CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 20, December 2009


On Reading Tung Chuin's A Record of the Gardens of Jiangnan | China Heritage Quarterly

On Reading Tung Chuin’s A Record of the Gardens of Jiangnan

Huang Shang 黃裳

Translated by Duncan Campbell

Huang Shang is one of the most noted bibliophiles and book collectors of the People’s Republic.[1] Although a journalist by profession, his interest in books, literature and theatre lead him to be involved in the reform of traditional opera, an undertaking with a particular political brief in the early years of the New China. ‘Cleaning up’ traditional stagecraft, which often featured bawdy themes and language deemed unsuitable in the puritanical days of the Maoist era (1949-78), also involved removing ‘unsuitable’ librettos from the nation’s numerous book stores and stalls. While continuing a more wholesome engagement with the official over-culture, over the Huang Shang pursued his private passions and since the late 1970s he has written numerous essays on book collecting, editions of cloth-bound books and a vast range of issues related to his love of books and reading. In the following essay he expresses an obvious delight in the work of Republican-era writers. Nonetheless, he notes the dissonance between the garden as the preserve of the defunct literati of the dynastic era and the needs of mass tourism in the socialist era. While expressing his concern for the contradiction inherent in attempting to make the ‘past serve the present’—to use the Maoist-era dictum—writing as he was in the late 1980s he could not have foreseen the rise of the moneyed classes and the untoward sway enjoyed by those who employ new-found wealthy to gain a purchase on cultural authenticity. These men and women are the sponsors of the new Chinese gardens, as are the local bureaucrats and state-capitalists who have lavish traditional-style gardens designed for their offices, factories, hotels, residences and pleasure parks. We reproduce Tung Chuin’s earlier work on the gardens of Jiangnan in the T’ien Hsia section of this issue.—The Editor


More than decade ago now my entire library was carted off by the Red Guards, to be dumped unceremoniously in piles within a large room in my work unit. Soon afterwards, I was myself summoned to help draft a catalogue. As I left, having completed my task, one of the minor thugs grabbed a book at random and handed me back my copy of A Record of the Gardens of Jiangnan (Jiangnan yuanlin zhi 江南園林志) [Jiangnan being the Lower Yangzi Valley] with the words: ‘Take this with you when you go’. I was somewhat taken aback at the time and have yet to fathom why he decided to hand back a book on the design of the private gardens of Zhejiang and Jiangsu—wasn’t it precisely this sort of thing that was regarded at the time to be, quintessentially, the decadent product of the forces of feudalism, capitalism and revisionism?

As it so happened, this was a book that I loved dearly: published in 1963 in limited edition, it had taken a considerable effort to get hold of a copy. At the time, having much enjoyed my initial read of the book, I had written a short colophon on the inside cover. To this colophon I could now add a line or two:

Along with all my other books, this volume too seemed consigned to the flames. After two days, however, it suddenly found its ways back into my hands. Surprised by its evident unwillingness to part from me, I pen these additional words. Late August of the Renzi year [1966].

The book had been written some fifty years ago and submitted to the Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture (Yingzao xueshe 營造學社). Some time after that, at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, the manuscript was almost lost. The book was only first published twenty-odd years later, to be reprinted by China Architectural Work Press in 1984, in a revised and supplemented edition. It was a work that initiated research into the craft of the private garden in China and although recent years have seen numerous publications in this field, in terms of systematic research of the topic, it has yet to be surpassed. The author, Tung Chuin 童寯 (Tong Jun, 1900-83),[2] was an architectural engineer who became so concerned for the craft of the garden, which he believed were best represented by the gardens of Jiangnan, that he sought out whatever traces of former gardens that he could find. The book he produced as a result of his quest is a scholarly text rich in content and based on exhaustive research into the histories of the gardens he deals with. It includes also both his own drawings and photographs of these gardens. The first half of the book comprises text, divided into five sections that deal, successively, with ‘Building a Garden’, ‘Artificial Hills’, ‘Change over Time’, ‘Present Circumstances’, and ‘Miscellaneous Notes’. It is a finely written work, its prose uncluttered but resonant, this being another reason why I so love reading the book.

