Wandering in the Garden of Awakening Orchids

By Lily Waldman, ’14 Originally written and published in the 2013-4 edition of the Meridian Journal

When I first visited Portland’s Chinese Garden almost five summers ago with my family, all I remember was that it was a nice experience and that I was in awe by its beauty. It was an experience of an urban dweller in Portland: going to a garden and spending a nice day with the family, and continuing life unaffected. Returning to the garden as a student who is learning about Chinese art and history, my experience was different. My recent visit gave me an experience that had deeper meaning and understanding of the aesthetics of the garden. Furthermore, as a person of Indonesian Chinese decent who has never visited China, this garden serves as a window into my ancestors’ culture. I was looking to know more about the culture that was not fully transmitted to me from my parents as they are acculturated with Indonesian culture. This paper is about my personal quest in learning and finding about my heritage culture through the experience of wandering in the Garden of Awakening Orchids.

For the visit this time, I let myself walk without a destination. I let my mind imagine the experience of Chinese literati gentlemen as they walked in their gardens and had a lovely intellectual conversation with their friends over a cup of red tea at the Moon Locking Pavilion in the afternoon, attended by their helpers. As I looked around the beautiful scenery, I walked up to a six-panel carved-wood screen with Chinese characters on the back and depictions of landscape on the front. The Chinese characters are translated as “Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest.” These are the words of an influential calligrapher, scholar, and garden connoisseur of the Ming dynasty, Wen Zhengming.

In China, gardens, literati paintings, and landscape paintings respond to the social and cultural situation of the time and periods of each dynasty. In a large number of early Chinese paintings we see how the artists used the natural environment in their works; this reflects the longing and yearning of the artists themselves, who were mostly from the literati group, and of the viewers who longed to live in the natural landscape. We also see that many of the paintings use the natural environment as the subject of the artists’ interpretations of the landscape. A great number of landscape paintings incorporate poems that gave birth to a new genre at the time. Furthermore, many landscape paintings in Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties use the natural world settings extensively to convey personal messages that respond to the government, and to differentiate their status as scholars and literati group in political and social arenas.

Wen Zhengming was one of the four masters of the Ming dynasty. As a native Suzhou, Wen was a descendent from elite official family from the Song dynasty. He failed several times in the national examination, and therefore wasn’t guaranteed an official position as those who passed the exam were. However, his prominence in cultural activities (poetry, calligraphy, and painting) awarded him a minor position in the government. Unhappy with the political situation, he served only for three years in Beijing and then retired to his hometown in 1526, living as a scholar and a literati gentleman. The idea of one’s identity in this era was not singular but was built up through the relationships one had with others.  Wen’s Garden of the Inept Administrator is one of eight painted-leaves albums dated in 1551. This one leaf illustrates an urban garden with enclosed wall and a gentleman sitting at a pavilion enjoying his tea, attended by his helper. Another leaf depicts a gentleman standing by latticed bamboo fence alone, in a gesture that seems to be contemplative. Painted in literati style, Wen’s garden images in this album are not documenting how a garden should look or what kind of activities one should do in the garden. These images instead reflect a state of mind one should achieve in this garden and present the experience one might have there. The aim of literati painting was a response to the real world. In late Ming, with its inattentive emperors, powerful eunuchs and vicious struggles among bureaucrats created a turmoil political situation. In response to the political situation, with his images Wen tries to draw out the experience of being solitary, alone with the natural world while one reflects and thinks of the glorious past and finds refuge in nature.

Exploring the Chinese garden in Portland as a student, I could not help but apply the knowledge of the history of Chinese gardens and the literati culture behind it. Historically, Chinese gardens were endorsed by philosophical systems such as Confucianism and Daoism, which were part of the whole environment. The scholar gardens were made as a form of the designers’ devotion to a particular mode of life: the relationship between humans and nature. In these scholar gardens, the scholars and intellectuals living in urban areas created their own presentations of nature in a much smaller scale, and in this urban precinct they found the ideal physical form to satisfy the human relationship with nature that is the essence of Chinese thought.

Artistic representations of the natural world in China evolved throughout the dynasties. From Shang dynasty to the end of Han dynasty, nature was seen as a “mysterious and magical entity.” Through the period of the Three Kingdoms, nature was seen as a place where humans could appreciate its aesthetics, and from the Song dynasty onward, could see the natural environment as “an open and inviting space within which it was ideal to live”. By the early Ming dynasty, the physical characteristics of the Chinese urban gardens were well established, although there are some differences between northern and southern China, partly due to the prevailing climate and to the location and skills of the designers. Gardens in the north are much harder-edged, more precise in their architecture, and more artificial in landscape treatment compared to the southern part. Also, by this era, the development of urban centers and the beginning of China’s economic prowess had attracted the literati to live in cities. Following with their relocation from the rural setting to the urban setting, the literati gardens adopted to the conditions of city life. They recreated the natural environment in the urban setting, and we can see this in numerous famous gardens in Suzhou, China.

I see the physical characteristic of Portland Chinese Garden as embodying the southern style, in that the landscape and building designs are softer and more flowing in shape and silhouette. From the physical characteristics, I also see the application of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) from Daoism employed in the garden: the rock and the water, open space and hidden paths; the application of feng-shui (wind and water) and the application of the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Daoism was born during the Zhou dynasty, a philosophy that emphasizes harmonious living with the natural world. Nature thus serves as the model of behavior, in which that everything is always in transition, neither good nor bad. The binary symbol of yin and yang is not about division but a process of potential transitioning. Similar to the Daoism concept, fengshui is a symbolic system of the natural laws. The breath of the natural life force, qi, when expanding creates yang and when contracting creates yin. The five elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth are used diagnostically in the analysis of good and bad qi. The balance of yin and yang, feng-shui, and these five elements creates an ideal place for a garden that ensures the flowing of qi and thus satisfies the desire for longevity while maintaining youth and being at one with nature.

