Sharawadgi and Chinoiserie: A Changed Landscape 1650-1800

May 16, 2020

“The Chineses… have a particular word,” began Sir William Temple (1628–1699) in Upon the Gardens of Epicurus. This word, he claimed, expressed “beauty… without any order or disposition of parts”. When such beauty should “hit their eye at first sight, they say the Sharawadgi is fine or admirable.”

Whether or not the Chineses had anything linguistic to do with sharawadgi has fueled academic fires for centuries,

yet the term’s sharp effect on England’s aesthetic is less in debate. Indeed, Temple could “hardly realize” the importance his Eastern introduction would have in starting a “revolt against the artificial pattern of garden art.”

popular in Europe since Pliny. After him, “Eddison, Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith, etc… all paid attention to Chinese gardening”

in a tradition reaching modernity.

If Temple was fountainhead of the English revolution, Ji Cheng 計成 (1582–1642) was bottle-stopper for the millennia-long tradition of zaoyuan 造園 (creating gardens) running to the Tang and beyond. Yuanye 園冶 (The Craft of Gardens)

was Ji Cheng’s only work and China’s first major treatise to establish exactly which principles governed the beauty ‘without order or disposition’ that Temple perceived and proselytized. An often abstruse manual,

Yuanye contains a variety of concise aphorisms used as summations of underlying cosmological concepts in Chinese garden design by such luminaries as Wang Peng 王澎 to this day.

Through comparison of this and other pre-modern Chinese texts with the writings and engravings of 17th century England, the great gulf separating both halves of the nominally unified landscaping tradition le gout Anglo-Chinois will become obvious. Though similar in immediate appearance, the long-held belief that England’s naturalised landscaping shares now or ever did a “set of fundamental aesthetic principles”

with the Chinese beyond the superficial is simply not tenable in context.

Ming-era wash painting: ‘The Fisherman Recluses on Mount Xi,’ Tangyin. (Source: National Palace Museum, Taibei)
Ming-era wash painting: ‘The Fisherman Recluses on Mount Xi,’ Tangyin. (Source: National Palace Museum, Taibei)

In beginning it befits us to establish where both traditions intersect and exactly why so many notables have conflated Anglo with Chinois for so long. Certainly historical ammunition abounds: by the time Epicurus made the press, Chinoiserie and Exoticism

were at their most fevered heights. Montaigne had his posthumous Essais depict a “China… [which] in government and in the arts, without trade or knowledge of our [societies], surpasses our examples in many excellent areas.”

Nor do we lack contemporary parallels in the specific realm of gardening. Just seven years after the publication of Yuanye in 1631, Boyceau’s Traité du jardinage became one of the earliest treatises directly concerning the pleasure garden to be published in the West. Similarly, just as Europe saw the birth of its most revered landscapist Andre Le Notre in 1613

, China’s Ji Cheng and Zhang Jialian 張家漣 (1587–1671) were making astounding successes as professional gardeners on their own continent. Indeed, a “garden mania”

had taken root from the middle Ming and ran until the late Qing, with “the area of Jiangnan becoming a locus of private gardens”

- some “half” of all available land occupied by the personal yuanyou 園囿 (garden enclosures) of one or another rapidly ascendant merchant breaking from the “rigid Confucian hierarchical system”.

In the lengthy preamble to Wen Zhengheng’s 文震亨(1585–1645) Zhangwu Zhi 長物志 (Treatise on Superfluous Things), its aristocratic author complains of the erosion of art in a commercial slipstream: “These days, the wealthy, the ordinary, and the philistine alike speak of art as if they knew the true meaning of ‘elegance’”

. Contemporary Northern Europe was practically a mirror for this trend, with “large waves of Catholic church and old aristocratic land passing into the hands of new owners”

after the Reformation, fuelling new “exploitation”

of the land and a subsequent hunger for arcadia. William Kent, who would become luminary of England’s naturalistic landscaping revolution, was attached as wage labourer to Chiswick Manor, working “for and under [its lord] Burlington”

. Kent would certainly have caught the gist of Ji Cheng’s quip that a garden is but “three parts craftsman to seven parts master.” (三分匠,七分主人)

It need hardly surprise an observer, then, to learn that a prevailing design trend in one seat of ‘garden mania’ would catch on in another. What Temple called for in his appeal to rethink gardens after the Chinese were “forms wholly irregular” of beauty owed “to some extraordinary dispositions on nature in the seat… many disagreeing parts… which shall yet upon the whole, be very agreeable.”

