to be viewed not entered.  This was the time of widespread adoption of Zen Buddhism, the austerity and simplicity of its ethos and its gardens appealing to the needs and wants of the samuri.  So arose the kare niwa or dry gardens.  The Muromachi era also saw the emergence of the tea ceremony and a refined rusticity of the tea garden.  
Ryogen-in, Kyoto
Early in the Edo Period (1603-1867) came the Stroll Garden, its aim to epitomise the art of kirei sabi - elegant beauty infused with a weathered rustic quality.

Is sum, the Japanese garden is not simply a copying of nature, ‘self created’ as the word shizen would have us believe.  It has always been nature crafted by man, and at its best, is nature as art.  For although the garden may look natural, the garden maker has taken select forms of nature, isolated them from their natural context and placed them to be experienced within the new, unnatural setting, an intellectually imposed enclosure which physically and visually frames nature.

Katrsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto
Thus the Japanese garden is a symbiosis of the right angle and natural form, and is very closely associated to the architecture of the house.  In Japan beauty is perceived as the conscious overlapping of the beauty of a natural object and the perfection of the man-made type.  The Japanese garden aims to be an amalgam of both these forms of beauty. 

All I can add is - go there and see them for yourself.  From personal experience, 15 minutes spent in Ryoan-ji before the gates opened to the public is something I will never forget.  For more, have a read of Marie Luise Gothein's chapter on China and Japan.

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