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The Half-Acre Garden

(2008-03-07 20:50:42)
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杂谈

 
An article for April 2008's urbane:


In 1687, Jia Jiao engaged the famous playwright and aesthete Li Yu to design the garden of his Beijing mansion. The association was more than a little scandalous. Jia was a Confucian gentleman, a former governor, and a high official at the Qing Court. Li Yu was a failed scholar, a Ming sympathizer, and was rumored to have penned the notorious pornographic novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat. He was also a superb garden designer. (The Half-Acre Garden, an engraving)

A careful reconstruction of Li Yu’s garden by Yang Baosheng shows that it was remarkable for what it lacked: no central axis, no symmetrical buildings, no straight paths, and no clear entrance. This deliberate effect of disorientation belied an underlying order that led subtly from the lower and more densely built southwest corner to the higher and more open northern half of the garden.


On first entering the garden, one was confronted by Li Yu’s magnificent stone outcroppings, numinous and fantastic. A little further on, one could rest atop a grotesque hardwood root known as the Flowing Cloud Bed (now in the Palace Museum) and admire the Tinkling Jade Pool. To the west, a small curving stream was a reference to the rivers Xiao and Xiang, poetic symbols of wilderness and exile. Beyond this one might continue to a small library, or climb up to the Approaching Brilliance Belvedere.


The overall feeling was of gradual spatial expansion, leading ultimately to an incredible view which took in “the great gates of the Forbidden City, the summits of Coal Hill, Qiong Island and the White Dagoba [of Beihai].” This was masterful sighting, adhering to the classic principle that “although the garden is divided from the outside world, a well-chosen view makes the near continuous with the distant.”

(The view from the garden would not have been this high up , and it would have been toward the west, rather than toward the east. Nonetheless, one can get a sense of what it might have been like from this 19c or early 20c photo taken from Beihai's White Dagoba, perhaps by Hedda Morrison. The pavillions of Coal Mountain are visible (left), as are the main halls and gates of the Forbidden City(center-right). Our garden would have been toward the horixon on the extreme left.)

I happened across what remains of the Half-Acre Garden after taking a wrong turn down a hutong on a late January day. The complex is bigger than a half-acre, indeed far larger than most siheyuan (courtyards), and the false modesty of the name is manifest. A commoner’s ruyi gate now conceals the older, much grander guangliang gate reserved for high officials. Through this gate and to the east are a very old popular tree and an “embroidered” two-story xiulou, with a moon-like circular window and ornamental stones around the entrance. Deeper still is the main hall, which contains a whole wall of hardwood paneling and fantastic beasts in carved-brick relief.

As I was nosing about, I was lucky to run into Granma Jia, a stout and energetic woman in the midst of her laundry. She moved into the house fifty years ago, and remembered the garden quite well.
“It was always locked, but we’d sneak in anyhow,” she laughed “There were lots of trees—crabapples, jujubes and apples—and mountains and streams, like a little park.”
“I guess it was for rich people—you know, princes and that lot,”
“Yeah, they’d take girls in there and wanr,” she speculated with a knowing wink.


It turns out Grandma Jia is not far off, if we can believe a contemporary’s account of Li Yu:

“Li Yu is fond of writing drama and fiction, all of which is exceedingly obscene and indecent. He likes to make friends with the official gentry, and when he meets young men from rich official families he often brings three or four young prostitutes with him. He tells the girls to entertain them by singing behind a hanging screen, or to serve them with wine while he talks to them with great relish on the arts of the bedchamber. In this way, he makes large amounts of money.”

Li Yu’s may well have cultivated this reputation as an aesthete/hedonist; it no doubt helped his business.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the scholar-garden slowly lost all vestiges of horticultural production and became a purely aesthetic affair, a trend of which the Half-Acre Garden is clearly a part. As the eminent art historian Craig Clunas has observed, this process was a social one: it became socially unacceptable to be a “mere vegetable grower” among the literati. A corollary to this is that the garden was not solely, or even primarily, a place of scholarly seclusion, as the scale and showiness of the Half-Acre Garden makes apparent. This was conspicuous consumption.

Having survived three centuries and the Cultural Revolution, the Half-Acre Garden was almost completely demolished in 1982 and replaced by a few office buildings. Gramma Jia thinks it was the Public Security Bureau who did it. The scholarly articles I’ve read decline to mention the culprit. It’s a sad and seemingly thoughtless ending to a pleasing garden with a colorful history.

Bibliography:

杨宝生:半亩园浅术. 中国园林 38-44 1994.
麟庆: 鸿雪因缘图记. 北京古籍出版社1984.
Craig Clunas. Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming China. Duke UP, 1996.
Chun-shu Chang and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang. Crisis and Transformation in Seventeenth Century China. Universtity of Michigan Press, 1992.

(I was unable to get ahold of an article on the garden in Monumenta Serica by Grootaers and Hencken. If anyone could send this along, I'd be most grateful!)

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