Reviews / December 2016 (Issue 34)

In Motion and in Position: Shelly Bryant's The Classical Gardens of Shanghai

by Huiwen Shi


Shelly Bryant, The Classical Gardens of Shanghai, HKU Press, 2016. 156 pgs.


Shelly Bryant's The Classical Gardens of Shanghai is a well-researched, beautifully put together and exquisitely detailed book. It guides readers through five of the city's most representative ancient gardens[i] (園林), each explored through a different lens: Zuibaichi is described from a historical viewpoint; Qushui Yuan is investigated through its space and text; Guyi Yuan is seen from the angle of its restorations and revival; Qiuxiapu is presented from a literary perspective and Yu Yuan is narrated through the story of the Pan family and its more recent urban uses.

Of these, Chapter Six, "Yu Yuan: Staging a Family Drama," is perhaps the most effective and is a must-read for people who wish to know more about Shanghai's old city centre. In it, Bryant finds the perfect pitch for the garden's fantastic spectacle. Her intricate narrative gives the reader a full picture of the Pan family who built Yu Yuan, the garden's changing fortunes and how the city's residents have interacted with it from its beginning to the present day. Bryant is particularly convincing when she argues that we should not be overly critical of commercialisation and rampant consumerism at ancient sites because the bazaar in Yu Yuan is "not a departure from tradition." Through a full account of the garden's genesis and metamorphosis, she makes the persuasive point that, unlike other gardens or historical sites, Yu Yuan has always maintained a balance between "scholarly elegance and gaudy consumerism."

Bryant also presents other splendid details about Yu Yuan, including urban legends about the Emperor's dismay at its extravagance and a description of the fight between the dragon and the toad which decorates the top of the famous dragon wall. Such sketches are done so well that they speak to each other not only on a socio-political level, but also on a philosophical one.[ii] Indeed, this chapter links together it various anecdotes, facts about gardening, family stories, descriptions of operas and accounts of dramatic historical events so neatly and organically that I found myself wishing the other chapters had been written in the same way.

The major challenge in writing such a book is that each of these gardens has a long history: almost all of them have undergone damage and restoration, embodied the rich interplay of text and space or witnessed dramatic moments, whether familial or historical. Impressively, in only 130 pages, Bryant is successful in her ambition to capture all of these components, and I was surprised that she managed to weave so many elements into the text and still maintain a lucid narrative. Anyone visiting a Jiangnan garden will soon notice that its winding paths and multiple screens create spatial illusions like mazes. A typical garden is in fact designed for its visitors to become disoriented, as part of the fun is experiencing a sense of "lostness." Bryant's writing sometimes mimics this mystifying aesthetic: she nearly overwhelms readers with exquisite descriptions, but before they can become completely lost, she pulls them out of the maze and transports them to the next scene.

The book is many things at once: an historical account, an academic monograph, a guidebook and, most strikingly, a collection of poetry. It can be seen as an historical account and academic monograph because of Bryant's meticulous research. She unearths many scholarly resources and much archival material, for example, in search of Yu Yuan's history, Bryant reveals that the City God Temple is the only one that honours two divine protectors.[iii] She also extensively quotes leading Chinese and Western scholars who specialise in ancient Chinese architecture and classical gardens, including Chen Congzhou, Ye Shengtao, Lou Qingxi and Steward Johnston, to name but a few.

The Classical Gardens of Shanghai also functions as a sophisticated guidebook because, especially in the introduction, it raises our awareness and appreciation of garden design. Bryant explicates major principles and philosophies, such as the interplay between the four elements of plants, waterways, rockeries and buildings; how grounds are partitioned to reveal the whole in piecemeal fashion, thus expanding the sense of the garden's space in our mind; how creators' used their gardens as synecdoche for the beauty of the Jiangnan region as a whole; the yin/yang principle behind the conceptual symmetry between mountain (permanence) and water (change); the integration of nature and culture in the garden and the instruction to view a classical garden as both "in motion" and "in position." As a Shanghai native, I even revisited two classical gardens after reading the book, and following Bryant's in-depth advice, found it a completely refreshing experience.

Finally, and most uniquely, the book collects and translates poems that are often overlooked by casual tourists, a feature that perhaps derives from the fact that Bryant is a poet herself. In each chapter, she handpicks a range of poems engraved on the garden's stones, bridges and pavilions, or couplets hung in halls. She presents them in Chinese in full and translates them into English. This act reinforces the idea of classical gardens being carefully curated texts, which reflected the tastes of the literati. Her attention to texts and characters, and her explication of their nuanced meanings, is deeply affecting.

In the introduction, "Shanghai's Gardens in Context," Bryant speaks of her purpose in writing this book:

This monograph seeks to provide information that will help readers interact with Shanghai's gardens intellectually, in hopes that this intellectual engagement will open up the possibility for emotional engagement as well.

Unfortunately, the author does not quite deliver on her desire to provide emotional engagement through intellectual rigour. My only real issue with the book is that Bryant has put too much emphasis on details, names and points of etiquette, a focus on fact that left me with a degree of unexpected detachment from the gardens' physical presence. It also provided me with limited insight into Bryant's personal views and emotional engagement with her beloved gardens. I would much have preferred to read about her experiences walking through them "in motion" or meditating on their poetry "in position." Which engraved poems touch her the most? Which unique designs move her? These are the questions that I ultimately care about, and perhaps in the end, I wish Bryant were more present in her own text.

[i] Among the five gardens, Zuibaichi, Guyi Yuan and Yu Yuan are better known to the general public and tourists. Qushui Yuan and Qiuxiapu are less well known but by no means less exemplary.

[ii] The fight between the dragon and the toad is said to be unending, highlighting the philosophical principle that neither heaven (symbolised by the dragon) nor the earth (the toad) can defeat the other; they must coexist harmoniously. Put another way, the ruler (heaven) cannot survive without his intellectual supporters (the earth). This echoes urban legends described by Bryant of Emperors who—feeling threatened by the power and wealth of the Jiangnan literati, such as the Pan family—sought to put constant restrictions on the size of gardens and the number of dragons they could feature.

[iii] Conventionally, a city temple can only honour one god. City God Temple, however, honours both a Sea-Protecting God and Qin Yubo, an important official of the Ming dynasty, who ironically refused to serve the city of Shanghai while alive.

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