Liu Dunzhen 劉敦楨 (1897-1968)[3] gets right to the point in his ‘Preface’ to the book:

In the years preceding the Anti-Japanese War, Mr Tung Chuin would spend whatever time he had free from work visiting the gardens of Jiangnan. Observing the desolate state of everything that he saw and fearing lest the traditional craft embodied in these wilful creations on the part of the rich merchants of the past would soon be lost completely, he wrote this book in anger.

Liu continues:

As an architect, Tung Chuin was also a skilled painter and fond of poetry and so in the case of every garden he visited, besides discussing the conception behind the design of the garden itself, he could also understand the relationship between the garden in its heyday day and the poetry, painting and calligraphy that it served to inspire, always regarding elegance and refinement as representing the highest aesthetic values to which a garden could aspire.

This ‘Preface’ serves to capture both something of the context of the times during which it was written and also Tung Chuin’s underlying intention in doing so. Although we are now removed from that moment in time by more than fifty years, many of the issues that the author raised remain pertinent and are encountered frequently at a time of the large-scale construction and restoration of the gardens of old. This is an important consideration that should serve to win the book a contemporary readership.

In his own ‘Preface’ to the book, Tung Chuin begins: ‘Private gardens in China tended to be built in places where wealthy officials, rich merchants, and men-of-letters there were to be found gathered’. It is a comment that sums up the historical context for the origins and the development of the craft of the garden in China. No attempt to recapture the aesthetic appeal of the classical Chinese garden can entirely ignore this reality. The garden served the purposes of a very small minority, the literati, and it embodied their ideals. In essence, the gardens of China were not designed for the great masses of people and now that times have changed, and that the very conditions that produced the garden are so different, numerous contradictions of one sort or another are inevitable. But, on the other hand, the craft of the garden was a feature of China’s fine cultural traditions and thus constitutes a vital part of the cultural life of the people. How then to seek to resolve such contradictions, in order both to retain the tradition whilst at the same time ensuring that it can now serve the needs of the masses? This is the crux of the issue facing contemporary garden designers. It is an issue that will require much work, necessitating a great deal of trial and error. In this respect, many of the views expressed here by Tung Chuin are worthy of our most serious consideration.

In his ‘Preface’, Tung Chuin goes on:

The craft of garden design in China, along with so many other aspects of our national essence, is gradually being eliminated. Since the popularisation of the use of cement, the rocks that form part of the rockeries within gardens seem altogether too artificial; with the spread of the use of glass, the water-caltrop or willow-leaf patterns have been lost from the lattice-work of the windows; and now that the public park has become all the rage, it is only lawns that are to be found growing besides mansions or filling empty courtyards…’.

He concludes: ‘In the face of the vicissitudes of the forces of both man and nature, the life of the gardens of old is now under ceaseless assault’.

The lament was made fifty years ago and although today we might well question its validity, we can nonetheless understand its emotional logic. The final lines of his ‘Preface’ read:

Whenever now I enter a famous garden of old I linger long and mourn, unconscious of the pangs of hunger and overcome by that feeling one experiences when seeing a once lovely garden overgrown by weeds or a former beauty grown old. We live at the tail end of an age of decline and all one can do is to cherish this flower or that beam in the hope that such things will not be swept away entirely by the floodtide of the times.

