Education About Asia: Online Archives

Blending with Nature: Classical Chinese Gardens in the Suzhou Style

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Written, directed, produced by Raymond W. Olson
2003. 53 Minutes. VHS. Color.
Distributed by Sacred Mountain Productions
17404 SE 17th Way, Vancouver, WA 98683
Phone: 866-597-6800
E-mail: brolson@pacifier.com
Web site: www.sacred-mountain.com

Reviewed by JAMES L. HUFFMAN

Lion Forest Garden in Suzhou. Photo by Mark Bothe

Editor’s Note: Readers who desire more information on classical Chinese gardens are encouraged to go to http://www.aasianst.org/EAA/nemroff.htm for an extensive bibliography developed by Lauren Nemroff of the Reed College Department of Art.

Students usually react skeptically—or with puzzlement—when I point out that traditional Chinese scholars sought to be Con­fucian in the daytime and Daoist in the evening. The idea strikes them as contradictory. After seeing Blending with Nature, I expect they will understand more easily what I am saying.

The film will not likely win major awards for production. Its narration tends toward dullness; the photography lacks subtlety; and the pace sometimes is slow. As it moves along, however, it becomes increasingly engaging, flowing fluidly (in Daoist fash­ion) from garden to garden and poem to poem. At the same time, it is quite carefully structured (Confucian style) and full of the kinds of insights that had me saying, “I think this will work in class: certainly in my introductory East Asian Cultures course, probably in Premodern East Asian history too.”

Blending with Nature introduces the scholar-gardens that were so important to China’s literati in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911). Taking us through eleven classical gardens, eight of them in Suzhou near Shanghai, it blends poetry, diary quotations, zither music, and commentary by art historians and museum cura­tors to explain both the structures of the gardens and the impact they had on those who used them. Even the gardens’ names, we are told, reveal what it was that scholars found so useful in them: Gar­den of Cultivation, Humble Scholar Garden, Cloud Capped Peak Garden, Garden of Awakening Orchid (Portland, Oregon).

The basic purpose of the scholar-garden—to bring sensitivity into the lives of officials whose daily work threatens to dull their spirits—is explained in several of the Chinese quotations on which the film’s producers draw: a 1600s’ garden manual’s notation that a garden should allow one “to live as a hermit, even in the middle of the marketplace;” the observation of a scholar in 1868 that “if a home has not a garden and an old tree, I see not where the every­day joys of life are to come;” Tang poet Li Bai’s description of the garden as place that yields “a heart free of care.”

A central theme of Blending with Nature is the remarkable capacity of scholar-gardens for incorporating a wide variety of traditional Chinese intellectual concerns. On the one hand, the garden was a place for visitors to experience China’s elite arts: paintings, music, calligraphy, poetry, architecture, and the quiet, misty, beauties of nature. On the other hand, it was meant to sym­bolize the entire Chinese cosmology, the yin/yang blend of activi­ty and passivity that energized the world. If one encapsulated too much nature and too little culture, said Confucius, he would become a savage; if he had too much culture and too little nature, a pedant.

In class, my inclination would be to ask students to identify the elements of Chinese thought and culture they find in the film, without much prior prodding or reading. Or I might prime the dis­cussion by asking them to delineate the Daoist and Confucian ideas, and the way in which they supported, or blended into, each other. Among the features I would expect them to encounter are the following.

Daoism. I hope that some will notice the Daoist flow of the film, the way it moves from voice to picture, from music to poet­ry, from panorama to tiny nook, from Suzhou to Vancouver, with few clear demarcations. The fact that Li Bai is quoted but the Confucian Du Fu is not heightens this sense. So does the structure of the gardens: the avoidance of symmetry: the use of zig-zag walks (“what could be covered in three steps he wants us to take in nine steps”), the appreciation of light rain that “adds to the mystery of nature’s mystic beauty,” the surprises provided by lat­tice windows that let visions of ponds, willows, and mountain-rocks “leak through.” To view Suzhou’s gardens and miss their seemingly unstructured grace is unthinkable.

Confucianism. Equally dominant but less obvious (and thus more appealing for perceptive students) are the gardens’ many Confucian qualities: the careful planning that lies behind the “nat­uralness,” the scholastic names the creators gave to their gardens, the tendency of scholars to speculate endlessly on what the gar­dens’ elements mean. We see willows symbolizing softness, pomegranates betokening female fertility, banana plants standing for self-education (because early students, having no paper, wrote on their leaves), bamboo representing firmness and softness, loy­alty and righteousness. These gardens are nothing if not scholas­tic—in conception, in execution, in actual experience.

The gardens of this film thus constitute the essence of what a Confucian scholar sought to create: a well thought out, carefully constructed art form that is, in the words of the film, “a bit reserved, so it always gives you some room for the imagination.” Thus, the sharply upturned eaves, so painstakingly designed, might serve to warn off the evil spirits, to admit light into the interior of a pavilion, or to simply divert the falling rain. And the tall, narrow rock may suggest a mountain, or it may simply be a stunning rock. But to the garden’s scholar, it always stands for something.

The best thing of all about Blending with Nature is the ever-growing, cumulative effect that accrues from the endless views of natural microcosms: a pond through an oval window, water flowing along an adobe wall, the moon above a soughing pine, a miniature tree flanked by calligraphy-filled scrolls, the shadows of a bamboo grove, intricate pebble arrangements. These gardens were created by Confucian scholars, artists all, who wanted visitors to experience nature as the mind knows it, and thus to become more sensitive human beings. Students may not come away from this film ener­gized, but they should come away understanding the Confucian­Daoist cosmology with their senses as well as their minds.