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“The More I Learned, the More Interested I Got”

Posted On January 06, 2017 | 16:15 pm | by meredithb | Permalink
A Conversation with Chinese Garden History Scholar Alison Hardie

Anatole Tchikine: You’ve had a very interesting career, one that involved a lot of trips and had a business component, before you became an academic. You really have done a lot in China and have seen different aspects of the country. I just wanted to ask you, how did it all come together, and how did you get interested not just in China but, specifically, in Chinese gardens?

Alison Hardie: Well, it’s quite a long story. I suppose it started, in a way—although I wasn’t conscious of this when I was young—with my uncle (my mother’s eldest brother), who was a missionary in China in the thirties. While he was there, he met an elderly Scottish medical missionary who was about to retire and had just lost his wife in an epidemic in Peking. My uncle wrote to his mother, who by then had long been a widow in Edinburgh, saying “Poor Doctor Livingstone-Learmonth has lost his wife and is retiring back to Edinburgh. Please invite him to tea just to cheer him up.” So my grandmother did that, and eventually she and Livingstone-Learmonth got married. So that was a happy ending. The result of that was that there were a lot of things he had acquired in China that were in my grandmother’s and subsequently my aunt’s apartment in Edinburgh.

Also, because my parents had worked in Kuala Lumpur, they had acquired a number of Chinese porcelain bowls and things. In fact, I was christened out of one of the porcelain bowls, so I always think that was probably what did it. Anyway, I grew up with a lot of Chinese things around me, though I wasn’t particularly conscious of any influence from that. And then when I was a teenager, my best friend at school gave me a book of Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poems, and I thought, “Oh, these are wonderful, I wish I could read the originals,” little realizing what a tall order that would be. So, nothing really happened. I went on to Oxford and read classics, and then when I was halfway through that—well, it was Greek history, really—I just couldn’t get my head around the fourth century BCE.

AT: Because half of your family is classicists, so you also had that in your blood pretty much.

AH: Yes, it’s in the Hardie DNA and the Morton DNA. The missionary uncle was a classicist as well. Somehow it came over me that I had to do Chinese. I can’t explain it. So I ended up—I did think of switching from classics to Chinese, but it would have meant taking an extra year at Oxford, and at that point I couldn’t face it. Anyway, I didn’t. So, instead—and this does sound a bit mad—I went and did another undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, so I have two undergraduate degrees, which is really quite pointless. But at least they let me do it in three years instead of four, because I already had a degree, so I didn’t have to take any outside subjects. In those days, you couldn’t go to China as part of the undergraduate degree. Nowadays, they all have a year abroad or a semester abroad. But we didn’t have that. So I got a British Council scholarship to go for a postgraduate year of language study in Peking, at the Language Institute, which was interesting but we didn’t really learn a lot, and the authorities did their best to keep us from actually talking to any Chinese people.

AT: So which period are we talking about?

AH: This was 1979–80. It was really just very shortly after the Cultural Revolution, so times were hard. Living conditions were pretty Spartan. When I came towards the end of that year, I wanted to stay in China and see more of the country and learn more about the culture, but I did not want to go on being a student. I had done a little bit of part-time secretarial work for the Scottish Hong Kong–based trading company Jardine Matheson, which had just opened a Peking office. They offered me a full-time job as a kind of glorified dog’s body in the Peking office. I took it, thinking I would stay for a year and then go back to the UK and get a proper job.

In the end, it was so interesting, and I learned so much that I stayed there for three years. So it was four years altogether, counting the time I was a student in Peking. And then, Jardines posted me back to London for a couple of years and then to Hong Kong. While I was in Hong Kong, I was still working on China trade, and I changed companies after a bit and worked for various other companies. So I traveled a lot in the mainland. I got to know China pretty well, at least contemporary, modern China.