This Kent first actioned with caution at Chiswick, twisting a once painstakingly straightened canal into a proto-serpentine river and installing zig-zagging walkways in place of the customary arrow-straight crisscrossed lines. Kent’s reimagining of landscape orthodoxy could almost have sprung from the Tang poetic imagination: “the twisting path runs to the secluded place…” 曲徑通幽處

goes one famous poem of that era. Further, the naturalising philosophy underlying these changes appears to chime immediately with the foundational tenet of Ji Cheng’s manual: tiyi yinjie 體宜因借 (contextual layouts and scenery sourced or borrowed from the preexisting

), rendered more intelligibly in his longer sentence “Skill… is shown in the ability to ‘follow’ and ‘borrow from’ the existing scenery and lie of the land, and artistry is shown in the feeling of suitability created.”

(巧于因借,精在体宜). Writing in 1764 on the newfound naturalism of gardens in his country, William Shenstone delighted in its “appeal to the imagination,” something Keswick describes as “inherent in all the attitudes of… Yuan Ye”.

Horace Walpole gushed at Rousham’s gentle stream “taught to serpentine… at its pleasure… discontinued by different levels… concealed by thickets properly interspersed, and glittered again at a distance where it might be supposed naturally to arrive.”

On which principle does such a vista appear to run than another of Ji Cheng’s: “Raising high places is fitting, the lower are suitable for digging (i.e. lowering)” (高阜可培,低方宜挖)

. Nor was Ji Cheng outlier in his interpretation of best practice for garden design. Though his text only attained canonical status through the efforts of Professor Chen Zhi

in the twentieth century and had petered out of circulation by the early Qing, it was regarded by Zheng Yuanxun 鄭元勛 (1603–1644) to have “achieved an importance” in the craft of gardening equal to the Zhou Ritual’s enduring Artificer’s Record 考工記

. Ji Cheng’s most famous real-life creation was recorded in the 1637 Personal Records of Ying Garden 影園自記 with his manual’s tenets of natural grace and ‘contextual layout’ fully present and correct: “the mountains afar,” Zheng recorded, could be “perceived as though [they were] the very landscape in my garden.”

Ying became one of the most famed of all Yangzhou gardens, but was not noted for its aberrance - only excellence.

In this light, Ji Cheng’s manual represents the apotheosis of the prevalent ethos in a Chinese field. Its litany of eloquent suggestions matching so well those English gardens adopting the Templian mode might, then, be taken as pointed signifiers of an entire tradition, stretching even to the present day. The notion that Temple’s suggestion to “follow the landscape of nature” was “close to the classical Chinese gardening ‘purport’ (旨趣)”

then appears not only reasonable, but even correct. Yet even before a thorough investigation of Anglo-Chinois’ cosmological separation, there are obvious common facets that failed to translate westwards. Neither the “grotesquely shaped stones” nor “interpenetration of house[s]” - “central features of Chinese garden design”

- succeeded in making even vague impression in England. Further, the likeliest source of information on naturalistic garden design to have ever reached Kent was Matteo Ripa’s (1682–1746) thirty-six engravings depicting the Chinese imperial palaces and gardens at Zehe purchased by his Lord Burlington. The gardener had “little literary pretension”

and could quite feasibly have never even read Epicurus, leaving him nothing but third-hand information from an aged Jesuit and access to his engravings for inspiration - nothing if not an ideologically limited glimpse into an unknown world. Comparing Figures 1 and 2

it is clear that Kent’s naturification was on grand scale and in the very best of taste, yet with direct contact between the landscape-inclined of both lands as non-existent as it was, claiming deep debt to the Chinese tradition proves difficult. Through all the serpentine walkways and flowing brooks, precious little of China had actually made its way into Chiswick. Keswick puts it best in passing: that no English gardener ever communicated with a Chinese counterpart “is a pity for, when writing about landscape design, they often sound remarkably alike.”

