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The Aesthetics of the Chinese Classical Literati-Garden in Yuan Ye

Shikui Li, Wuhan University, Fellow 2006–2007

Yuan Ye (published in 1634 by Ji Cheng) is the first treatise on Chinese classical gardens and the most systematic one. Previous discussions of Yuan Ye followed three cardinal directions: The first debates the disputed interpretation of the diverged original text written in ancient Chinese and generally introduces ITS contents as well as theoretical value. The second analyzes theories of gardening and its significance for present landscape architecture. And the third discloses aspects of related history about society, economy and geography of the Late Ming Dynasty. It also envisions abundant connotations to living customs and literature, found through allusion, literary quotation, and famous poems that Yuan Ye refers to.

Great attention has been cast after Chen Zhi published his first edition of the "annotated Yuan Ye" in 1981, which had been widely cited through publication of many articles and two monographs. There are still many issues that need to be pursued about the conventional education, contemporary attitudes toward life philosophy that profoundly influenced the aesthetic predilection of Literati, the relationship between the principle of gardening put forward by Ji Cheng (that a gardener should take advantage of the initial lay of the land, garden site and clients), Chinese philosophical thought expounded in different ways in Philosophical Classics (one's course of action should be changed in accordance with the developing circumstance) and the value and significance in nowadays burgeoning domain of environmental aesthetics under the background of ecology movement and environmentalism. My research focuses on preceding issues that explore its underlying cultural connotation, connections and significance in terms of Chinese Classical Aesthetics by using the knowledge of Chinese Classical Philosophy and Landscape Design.

My research at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library confirms this notion that the aesthetic inclination is a production of collective recognition and conventional customs in the context of concrete economical modes and political frames, and that it is shaped with the participation of individual psychology, accumulation of knowledge, experience and personality. My report argues that: Although what seems natural to one culture can be strangely upsetting to another. The intrinsic quality of a Chinese man-made landscape is naturalness. A taste of a garden embodies the common life philosophy and cultural background of Literati such as the elegant favor of cultivated and ethical elements that is advocated by Confucianism, and the simple love of natural spontaneity that is urged by Daoism. These attitudes derive from and strengthen two primary spiritual purposes of building a garden, i.e. the function of enhancing virtues and raising naturalness except for physical pleasure. Other aesthetic opinions reflect special characteristics of the Ming dynasty. For example, the emphasis of affection and emotion in deploying theory of borrowing scenery demonstrates the philosophical natural-humanness tide of thought in the Late Ming Feudal Society with the emergence of the early commercial economy.

Professional activities

Articles: On the aesthetic connotation of the natural ideal of Chinese Classical Gardens, in the beauty of gardens, 2007, 4, Ed. by Prof. Chen Wangheng.

Position: Assistant Professor of School of Art and Design in Wuhan University of Technology.