While I was in London, I wanted to keep up my classical Chinese, because my modern Chinese had become quite good, but I wasn’t getting enough practice on the classical. And Maggie Keswick, who had written the standard English introduction to the Chinese gardens, was the daughter of the former chairman, or tai-pan, of Jardines. She mentioned that no one had ever translated the seventeenth-century Chinese garden design manual, which was Ji Cheng’s Yuanye. In the sort of mad way that one does when one is young, I thought, “I’ll do that. How hard can it be?” I wasn’t all that busy while I was in London because the Hong Kong office had kind of forgotten I was there, so they didn’t send me very much to do. So I started doing this. Maggie helped with getting a publisher and so on. In fact, she was extremely supportive and helpful to the whole thing. I couldn’t possibly have done it without her. So that’s what happened. I started on this project with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese gardens at all or much about the Ming dynasty. So I had to learn a lot. The more I learned, the more interested I got.

Once the book was published—by that time, I was in Hong Kong, and people asked me to do things like review books for the Far Eastern Economic Review in the days when it had proper book reviews. I wrote things about Chinese art for a couple of Hong Kong magazines and things like that. That was kind of extracurricular, to take my mind off dreary, you know, airline catering joint ventures and selling flow meters and things like that.

AT: So when and how did you make the decision to become an academic? Because one could be a scholar without being an academic.

AH: Well, I kind of drifted into it. My whole life, my whole career, has been approached as drifting into fun things. So, what happened? I was working by that time—we’re at about 1995 or 1996 now—I was working for a small trading company, which clearly wasn’t making a lot of money, and I was quite an expensive member of staff. I could see the writing on the wall, as far as my job was concerned, and the lease on my apartment was coming up for renewal. My mother was getting quite elderly, and I was an only child. I thought, “Well, I had better get back to the UK.” Also, I was getting pretty fed up of business. I’d never been interested in business as such. I was interested in it as a way of learning about China. I felt I had been doing an awful lot of the same thing over and over again and traveling a lot, and it was getting quite boring. I wasn’t traveling to nice places, generally. I was traveling to Daqing Oilfield, that kind of thing. I decided that I would go back to the UK and do a PhD on Chinese gardens. So I did. I did that at Sussex University with Craig Clunas.

AT: So you did a PhD on Chinese gardens bypassing art history.

AH: I was in an art history department.

AT: But you didn’t have an art history degree, so you were coming from a different perspective.

AH: Yes, but I’d done Greek vase painting and Greek archaeology as special subjects in Classics. So I did have a little bit of art historical training. And I was also approaching the Chinese gardens from literary evidence as well. Really, my training is as a literature person.

AT: And that’s very important for the understanding of Chinese gardens.

AH: Chinese gardens are very literary. So, that’s the story, really. When I came to the end of my PhD, I was again, really, very fortunate that the British government had put quite a lot of money into Chinese Studies at that point, so there were a number of jobs that opened up. And with my business experience, that was quite a good selling point, so I was able to get an academic job. As I said, it was all fairly random.

AT: But you were working in the Department of Chinese Studies.

AH: Yes. The School of Modern Languages.

AT: Was it odd to be a garden specialist in a department like that?

AH: Yes, in the sense that I was almost never able to teach anything about my specialty. I had to teach general stuff: modern history, a kind of first-year survey course, practical translation from Chinese to English. I even taught interpreting, which was a bit of a nightmare. I mean, I had done a lot of interpreting, but I had no idea how to teach it. I was never really teaching anything that I knew anything about, but that’s typical of Chinese departments in the UK. Students are not at a very high level, so you have to teach general stuff. Unless your topic is something like modern Chinese history or contemporary Chinese culture, you never really get to teach your specialty.

AT: This was the time when you came in contact with Dumbarton Oaks. Do you remember the first time you heard about Dumbarton Oaks, the first time you visited?

AH: Yes. That’s when I was still doing my PhD, actually.

AT: Really? That’s quite early on.

AH: Yes. It was 1999, because I just recently found a letter that I had written to my mother at that time describing my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks. This was when Stan Fung and Michel Conan had organized a workshop to discuss this project that Stan had thought of, to create this vast anthology of not just Chinese texts about gardens, but critical essays and incredibly detailed annotations of the texts.

AT: Which became, eventually, your Dumbarton Oaks project. You drifted into that too, didn’t you?

AH: Yes, I did. I think Stan must have gotten in touch with me, or I with him, through Craig Clunas, I suppose. But because I had done quite a number of translations of Chinese texts in connection with my own PhD research—because I needed to translate the texts in order to make sure I’d understood them—I had these translations kind of lying around, so I was one of the original contributors to the project.

