Friday, April 20, 2012

Grand View Garden

There is a wonderful description of landscape design in Cao Xueqin's Hong Lou Meng ('Dream of the Red Chamber', c. 1760 - translated by David Hawkes as The Story of the Stone).  The daughter of Jia Zheng has been selected to become an Imperial Concubine, but will be allowed to see her family again on a special Visitation.  To prepare for this event, the Jia family grounds are re-designed, creating a new Separate Residence and garden, the Da Guan Yuan, or Grand View Garden.  Eventually the work is complete and Jia Zheng is asked about the bian, those calligraphic boards hung in Chinese gardens with poetic phrases, often taken from classic literature.  '"These inscriptions are going to be difficult,' he said eventually. 'By rights, of course, Her Grace should have the privilege of doing them herself; but she can scarcely be expected to make them up out of her head without having seen any of the views which they are to describe. On the other hand, if we wait until she has already visited the garden before asking her, half the pleasure of the visit will be lost. All those prospects and pavilions - even the rocks and trees and flowers will seem somehow incomplete without that touch of poetry which only the written word can lend a scene.'"

One of Jia Zheng's literary friends offers a solution to this dilemma: provisional names and couplets can be composed and written on lanterns; then, when the Imperial Concubine arrives, she can decide which ones to make permanent.  Zheng agrees but worries whether he is up to it (I can't resist quoting what he says as I think I know how he feels): "In my youth I had at best only indifferent skill in the art of writing verses about natural objects - birds and flowers and scenery and the like; and now I that I am older and have devoted my energies to official documents and government papers, I am even more out of touch with this sort of thing than I was then; so that even if I were to try my hand at it, I fear that my efforts would be rather dull and pedantic ones."  As Zheng and his friends start their walk through the garden they encounter Zheng's son Bao-yu, whose behaviour has constantly disappointed his father, but who has started to show some promise in composing poetry.  The humour in what follows comes from the exchanges between father and son: Bao-yu repeatedly manages to come up with better phrases than his elders.   

Having named a miniature mountain, a pavilion on a bridge and a small retreat surrounded by green bamboos, the party reach a miniature farm with an orchard of apricot trees and enter a thatched building 'from which all hint of urban refinement has been banished'.  Bao-yu's father lectures him on the beauty of this 'natural' simplicity, but his son is not impressed: "a farm set down in the middle of a place like this is obviously the product of human artifice."  He says he is not sure what the ancients meant when they talked of things as being 'natural': '"For example, when they speak of a 'natural painting', I can't help wondering if they are not referring to precisely that forcible interference with the landscape to which I object: putting hills where they are not meant to be, and that sort of thing.  However, great the skill with which this is done, the results are never quite..."  His discourse was cut short by an outburst of rage from Jia Zheng.  "Take that boy out of here!"' 

But the work of writing poetry onto the garden is not complete, and Bao-yu is called back.  They resume their walk, considering other garden features like the place where 'a musical murmur of water issued from a cave', recalling to mind the Peach-blossom Stream of T'ao Yüan-ming (which I described here in an earlier post).  Eventually they complete their circuit back at the foot of the artificial mountain and Bao-yu is allowed to 'get back to the girls' (as a character he is rather like Proust's narrator in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).  It is not until the following year that the Imperial Concubine, Bao-yu's older sister, makes her Visitation and it is quite striking how many of the garden inscriptions she does choose to amend or reject.  Coming, for example, by boat over a lake to the landing stage in a grotto named 'Smartweed Bank and Flowery Harbour', she says '"Surely 'Flowery Harbour' is enough by itself?  Why 'Smartweed Bank' as well?"  At once an attendant eunuch disembarked and rushed like the wind to tell Jia Zheng, who immediately gave orders to have the inscription changed.'

Statue of Cao Xueqin in Beijing

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