We see an example of the application of these fundamental elements in the Portland Chinese Garden. Next to the boat-shaped pavilion stands a willow tree whose branches weep, lightly move with the wind, and slightly caress the stones beneath and touch the water in the pond. The continuous line of the willow branches visually connects wood, water, and earth elements. The open space of the pond’s surface reflects the building’s silhouette, while the crowded construction behind the building gives a sense of depth. We see the balance of yin and yang in this one particular spot in the garden. This balance of all of the essential elements described above is rendered throughout the garden. Everything, including small plants and rocks, is strategically placed.

Another example of the application of the fundamental elements in the Portland Chinese Garden is the zig-zag pathways. These pathways lead through a moon-gate entrance to a courtyard that has the inscriptions “Read the Painting” on one side and “Listen to the Fragrance” on the other. The “Read the Painting” inscription on top of the moon-gate entrance leads to the scholar’s study room. During my first visit as an urban dweller, I did not pay close attention at all to these inscriptions, but I realized the importance of these inscriptions during my last visit. How can one read a painting? Landscape design was on a plane with calligraphy, poetry, and painting. It asks viewers to adopt a mind-set upon entering this courtyard. One needs to have some historical knowledge of how landscape painting, calligraphy, and poetry were used during the Ming Dynasty and how they are still prevalent in this modern garden. I asked myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole class could have discussions together over Chinese literati paintings in this scholar’s study room?” We could recreate an experience like the experience of the literati gentlemen gathering and having intellectual conversations in earlier dynasties.

The inscription of “Listen to the Fragrance” intrigued my imagination and senses. How do one listen to the fragrance? I imagine that one should use all the senses: smell, touch, sight, audio, and taste in order to listen to the fragrance. Scholars and literati groups in the Ming dynasty longed for the glorious past. They could return to the past by wandering through their thoughts and engaging in conversations with friends over tea in a garden like this. In order to facilitate this evocation, all these factors, yin and yang, fengshui, and the five elements, are well calculated, strategically designed, and collaboratively accomplished among the scholar, the architect-gardener, the master builder-craftman, the plantsman, and the geomancer in the making of Chinese gardens. I believe that in the making of Portland Chinese Garden by importing the sixty-five artisans and rocks from Suzhou employs all these factors.

The Portland Chinese Garden imitates the garden in Suzhou, which is impeccably done. Completed in 2000, this garden is considered as the most authentic Suzhou-style Chinese garden outside of China. Not only that; in the process of building this garden they imported over five hundred tons of rock from China and also “imported” sixty-five artisans from Suzhou. These artisans lived in Portland for ten months while they recreated and completed the structures that were crafted in China. Gardens in Suzhou recreate an experience of being one with nature. There is no doubt that this garden in Portland has almost all of the elements that the gardens in Suzhou have. Although we could say that Portland Chinese Garden maintains Suzhou gardens’ authenticity, we wonder how authentic it is when gardens in Suzhou have been restored and renovated numerous times throughout the centuries? Furthermore, in this modern time, can garden-goers have the same experience as those in late Ming era? I discussed earlier that Wen Zhengming’s images of garden in the album of The Garden of the Inept Administrator try to pull out the experiences of being alone in the garden, taking the time to reflect or find refuge while being in the natural world. However, that kind of experience is almost impossible with the modern urban setting. As I wandered in the garden, getting lost in my own thoughts, the noise of the traffic sometimes startled me. And although I tried not to pay attention to other visitors, their unique expression of admiration to the garden did not escape my attention.

In her article, Christina Han discusses the term you, commonly translated as “wandering” or “traveling.” She examines the aesthetic experience of you, and explores its philosophical and practical implications in relation to garden appreciation then and now. There are a few points in her argument that resonate with me regarding the you experience in the Portland garden. The first is that we, as viewers, become part of the scenery – to be gazed at by others. It was true with my experience, as the garden paths carried me from one vantage point to the next. As I moved from hidden alleys to open space and as I sat on the second floor of the teahouse and looked over almost the whole of the garden, I could not escape the view of other people visiting the garden. I observed them and their interactions with the garden. Some sat and were lost in their thoughts while staring at the pond, some took pictures and posed for their loved ones, and some just walked or stood reading the information about the garden’s plants. I could not help thinking about what they were experiencing. As I wandered the garden I wondered, do they know about the history of Chinese gardens? Can they read Chinese characters? Do they also seek the past-heritage culture? I saw a couple of people looking at me too, and I thought perhaps they were wondering the same things that I was. Or perhaps they were not wondering anything at all.

The second point is that you mediates interplay between urban and rural life and also mediates interaction between the past and present. These notions are still prevalent in contemporary urban life in Portland. Portlanders are known for their love of nature and outdoors activities, and the Portland Chinese Garden gives a convenient and instant access to nature within the city. Globalization creates rapid urbanization that sparks people’s yearning for simple rural life. My experience was that you in these two respects, the past and the present, evokes something deeper: my curiosity for the life of my ancestors who lived in Hubei and Shandong in China. Wandering in this garden in Portland this time really gave me an experience that transcended time and space, thinking about centuries past in China while sitting down enjoying my red tea at the teahouse. Han’s article mentions that the common longing for you eventually transformed the garden into a shared mental space for the literati. However, for me, it is not the longing for you but the longing for the knowledge of the past and my heritage culture that motivated my wandering in the garden.