Objective Jingu Garden, or the Golden Valley Garden, is a representative of Chinese private gardens in Wei and Jin dynasties. Current works on Chinese garden history mostly discuss the objects in Jingu Garden by using relevant historical documents. The garden disappeared in AD 300 due to the execution of its owner Shi Chong (249−300). But for over 1,500 years thereafter, the image of Jingu Garden continued to appear in poetry and paintings in the form of conceptual reconstruction. The transformation of the image of Jingu Garden reflects temporal changes in the view of nature. It also helps evoke the rethinking on historical documents and narratives of Chinese gardens. The case Jingu Garden guides us to think about how those disappeared gardens are reconstructed through perception and memory, and how nature as a concept interacts with the present beyond physical time. This research aims to further explore the possible path of understanding Chinese garden history beyond linear narrative.
Methods This research is essentially a case study focusing on the in-depth exploration and analysis of the particular case Jingu Garden. By sorting out and distinguishing first-hand literature of Western Jin Dynasty and second-hand literature in later dynasties, the research examines the descriptions of Jingu Garden in various periods and finds out the common features of the understanding and evaluation of the garden. The research also analyzes paintings of Jingu Garden spanning the period from Tang Dynasty to Qing Dynasty, in order to provide a further proof for changes in the understanding of the garden.
Results It is found that although there exists only a small quantity of first-hand literature of Western Jin Dynasty, such literature provides an objective description of the natural environment of Jingu Garden including terrain, plants, pavilions, tower and outside scenery. After the garden’s destruction, several second-hand literature quoted in a number of famous historical works such as Shiyi Ji, Shishuo Xinyu and Jinshu appeared as a supplement to the first-hand literature, further enriching the scenery descriptions, characters and stories of the garden. Actually, they provide resources for later literati to imagine the garden. From Northern and Southern Dynasties to early Tang Dynasty, the spatial imagination of Jingu Garden in poetry and literature mainly focuses on waters, trees, flowers and fruits, which continues the description of Jingu Garden’s natural environment in Western Jin literature. From the flourishing Tang Dynasty to Song Dynasty, the tone of nostalgia for the past and present became increasingly strong, with tower and spring flowers becoming the core elements in the imagination of Jingu Garden, and the soundscape of bamboo-pipe music typically seen in the remembrances about the garden. During Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the imagination of Jingu Garden gradually shifted from landscape scenery to special furnishings such as red coral and brocade screen, with mountains, stones and plants serving as supporting roles. At this time, Jingu Garden formed a relatively fixed literary allusion. During this process, the imagery of gardens continues to condense, with that of Jingu Garden shifting from nature to concept, becoming a cultural imagery and common consensus. This process corresponds to the interest of miniaturization in Chinese garden aesthetics. Meanwhile, the focus of paintings of Jingu Garden also shifts from grand scenes to some certain characters and events, with the overall natural environment of the garden gradually fading out of the painters’ imagination with the passing of time, the physical environment being condensed into a particular literary allusion and imagery group, and the depiction of nature gradually shifting from panoramic depiction to the background of narrative, which is generally consistent with the changes in the imagination and concept of Jingu Garden reflected in literary works.
Conclusion The image of Jingu Garden is constantly reproduced and updated through literati’s poetry, literature, and paintings. For traditional literati, when recollecting the scenes of Jingu Garden, they attempt to collect information from fragments of the previous generations as ideal resources. They combine their own life experiences and emotions to construct those scenes of the garden that have passed away. Compared with the historians’ rigorous work on documents, literati prefer not to distinguish the authenticity or objectivity of the information they collect. This research reminds contemporary researchers in the field of Chinese garden history to realize that the relationship between historical facts and events objectively exists, which, however, can hardly be fully observed. It’s an inevitably futile attempt to find out the authentic and comprehensive historical landscape from imaginative reconstruction of disappeared garden. Instead of striving to build objective historical narratives, it is better to change the paradigm of the understanding of “time”. As “cognitive resources”, literary works and paintings show the authors’ perception and reconstruction of the past based on their current experience. Similarly, the work of garden history research is to observe the past from the present perspective, experience “the past of the past” through past materials, and understand and continue the cognition of garden based on such observation and experience. The continuous reappearance of Jingu Garden guarantees the continuation of this garden, and the updating interpretation continues its vitality.