Huang Xiao and Liu Shanshan: A Forthcoming Book on Chinese Paintings of Gardens


A Forthcoming Book on Chinese Paintings of Gardens

What follows is the text, in English translation and in the original Chinese, of a Postscript written by two young Chinese scholars: Huang Xiao who is a Beida (Peking U.) grad student working with his professor Cao Xun on the history of gardens, and Huang’s wife Liu Shanshan. It is a Postscript to a book we have “co-written” on Chinese paintings of gardens, which will be published soon. I have enjoyed working with them, and have learned more than my aged head can really absorb--their contributions have gone far beyond my own old academic interest in this kind of painting to give rich content to the book. I mean to devote one video-lecture in the second series, Gazing Into the Past, to Chinese paintings of gardens--based on an old lecture on the subject that will also be included (in Chinese) in the book, but using, of course, the much greater number and quality of visuals that this new medium allows. I should add that this new video-lecture series, subtitled Scenes from Later Chinese Painting (but also to include a few lectures on Japanese Nanga painting), will begin to be posted online, for free viewing again, after the first series (A Pure and Remote View), all twelve lectures plus a Postlude and two Addenda, have been finished and posted--and that should be quite soon. So, keep watching.

James Cahill, Jan. 2, 2012


Co-authoring this book with Professor James Cahill is an adventure for us.

It all started in last spring when Professor Cao Xun(曹汛) mentioned that an album of a garden scenes published in Yuan Zong (園綜) is excellently rendered. According to a record on the garden represented in this album, he assumes that the fourteen leaves published in Yuan Zong could be part of a much more completing album. He asked us to help him search for the album. Not long after that, we came cross Professor Cahill’s The Distant Mountains in Sanlian bookstore in Beijing. When we came back and read the book, we found the album of Zhi Garden (止園)in it. Professor Cahill devoted a chapter to discuss the artist who painted this album, but the leaves in it are also not complete. Meanwhile, Professor Cao happened to read Cahill’s article about Zhi Garden in YiyuanDuoying(藝苑掇英). So he suggested us to contact with Professor Cahill directly about the album.

We wrote Professor Cahill an email in Chinese without much expectation of instant response. However, the next morning when we log in our email, we are thrilled about two emails from Professor Cahill, each of which is as long as four-or-five pages. He said that although both The Distant Mountains and The Compelling Image were written a long time ago, he has never stopped concerning on Zhi Garden. He tried to mail a Chinese expert a copy of several leaves of the album for advice, but unfortunately the expert could not found the answer to his questions. He was so excited by our discovery of the record and he would like to send us the pictures of the whole album if it is helpful for our research. The end of the emails made us ashamed, which said that he is looking forward to hearing from us again, but he prefer our writing in English to Chinese, even in poor English since English is much easier for him to read.

Our encounter with Professor Cahill started from the album of Zhi Garden. From then on, we corresponded frequently with him; his sharp mind and instant responses impressed us. But what touched us most is his generosity. Cahill said from beginning that he want to publish the whole album of Zhi Garden in China for further research. Moreover, he would like to provide us other pictures of garden paintings he collected for many years for publication, which would promote the research in this area. Maybe since then, he might have already thought about collaborating with us about a book. He encouraged us to contact with Yang Le, an editor he has been working with in SanLian publishing house. Merely Four days later, we met Yang Le to discuss this book project.

The proposal of co-authoring a book with Professor Cahill is far beyond our expectation while it is a great temptation for us to write a book about garden paintings. In the café located at the second floor of San Lian, Yang Le explained why Professor Cahill has paid so much attention to the album of Zhi Garden. He insists on the album of Zhi Garden is a master piece, but he has never convinced people successfully that the album is a representation of a real garden. What Yang Le said resonated with us. Most gardens remained in China changed dramatically from what they used to be. Even the gardens built in Ming Dynasty were rebuilt and changed in the late Qing Dynasty. If we want to see what the gardens looked like in their heyday, we could only tend to the paintings and literatures. However, to what degree that the representation of garden in paintings or literatures is truthful to the actual gardens? Are these garden paintings merely the imagination or exaggeration of the ancient people? To what degree? Chinese specialists of ancient architecture, even those familiar with the history of painting, are often confronted by foreign scholars at international conferences, “Does what you said ever exist?” “How reliable is old paintings?” “What is your evidence?”

Then, we started our journey of pinning down the gardens according to the paintings and literatures. It is a joyful journey full of thoughtful surprises. We are new to the field of art history; but fortunately our guide, Professor Cahill, is the best scholar in this field. He selected almost all the paintings discussed in this book. For some of them, he didn’t say much, but every hint he gave us opens a window, leading us to see the world we had been blind to. We have learned a lot from his keen insight of Chinese paintings. Under his guidance, the paintings reveal more and more information, as if all the painters are his old friends, and he is already familiar with every move of them, and understand what they meant. On the other hand, the research methods we learned from Professor Cao Xun—Source of History&Chronology textual study is a useful tool to study Chinese garden history. We worked very hard to find textual evidences of every garden we were writing about. This process is as interesting as the detectives investigate cases. Whenever finding a new clue, we were excited and felt that we were a step closer to the truth. For many times, we dig into the ancient books, looked up google earth, and searched for traces of the gardens from the paintings. Every time when we walked through grassy wild field scattered with stink garbage, stood by the ruins of gardens, deciphered discernibility of the lotus pools , or the ancient trees which should not grow in the fields, we can still feel the sense of the gardens used to stand there.

Yet when we come back to the paintings, we are confused again. They seemed to laugh at us. Are the paintings more reliable to reflect the appearance of garden than a piece of ruined wall or a deserted pond? Doesn’t the painter’s representation of a garden precisely reflect the image of the garden in the mind of its owner? Is there something more revealing than inscribed title and poems on the paintings that could display the moods of the gardens? Just as the representation eyes and brows of beauties in paintings of beauty transcend the beauties themselves and became the abstract embodiment of them, doesn’t the spirit of garden lie in the representation of garden paintings that were reproduced again and again? However, did the beauty and spirit ever exist? What are the evidences?

Just before we are about to finish this book, we found the location of Zhi Garden at the satellite imagery of Google Earth, which we have dreamed about for so many times. We are astonished by high buildings and shopping mall stood at the site of Zhi Garden. But the painting of Zhi Garden reminds us of its former days. There seem boats sailing again along the river bank, which were transformed into modern road. The misty lakes and dreamlike pavilions seems as if emerging again above the treetops , hailing us cordially: “Look, we are still here! We did exist, and will always survive in the painting and as well as on the over-changing earth!”

When Professor Cahill heard that we have sought out the site of Zhi Garden, he laughed and said, “I always know it exists.” Forests and springs can be imperishable because of the spirit of brush and ink, and gardens can be handed down only in paintings. This is exactly the case.

Huangxiao and Liu Shanshan

Sep. 25th, 2011in Tsinghua Garden










黃曉 劉珊珊 

2011 925日晚于清華園 

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