This is a ‘Preface’ that embodies both a fluent literary style and a fine sensibility, and reading it is akin to a reading of that famous ‘Preface’ to Tales of Old Hangzhou (Wulin jiushi 武林舊事).[4] Written fifty years ago now, Tung Chuin’s ‘Preface’ is also the voice of that particular age. In present circumstances, obviously, we need to view such things from a somewhat different perspective. Nonetheless, many of the views that Tung Chuin expresses in this book both repay our attention and serve as a warning. We should seek to remember his heartfelt advice in this matter. By all accounts, Tung Chuin appears to have had his own unique aesthetic criteria, which is to say that he had a predilection for a specific type of antiquity. It is a predilection that takes us directly to the quintessence of the classical Chinese garden. When discussing the Garden of the Humble Administrator (Zhuozheng Yuan 拙政園) in Suzhou, for instance, Tung Chuin makes especial note of the ‘aged’ (canggu 蒼古) vistas in the garden, saying of them: ‘Although such spots are now the home to foxes and mice and moss covers the paths, the mountains and ponds seem natural, and the greens and reds of the buildings seem subdued, thus engendering feelings of refinement at every turn… those who truly love the Humble Administrator will prefer that it retains this air of half decrepitude rather than hope for the garden’s restoration or repair’. When discussing Lion Forest, he exclaims: ‘In the golds and greens of their original state all these buildings would have appeared altogether too neat and tidy‘. He harbours an especial hatred of cement and when treating with the gardens of Wuxi he argues: ‘The various gardens to be found around the shores of Lake Supreme… apart from Fisherman’s Estate (Yu Zhuang 漁莊), have all been adulterated with elements of Western architecture, including the liberal use of cement—a most regrettable development’. At first glace, opinions such as these seem somewhat eccentric; upon further reflection however one begins to understand the logic behind them. The great modern short-story writer and essayist Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936) once told the following story. A parvenu acquires an ancient bronze vessel at great expense and then has his servant polish it until all sign of rust disappears from its surface and the vessel shines as if new. He has it placed in his reception room in order that it may be admired by all his friends, not one of whom however fails to burst into laughter. When the bronze vessel was first made, naturally it gleamed and shone resplendently; with the passage of time, however, and as the vessel’s utility is replaced by an aesthetic value, its mottled patina of age becomes its garb of beauty, creating a sense of its antiquity. So too is it with the appreciation of the gardens of old, a point that must be kept in mind when contemplating the refurbishment of a garden. The heritage industry once worked to the slogan ‘To restore the old as it was of old’ (Zheng jiu ru jiu 整舊如舊), which in general terms is not a mistaken procedure. ‘As it was of old‘ means to seek to maintain the object’s original style and neither to daub the object with an excess of colour nor to alter inappropriately its overall composition, this constituting an important principle to be followed in the repair of old architectural structures.

Tung Chuin also discusses the principles underlying garden design and posits a contrast between the traditions of China and those of Europe:

Wang Shizhen 王世貞 (1526-1590) once said to Chen Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558-1639)[5]: ‘The disadvantage of living in the mountains is the isolation whereas the disadvantage of living in the town is the commotion; best of all is to live in a garden, thus partaking of the advantages of both circumstances’. The nature of the garden, as a creation of mankind, initially, was that of the cliffs and the caves, and this beginning was never entirely lost and to life in a mountain forest within an urban environment was to create a world within a pot, so to speak, to lay claim to a realm of illusion that lies quite beyond this world of man. The excellence of a garden’s design lies in the skilled use of its circumstances to simulate nature, and in this respect, the elegance or vulgarity of a garden, the skill or otherwise of its creation, will be immediately obvious. At times, the efforts of man can prove altogether too overwhelming, at others a garden can embody an imbalance between the true and the false. Theorists often declare that the Chinese garden is overly prone to artifice, in contrast to the gardens of Europe which are, this argument goes, redolent of the beauty of nature. In actual fact, it is just that the gardens of our nation rely upon both the ingenuity of man and the efforts of Heaven and are thus like painting is to photography, the novel is to an historical account. This is precisely what Li Yu 李漁 (1610-1680) intended when he claimed that: ‘When reality does not accord with one’s fondest desires, then one can always seek to transcend it by giving unbridled licence to illusion’. In these terms, then, perhaps the achievement of way of the Chinese garden design represents a somewhat superior approach to the issue? For the past several thousand years the cultures of China and Europe have differed greatly, both in terms of their philosophical outlooks and their habits of life. The old style gardens of our nation embodied an intimate relationship with poetry and painting, and formed part of an indivisible whole, not to be disaggregated and grafted on to some other system of thought of life.

