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Entangled histories of 'Nature' in the landscape discourses of early modern China and Europe

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Nature, culture and governance: the relationship between China and Europe

By studying the exchanges of landscape art, one EU supported researcher not only examined the ‘object’ of the exchange processes, but how that exchange was conducted between societies and cultures.

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Debate about the relations between Chinese and European landscape art is not new. Since the 18th century, whether the English or European landscape gardens were ‘influenced’ by the Chinese gardens has frequently been the subject of argument. Earlier debates were often limited to aesthetics alone, without engaging the larger social and political context. The Nature Entangled project is looking at this broader picture thanks to support from a Marie Curie fellowship. Principal investigator Dr Yue Zhuang explains, “More recent studies do engage these broader contexts, but they often focus on the shift from the idealisation of China in the early Enlightenment period to its denigration in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They present a ‘progressive weakening’ of the Chinese state amidst the ‘concurrent rise’ of European powers – in other words, China is treated as an inferior ‘other’.” The Nature Entangled project highlights that, for a considerable period of time in Europe (from the 16th to the late 18th century), China was held up as a model by many Europeans for its agriculture and commerce-based economy; its enlightened and moderate monarchy, and its temperate citizens. These aspects were not perceived as being separate from landscape gardening or design. The associated values of Chinese landscapes, such as Confucian moderation, were evoked by the British conservative liberals in their vision of landscape imitating nature. They explored this ideal as a means of expressing a moral, psychophysical, and ecological order that simultaneously constituted and contradicted the emerging values of modernity in the 17th and 18th centuries. By linking the idea of ‘landscape gardens imitating nature’ to the discourses of moral governance, philosophy and physiology, as well as landscape urbanism, the Nature Entangled project assesses the interactions between China and Europe as two equal partners, free from the burdens of orientalism and progressivism. “We consider the subject as an ‘entanglement’ – the effect of cultural exchanges on the subsequent tangled narratives, negotiations, and reinterpretations of reciprocal concepts between European and Chinese cultures,” says Dr Zhuang, Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Exeter. The lesson from this study, as explained by Dr Zhuang, is that everyone’s moral and cultural cultivation is just as important as technological development. In particular, ‘nature’ should not be treated in the modern, Western sense as an alienated ‘natural world’ that can be conquered and ‘improved’ by technology. “Rather, it is more apt to think of a Confucian concept of nature – a process of life and regeneration in which humanity considers its own responsibility to assist and nourish.” While the Nature Entangled project is mainly a historical study, the methodology applied to the study of contemporary discourses, such as the idea of ‘eco-cities’, involved field work along with visual analysis, cultural studies, and interviews in situ. “The idea that landscaping imitating nature can hone or shape human emotions towards balance or temperance is an idea which has currency now. An early modern idea of happiness revolved around the wellbeing of both the individual (ethics, health) and the society (governance). Studying the relationship between China and Europe amidst early globalisation has considerable relevance for understanding contemporary issues."

Keywords

Nature Entangled, China, Europe, landscaping, gardens, moral governance, cross cultural contact

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