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

Final Report Summary - NATURE ENTANGLED (Entangled histories of 'Nature' in the landscape discourses of early modern China and Europe)

Work carried out and the main results: For Objective 1 landscape gardens imitating Nature as a discourse on moral philosophy and governance:
Reveals the idea of art imitating Nature inherent in both European and Chinese traditions of philosophical and political thought, in which Nature was not understood merely as the external surroundings or a resource. Rather, Nature was an ideal pattern of psychological, physical and social processes—for example, Nature as the ideal human nature (Aristotle), as natural law (Stoics), and as the Confucian and Daoist Dao. Nature was regarded as a model for human activities (2015c, 2017b).
Both Roman and Renaissance writers and Confucianists (since early to late imperial China) considered living in a tranquil landscape or garden estate as a means of cultivating human nature following Nature, the ideal pattern of the physical process of the cosmos. Conceptualised as a calm, balanced psyche, cultivated human nature or reason, was considered as the basis of actions for the public good in both Roman and Renaissance thought (encompassing Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism) and in the Confucian tradition (2015c, 2019).
Evolving in 17th-18th century England/Britain, these views of art imitating Nature formed key intellectual frameworks for the European elites to receive Confucian moral and political thought as well as images of Chinese gardens which appear to follow Nature. One aspect of the English discourse on landscape gardens imitating Nature (as of Sir William Temple’s sharawadgi [Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, 1685] and William Chambers’ ‘Chinese’ garden methods [Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, 1772]) used the image of Chinese gardens imitating Nature and their associations with moral governance to vindicate their vision of an enlightened monarchy. For Temple in Restoration, gardens were an instrument for balancing the passions of both the governors and the governed and thus shaping a moderate psyche of society, for Chambers in Georgian Britain, gardens were a site to restrain the hubris rooted in the excessive liberalism and rationalism in the young empire (2017c, f-j; 2018e).
For Objective 2 landscape gardens imitating Nature as a discourse in geology and physiology:
The image of nature as the living earth, an ancient motif revived and developed into ‘geocosm’ by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, intermingled with Kircher’s images of Chinese geosciences, was an inspiration for 17th-18th century British landscape and architectural designs imitating Nature. The naturalistic appearance or the picturesque taste shown in Alexander Pope’s Twickenham grotto and the interiors of John Soane’s house-museum in London, drew from the analogy between the movement of the imagination in the mind and the movement of the subterranean water and fire in the earth (2020a, b).
The early modern discourse of landscape gardening imitating Nature is embedded in the Hippocratic-Galenic medicine that was dominant in Europe until the mid-18th century. The Hippocratic-Galenic notion of an integrated body and mind based on a balanced constitution of the four humours is a key framework for early modern Europeans to perceive gardens as a site for a healthy life following Nature. Chinese medicine, based on a theory of the circulation of qi through meridian channels, was perceived as being compatible with the humoral theory of the Hippocratic-Galenic system. Through this medical lens, as in the example of Temple (1685), Chinese gardens were perceived as being beneficial to both thee mental and bodily constitution (2017h-j).
Chinese gardens following Nature continued to contribute to the British imagination of gardening for health. Under the framework of the ‘sentient principle’ of neurophysiology of the Edinburgh Medical School, Chambers proposed that ‘Chinese’ gardening methods sought to stimulate a variety of contrary emotions (such as cheerfulness and fear), which relax and contract the fibres of the nervous system, thus maintaining health (2017c).
For Objective 3 Landscaping imitating Nature as a discourse on landscape urbanism
The project reveals that Chambers’ innovative landscape theory of building the country as ‘a magnificent garden’ appropriated images of Chinese city landscapes from Jesuit publications (e.g. J.-B. Du Halde’s A Description of the Empire of China). With its associative values such as the socio-political stability based on Confucian moderation, as well as China’s progressive commerce, industry and advanced urbanism, early modern Chinese landscapes provided Chambers with a referent and a source of inspiration to revive the Greco-Roman tradition of ‘embellishing the cities’ and fleshing out Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime in the fields of landscape, transport, and urban planning. Following a hybrid model combining the Roman and Chinese precedents, Chambers’ Dissertation represents a vision of building the British Empire, where national improvement (both morally and economically) was ensured: its land perceived as a life force; its citizens being healthy—both mentally and physically— fostered by the living environment of natural landscape quality (2017c, 2018e).
Reflections on the relevance of the idea of landscape imitating Nature in today’s urbanism, the project examines two key themes in contemporary China, i.e. building ‘an ecological civilisation’ (2015a) and ‘beautiful China’ (2018f). They show that the government by promoting eco-cities and constructing ‘beautiful’ villages, towns, and cities, recognises the vision of landscape imitating Nature as a practical good and an aid to governance. The implementation of this vision, however, was compromised by multivalent socioeconomic and political factors such as the worship of technology, the pursuit of GDP growth, and the dominance of the market economy.
The discourses of imitating Nature in the English landscape movement assimilated 17th and 18th-century European discourses on Nature in: 1) moral philosophy and governance based on a moderate psyche; 2) geology (nature as the living earth) and physiology (nature as the humoral and neuro- human body), and 3) landscape urbanism. These imitations of Nature interacted or were ‘entangled’ with flows of knowledge from China, which shared parallelisms with European thoughts. The associated values of Chinese landscapes such as Confucian moderation, enlightened monarchy, and progressive commerce were evoked by the British conservative liberals in their vision of landscape imitating Nature to express a moral, psychophysical, and ecological order that simultaneously constituted and counteracted the emerging values of modernity in the 17th and 18th century.
Potential impact and use
For academic communities, both the theoretical investigation into the ‘entanglement’ approach and the case studies using the same approach provide a new paradigm that has broad significance for researching early modern cultural contacts (2017b). Highlighting parallelisms rather than East-West binaries, the entanglement paradigm considerably deepens and enriches our understanding of our shared past. Furthermore, the project’s reflections on the relevance of the idea of landscape imitating Nature in China’s urbanism today (e.g. the construction of eco-cities and ‘feature towns’) has potential impact and use among urban planners and policy makers. One article on the eco-city (2015a) has already received 16 citations.
The project has already produced educational and socioeconomic impact as exemplified by one Qing imperial garden – Beihai Park, in the Imperial City having used our findings on the Confucian conception of the Jingxinzhai (Studio of Composed Heart) garden in inscriptions on bronze plaques displayed in situ. This will help the seven million annual visitors and tourists better understand China’s cultural legacy.
By showing how following Nature is concerned with: cultivating a calm, moderate psyche; shaping our mental and physical wellbeing through a living environment of natural landscape quality; as well as the idea of preserving the earth as a living body - all shared legacies between China and Europe, the project improves our understanding of how the cultural identities of China and Europe were constituted by their interrelations and contacts, thus enhancing the management of the increasingly important contemporary Chinese-European relationship with greater cultural and political subtlety. These findings also have potential impact on understanding and attaining happiness in a global and planetary context amongst both policy makers and civil society. The PI has already begun to design a follow-up project entitled ‘Gardens of Happiness’ building upon this very important dimension.