AT: So the Dumbarton Oaks connection and the Chinese anthology pretty much began at the same time.

AH: Yes, yes, for me, totally. That was how I got to know Richard Strassberg, who was also a contributor to the anthology. Then, when he was coming up to the end of his period as a Senior Fellow in Garden and Landscape [Studies], I think he put my name forward as a substitute for him, to keep the chain in Chinese Studies going. I became a Senior Fellow in 2010.

AT: Can you say a few words about the anthology itself? It’s something that started almost twenty years ago now. How did this anthology evolve? What was the original purpose of building it? Will the resulting anthology—which hopefully you are going to finish during your stay here—have the same objectives, or have they changed as time has gone on?

AH: I think the original motivation for Stan to try to develop this project was because he was doing a lot of teaching on Chinese architectural and garden history. But his students were mostly people who couldn’t read Chinese. I think he wanted texts to be available in English—key texts about gardens, about garden culture—and also for increasing numbers of scholars or the general public who were interested in China and were becoming more knowledgeable about China, but, again, have no way to read a lot of the important texts. Or else, texts had been published but only in very obscure scholarly publications, and they weren’t accessible to the general public or to students. So I think that was the original idea, to put together an anthology of things that would be helpful for people to read in order to understand Chinese garden culture.

AT: So, from the outset it was going to be a Dumbarton Oaks project—or was it not?

AH: I’m not sure if it was. I think the original funding for the first meeting actually came from the Graham Foundation. Stan got a good grant from them. I think the NEH might have stumped up some money at some point, as well. I think initially Dumbarton Oaks was just kind of a handy location for everyone to meet. And then, I think the second meeting, if I recall correctly, was at Harvard under the aegis of Peter Bol, who had become involved in the project. And then I think there was a third meeting back at Dumbarton Oaks, as far as I remember. By that point, Dumbarton Oaks or Harvard were kind of putting up the money to support it.

I think it was after the third meeting that Stan became very busy with other work and didn’t have the time, really, to keep the project on track. Some of the contributors were perhaps not as timely as the others in delivering their materials. The whole thing kind of fell into abeyance for a bit. And then, after John [Beardsley] was appointed as the Director of Garden and Landscape [Studies], he revived it. I think Richard Strassberg was very supportive of that as well. They brought in Duncan Campbell, who had been one of the original contributors, to edit it. I think he did a terrific job in cutting it down to a manageable size because the original concept was that every chapter would have a full-length scholarly article introducing it. And then there was going to be an incredibly complicated system of dual footnotes and endnotes.

AT: So what, exactly, is the content of the anthology? They are texts, various texts that concern gardens. But what were the criteria for selecting them?

AH: Well, I’m not sure that criteria were ever explicitly defined. I mean, there are certain canonical texts that you couldn’t possibly leave out, and if you’re a Chinese garden person, you just kind of know what those are. It’s a slightly unquestioned canon. But I think that’s the point, really. The point is to make the canon available to people who can’t read Chinese, so the fact that we’re not being edgy and creative is not actually a problem. I think it’s the right thing to do. So, the thing is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter covers early texts, up to about the 6th century, at the latest. There are a number of texts that are just so fundamental to the Chinese garden tradition that you couldn’t possibly leave them out: poetry by Tao Yuanming and so on, and some very early stuff from the Confucian classics that deal with issues that are at least related to gardens or are often referred to in later garden texts. And then it goes through, chronologically, from the Tang dynasty, but there are also thematic chapters—after the Tang dynasty, there’s one on rocks and flora, which kind of fits quite nicely into the time period, although it also includes much later stuff. Then there’s the Song dynasty, then there’s another thematic chapter on one specific site, which has a very long history with a lot of texts about it. Then there’s the Ming dynasty, and a thematic chapter on imaginary gardens from, well basically, Ming and Qing. Then private gardens in the Qing dynasty, and then the final chapter is called “Landscapes of Power,” and that’s basically about the West Lake in Hangzhou and the Qing Imperial Gardens. So that’s the basic structure. I now see what I hadn’t really so clearly seen before: that it’s alternating chronological and thematic chapters.

AT: Most of the texts would be descriptions of real gardens; and, clearly, you have this whole phenomenon of imaginary gardens. But how well do those real gardens survive?

