Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mountain of Stability

Emperor Huizong, Plum and Birds, early 12th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago I wrote here about filial conflict and garden design in the wonderful eighteenth century Chinese novel known in English as Dream of the Red Chamber.  I recently finished reading another vast novel charting the rise and fall of a Chinese family, Chin P’ing Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), written at the end of the sixteenth century.  Two essays on it have appeared in The New York Review coinciding with the publication of the first and final volumes of David Toy Roy’s translation, one back in 1994 ‘when Roy reported that he had already been working on the project for a quarter century’, and the other last year, when the eighty-year old translator finally made it to the end.  It took me six months to read the five volumes my son is only just about managing to hold up for this photograph.

The ambitious, corrupt and sexually voracious merchant at the centre of the book, Hsi-men Ch’ing, extends his private estate as he becomes more affluent. But unlike the characters in Dream of the Red Chamber, he has no real interest in landscape design.  The arbours and grottoes of his garden are a stage set for parties and trysts.  Nature poetry is not written in response to the beauty of the seasons - it is a tool of seduction, the means of pursuing a drinking game, or an element in the songs performed for Hsi-men Ch’ing by troupes of actors and prostitutes from the licensed quarter.  Occasionally there are expeditions to monasteries but the monks there are more interested in money, alcohol and sex than they are in contemplating the surrounding mountains:
'For what purpose are Taoist sanctuaries and
  Buddhist temples established?
The Taoists worship their Heavenly Worthies,
    the Buddhists worship Buddha.
They are beautifully landscaped in order to
    give a false sense of purity;
Providing for visitors and welcoming guests
   they engage in perverse doings.
Accoutering their disciples with attractive
   clothes and handsome outfits;
They make use of wanton wine and leisured tea
    in ravishing female beauties...'

Zhang Zeduan, Games in the Jinming Pool, early 12th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Plum in the Golden Vase can be read as an extended critique of Ming society (Roy draws parallels with Dickens’ Bleak House), even though it is set nearly five hundred years in the past, during the reign of Emperor Hui-tsung (pinyin: Huizong).  There were clearly parallels to be drawn between Hui-tsung and the Ming emperors, who were ‘among the most irresponsible rulers in the history of imperial irresponsibility’ according to Roy.  Hui-tsung was very interested in landscape design - so interested that his ambitious projects may have contributed to the fall of the northern Song dynasty, as Robin Lane-Fox explained in a piece for the FT entitled 'How gardening led to the downfall of one Chinese Emperor.'  Not content with one garden, The Basin of the Clarity of Gold (shown in the painting above) he decided to build a second one:
'At Kaifeng, just south of the Yellow river, the emperor lived inside a palace complex that was not, by Chinese standards, outrageously large. What became notorious was his man-made rock garden, which was up to 220ft high. To build it, Huizong sent orders for every sort of plant from all over his empire: lychees, gardenias, palms and plum trees. He also ordered the rarest and biggest stones. Chinese rulers had often been lithomaniacs but Huizong’s orders for waterworn rock outdid them all.  At the foot of this immovable mount, known as the Genyue [Mountain of Stability], Huizong arranged big stones, some with markings like human faces. He had them honoured with plaques and poems, using gold letters if they were particularly distinguished.'
The emperor only had five years to enjoy all this splendour before Kaifeng was captured by tribesmen from the north. Huizong was taken off to Manchuria and his garden smashed up.  Resentment has built up during its construction, as the process of shipping 'so many huge rocks and plants had cluttered up the canals and transport system. There had also been endless corruption and compulsion during the entire high-speed plan'.  Unsurprisingly Hsi-men Ch’ing got involved in this.  At one point in the novel he discusses with an official the way the 'flower and rock convoys' had impoverished ordinary people, before inviting him to partake of a typically lavish lunch.  Just as the collapse of the Song state can be ascribed to the way the country's resources were depleted by the emperor, Hsi-men Ch’ing's own graphically described demise is directly attributable to his excessive appetites.

1 comment:

Alison Hobbs said...

Chrysanthemums have been cultivated in Kaifeng for 1600 years. A Chinese friend recently told me that Kaifeng is known as the City of Chrysanthemums.