Now this is a large topic indeed—the comparison of the garden design traditions of China and Europe—and one deserving of a great deal of research. What Tung Chuin provides us with here is no more than the outline of a thesis. The questions he raises are of continuing relevance to the conceptions that underpin the creation of new gardens and new scenic spots in China and so cannot be ignored. What he didn’t have time to discuss was the development of the tourism industry and the consequent rapid rise in the numbers of tourists—perhaps it wasn’t an issue that was at all relevant fifty years ago? As things stand at present, many of our most famous gardens and scenic spots suffer from severe overcrowding. It is hard to understand how a garden that once catered to the slow appreciation of the few can now suit the purposes of a hundredfold of visitors whilst still managing to retain something of its original aesthetic appeal. The contradiction is one that is not easily resolved. An age-old craft, it seems, must perforce gradually change its underlying artistic conceits. However it seeks to change, though, it must also seek always to cleave true to the particularity of its own traditions.

Tung Chuin placed a great deal of emphasis on the flowers and trees to be found in a garden. He states:

In the creation of a garden, although the high terraces and large gazebos may well take shape quickly, tall trees that stretch their way towards the heavens will require years to grow. Except for circumstances where one is renovating a former garden, one cannot expect one’s garden to immediately acquire that air of agedness for their screening effect of the shade cast by the trees will take some time to develop... This is what Chen Jiru intended when, speaking about the ‘Four Difficulties’ (sinan 四難) involved in the construction of a garden, he argued that: ‘It is difficult to have old trees’.

Elsewhere Tung argued:

When building a garden, do not seek impatiently after its completion for a fully formed garden is never the product of a single day’s efforts. Once your hills and rocks and pavilions and ponds have taken form, you will need to await the growth of the flowers and trees planted in the garden. And then, by the time your willows have started to provide some shade, your pines and so on, however, will still be dwarfs. Until the moss along the paths has begun to cover the stones of the paving, the blues and purples of the kiosks and terraces will prove gaudy to the eyes, for it is only as a result of the handiwork of the wind and the sun over the passage of the years and the months that your garden will gradually acquire its necessary air of understated elegance.

The thinking behind such comments is at one with the opinions I have cited previously. The true characteristic of the gardens of Jiangnan was simplicity rather than ornateness and decoration, it seems, at least in Tung Chuin’s mind.


The book contains also very many illustrations and scale drawings of famous gardens. Sadly, this illustrative material is much reduced in size. The detailed drawings of rockery, mountain peaks, wall tracery, screen doorways, surrounding walls, window grilles, furniture, ‘dust support’ ceilings, and paving, from the perspective of today, fifty years after they were made, constitute invaluable historical material. In summary, then: if this is the first book produced that analyses the classical Chinese garden, it remains also a rigorous and careful treatment of the topic.

In the spring of 1983 when I made a trip to Nanjing I had originally intended to pay a call on Tung Chuin. Once there, however, I learnt that he was ill, and not long after that I heard that he passed away on the 28 March. On reading his obituary, I discovered that he had been born in Shenyang in Liaoning Province in 1900. Having studied in America, upon his return to China he had taught at Northwestern University for a while, before working as an architect. From 1944 onwards, he taught at Central University, and then, after 1949, was appointed professor first at Nanjing University and then later at Nanjing Industrial University. He published too a work entitled An Outline History of Garden Design (Zaoyuan shigang 造園史綱) and an album of drawings. Tung Chuin happened also to be an artist of quite exceptional talent.

16 November 1987


[1] Huang Shang, the penname of Rong Dingchang 容鼎昌, is a Hui journalist and essayist who was born in 1919. This translation is of the version of the article found in Huang Shang juan 黃裳卷, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2006, pp.283-86; all footnotes are those of the translator.

[2] For a brief English-language biography of this man, see Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2002, pp.224-25.

[3] For a biography of this man, see also Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, pp.220-21.

[4] This work, written by the Song dynasty loyalist Zhou Mi 周密 (1232-98), seeks to capture for all time, in text, the splendours of the then capital of the Southern Song dynasty, Hangzhou, before it fell to the invading Mongols. His ‘Preface’ ends with the rods: ‘Alas! Capricious are the laws underlying the waxing and waning of states, as the years disappear one after another. Who among future readers of this book will not be moving to groaning in anger at the sorrow of my sighs as I awaken?’

[5] For short English-language biographies of these important late Ming arbiters of all things cultural, see, respectively, L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644, New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1976, Vol.2, pp.1399-1405; and A.W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1644-1912), Washington: Government Printing Office 1944, pp.83-84.