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Metaphors of Empire: Chinese Gardens in Western Traveler’s Accounts

Bianca Maria Rinaldi, University of Camerino

In the 1690s, to support the initial debate on the evolution of Western garden aesthetics from compositions inspired by geometry to ones inspired by nature, the British writer and great admirer of the Chinese model of government grounded in the Confucian philosophy, William Temple, used an exotic novelty as an example of that attitude: the gardens of China. In 1860, as the final act of a military campaign to expand their trading privileges in China, the joint Anglo-French expedition devastated the imperial park celebrated in so many accounts of those Western writers who had the privilege of seeing it as the finest expression of Chinese garden art: the Yuanming yuan, or “Garden of Perfect Brightness.” My paper will discuss the different phases the Chinese garden knew in eighteenth-century literary descriptions written by Western travelers visiting China: from the creation of a myth to its destruction.

French Jesuits and other missionaries, British diplomats, merchants and plant hunters offered Europe their own perceptions of the gardens of China, based on direct experience of the sites. Through their descriptions, I will discuss the changes in Western perceptions of Chinese gardens: from a general fascination with the natural appearance of the Chinese gardens, to an increasingly methodical approach which led Western eyewitnesses to try to codify the distinctive features of the gardens of China and to propose them as models for Western gardens, to a progressively declined appeal of China and its gardens.

I will argue that the different attitudes towards gardens found in travelers’ accounts influenced, and were in turn influenced by changing Western views of China as an empire. If China was first praised as a high model of political wisdom, civil virtue, and ethics, it was later regarded as an example of despotism and stagnation. That changing view was reflected in judgments on gardens: the reverence travelers had shown for the natural simplicity of Chinese gardens had dissolved by the beginning of the nineteenth century into rejection of a garden style considered too elaborate and even unnatural.

Bianca Maria Rinaldi is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the School of Architecture and Design at Ascoli Piceno, University of Camerino, Italy, which she joined in 2010, and co-editor of JoLA - Journal of Landscape Architecture. Her research focuses on both historical and contemporary landscape architecture, with an emphasis on Far East Asia, and on cross-cultural relations between Chinese and European garden culture and landscape architecture. She is the author of The “Chinese Garden in Good Taste”; Jesuits and Europe’s Knowledge of Chinese Flora and Art of the Garden in 17th and 18th Centuries (Munich, 2006) and of The Chinese Garden: Garden Types for Contemporary Landscape Architecture (Basel, 2011), which was awarded a J. B. Jackson Prize for 2012 by the Foundation for Landscape Studies. Bianca is currently preparing an anthology of Western accounts of Chinese gardens, which comprises writings from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In the fall of 2012, she was a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

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