An artist’s recreation of the Ying Garden as the Records prescribed during the Ming period. (Source: Artstation)
An artist’s recreation of the Ying Garden as the Records prescribed during the Ming period. (Source: Artstation)

It is but this remarkability that has sustained the tight linkage of Anglo-Chinois - for coincidence and nativity are difficult concepts to swallow in academia. As Wu Jingyang describes, though looking at the information sent back to Europe “demonstrates a progressing knowledge of Chinese gardens,” even in totality it was “entirely not enough to support them [the English] in the construction of… even a fragment”

of one. A term of dubious origin, a set of engravings and the letters of Father Atirret were not enough to even begin communicating the unitary cosmology of a gardening tradition born in a world without “the subject/object opposition” of Europe.

As object in European cosmology, the garden was plaything fundamentally in thrall to its subject - the human observer. For the Chinese artist, the Dao inheres both in himself and his ‘object’ - nullifying that oppositional relationship. “Animals, plants, all are wen” 文 (Pattern, structure) (動植皆文) in Liu Xie’s 刘勰 (?-522) The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons.

“The sculpted colours of the clouds surpass painted beauty, the blossoms of the flowers and trees rely none on the wonder of embroiderers.”

(雲霞雕色,有踰畫工之妙;草木賁華,無待錦匠之奇). As wen himself, the Chinese gardener strives not only to recreate nature in all her ‘order-less’ beauty, but rather to reconstruct nature in her entirety, to “fit the heavens and earth into a pot” 壺中天地

- in the most literal sense. Even the title of our Yuan Ye insists on drawing itself into this circular cosmos - the sense of ye 冶 as smelting referring us to a chapter of the Book of Changes “in which the operation of the dao is discussed as a ‘bellowing,’”

suggesting a unitary consciousness for the construction of gardens. Thus, in Ji Cheng’s formulation, if you “have the real thing within when making the imitation, the imitation will become real” (有真為假,做假成真). This zhen 真 (real/reality) only appears six times in the whole work and should be seen to represent not only that great cosmological unity the gardener’s imitation ought to “become,” but a marker to distinguish the su 俗 (common) from the ya 雅 (elegant, refined). On the very first page of the author’s preface, Ji Cheng is returning to his home region when he comes across a group of rock-collecters, only to “burst out laughing” (為發一笑). The object of his mirth is a group of “artificial mountains” (假山) the natives have collected. They question his mirth, on which he shoots back “why do you not imitate the appearance of real (zhen) mountains, instead of those heaps of fist-shaped stones which country people put up.” (胡不假真山形,而假迎勾芒者之拳磊乎?)

Here we find not only the real/artificial opposition, but also the literati’s scorn for the commoner. This sentiment is prevalent throughout the landscaping canon - Wen Zhengheng especially keen on admonishing his audience from stooping to the su with recurrent uses of ji 忌 (avoid) and buyi 不宜 (not fitting - i.e. do not do) throughout his text.

For as much as the country person might be part of the great zhen unity, they are simultaneously incapable of assimilating to the ya of political and lawful legitimacy native to the gentry.

This notion of literary exclusivity connects with another general discordance of Anglo-Chinois - poetics and painting in the Chinese mold extending into garden design. As the Qing writer Jiang ji 蔣驥 (1714–1787) put it in Duhuajiwen 讀畫紀聞: “In the ordering of water and mountains, it is as the control of composition - you settle on a structure from the large position” and need only “adorn” the “middle portions”. In like manner, Ji Cheng opens his singular treatise with reference to favourite painters Guan Tong 關仝 (906–960) and Jing Hao 荊浩 (855–915), noting how he “pays homage to them” (每宗之) in all his works. Links with composition could also be corporeal: gardens attained great popularity among those “artists and poets who had yearned for a more secluded lifestyle”.

