Nineteenth-century Canton gardens and the east-west plant trade

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Book Chapter

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While much scholarship has focused on the impact of Chinese gardens and garden philosophy in the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the reverse -- the influence of Western garden concepts and practices in China -- has been little studied. Yet, as a result of growing trade in Chinese plants and botanical images from East to West, ideas about the value of plants and the role of gardens in China also changed. This can be seen most clearly in the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou), which served as the center of East-West trade from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Before the so-called Canton trade system (1757-1842), gardens in China were invariably private places for cultivation of the mind, reflecting the gentlemanly interest in shanshui (landscape). But following extensive East-West trade and dialogue on plants and gardens, early-nineteenth-century Canton saw the rise of the new type of garden, public rather than private, a site of fashionable entertainment where people strolled and shopped amid beds of indigenous plants from across China and exotic plants from other countries. At the same time, with the rise of the merchant class in Canton during the nineteenth century, concepts of private gardens also changed from places of scholarly retreat to social sites connected to the outside world.

In this essay, I first discuss the growing commercial exchange of plants, botanical knowledge, and garden imagery between East and West, focusing on how Western ideas about gardens came to China. I then address the growing commoditization of plants and the resulting new conception of gardens as public sites of popular entertainment and mercantile activity. Finally, I draw attention to the increased openness of private gardens in Canton, where the preferred garden vista became a mercantile scene rather than the rural, agrarian landscapes favored by the Chinese literati...

Source Publication

Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West



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