Visiting such a representative private pleasure garden in Suzhou as the Wang Shi Yuan 網師園 even today yields clear evidence for the use a Qing or Ming commissioner might have had in soliciting his garden. A large library takes up much of the Wang Shi Yuan’s eastern wall and enclosed courtyard adjacent to the main entrance is designed as such to “protect” a reader and “give him a pleasant prospect on which to look out.”

Indeed, the library and study space was the most integral part of a garden’s design, for its owner’s time was most “often spent writing poetry and practising calligraphy”

as part of a tradition reaching back to the Wei-Jin period. The creation of a garden was deemed “manifestation of the literati’s inner cultivation.”

As already mentioned, one of the features most self-evidently lacking in China’s proposed cultural export was the frequent use of piled-rock ‘artificial mountains’ - aesthetic markers which actually fulfilled a practical purpose in disguising staircases leading to the libraries and private study rooms used to house the cultural activities a gentry-class Chinese would fill his time with.

Given any lack of similar necessity in an English counterpart, the failure to adopt this distinctive practice appears symptomatic not only of gardens different in actualisation, but at root inception. As disparate as the cosmogonies of these distant territories was, it may be in function rather than form that their gardens differed most greatly.

An engraving of the old Chiswick House around 1698-99. (Source: Britannia Illustrata)
An engraving of the old Chiswick House around 1698-99. (Source: Britannia Illustrata)

Not knowing this - indeed knowing little more than sharawadgi - Joseph Addison (1672–1719) interpreted Temple and became England’s chief proselytiser for the cause of Chinese naturalism. In publishing his horticultural opinions, not only did Addison cement the popular conception of English and Chinese gardening as “essentially identical,”

but also demonstrated exactly why they are so fundamentally dissimilar. He presumed the Chinese gardener a kind of druid - in search of “natural wildness”

and nothing more. In fact Ji Cheng argues for “setting up tapestries and screens painted with emerald mountains” (障錦山屏, 列千尋之聳翠) and the construction of artifice through artistic composition: “Temples should appear,” he advises, “through round windows, like a painting by the Younger Li.”

宇隱環窗彷彿片圖小李. The ‘portent’ of the Chinese gardener was never to create artificial wildness, but rather to construct a practical space of seclusion and show tucked away within the great bellows of the universe - for as “Ch’eng Chao-hsiung” described: it was almost “inevitable… that in the Sung and Ming Dynasties the garden was looked upon as a world.”

National debate over creative ownership within England would jab and jive its way through a host of barbed satire and published polemics until the nineteenth century loomed. Indeed, the literary spat between Horace Walpole, William Mason and William Chambers has long since become the stuff of scholarly legend.

In truth, Temple’s sharawadgi, Kent’s Chiswick, Addison’s Spectator and Chambers’ Dissertation all shared elements borrowed from an idea of China founded on some elements of Chinese reality. The English gardener not so much misread the Chinese, nor “mispreread”

it as Ge Liangyan suggests - rather he ‘mis-spread’ it. Naturalistic English gardens were a mostly self-contained and - after taking root - a self-reproducing phenomenon. Temple read Confucius,

but could only fail to understand the implications of neo-Confucianist visual culture in guiding designers to a “winding movement of the eyes”

that might transcend legibility and reveal an image’s true nature. Kent saw Ripa’s engravings and rethought his neo-classical approach to landscapes, but failed to adopt any of the architectural features so foundational to the literati-focussed gardens of China. In reality, communications across cultures are rarely smooth - made worse by the day’s imprecise information transmission. Inspiration certainly did float back across the rapidly shrinking oceans and deserts, just not well preserved: the Chinese garden that germinated in the West had all its great “strength and intricacy”

in its transplantation to foreign soil.

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