AH: Well, basically, they don’t. So the texts, and in some cases, illustrations, are all that’s left. There are no gardens that are in their present form earlier than perhaps the very late nineteenth century, the very late Qing dynasty.

AT: And you feature Ming and Qing imaginary gardens—what is all that about? Why imagined gardens? Was that a literary genre?

AH: I’m not sure it was quite as prominent as an actual genre.

AT: But a widespread phenomenon.

AH: Yes, quite a widespread phenomenon. I mean, the garden record, the description of a garden, was definitely a genre. And then you might have a poorer scholar who couldn’t actually afford a garden, but he could still write a description of his imaginary garden, the ideal garden that he wished he could have had.

AT: So what role did gardens play in Chinese life and culture? It seems to be of enormous importance, so that if you don’t have a garden, you have to imagine one.

AH: They became a very important part of the self-image and self-representation of the scholar-official class, or the literati, who of course dominated literary production. They wrote and published immense screeds of stuff, so we think of their culture as the culture of China. Of course, it wasn’t. It was the dominant culture, but there was a whole folk culture, which gets overlooked. And it would be nice to know a lot more about how ordinary people conceptualized their land, whether it was agriculture or a little patch of land or a courtyard near a farmhouse where you might grow a fruit tree or two or some herbs. Of course, we know almost nothing about the culture of the nonliterate population of premodern China.

AT: And was there a uniform idea of a Chinese garden? We like talking about “Italian” gardens and “French” gardens, which are pretty much late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century constructs, and we talk about the “Chinese” garden in the same way. But if you actually go to China, would you have regional dialects and different variations? And does the anthology reflect that to any extent?

AH: Well, you can certainly see regional differences if you look at present-day traditional gardens. You can see that gardens in the south, in Guangzhou for example, clearly, since at least the nineteenth century if not earlier, have been influenced by Western architecture, particularly Portuguese, from Macau and so on, so they have a different style. They’ve always been regarded by the mainstream as kind of being a bit provincial. But they have their own idiom. They are provincial—they’re in a different province—but they have their own tradition and their own style, and that’s true of gardens in other areas as well.

AT: Was there any difference in the use of plants, for example? Were there any plants that were more specific to certain regions, or were gardens pretty much uniform in this respect?

AH: No, there clearly are differences. You know, China is so vast and the climate varies so much that there are regional differences. But things like bamboo and pine trees and so on can survive in a fairly wide range of climatic conditions. Obviously, you get different types of bamboo in the south and the north—in the north they have to be hardy and survive very severe frost, whereas in the south you get these enormous bamboos, which grow so well in that warm, humid climate—but the kind of vegetation that you sort of have to have, like bamboo, is pretty constant, I would say, throughout China. Obviously there are regional differences. The Cantonese style, for example, requires a lot of pot plants arranged in geometric rows in a way that would look very odd in Jiangnan or in the north.

AT: Is that because of Cantonese exposure to other cultures, perhaps? Or is that native local tendency?

AH: Well, it’s hard to say. It seems to be perhaps connected with the fact that there was a very strong tradition of commercial gardening in Canton, like the Fati Gardens in the south of Canton City, which were open to Europeans when they were allowed to stay in Canton. Those were commercial gardens, which sold plants in pots. They were arranged in the way that you’d arrange plants in a garden center, which is essentially what it was. So that seems, perhaps, to have been duplicated in private gardens or in temple gardens. But that is something that’s quite distinctive of Cantonese garden style.

AT: And now that the anthology is pretty much coming, finally, to the point of publication in 2018, do you think the audience is still going to be what was envisaged by Stan fifteen years ago? Or is it going to broaden its audience beyond students?

AH: Yes, I hope it will be a broader audience. I certainly think it will be an extremely useful resource for teaching. I think it will also be a useful resource for a lot of the Chinese students and scholars who are writing in English about Chinese gardens now because they won’t have to struggle with translating these Chinese texts themselves. There will be a standard translation available for them that they can quote, so that will save them a lot of headaches.

AT: Do you think it will also result in a more nuanced conception of the Chinese garden?

AH: Well, I hope so. I think it will give people a much better understanding of the whole cultural background or cultural context in which the Chinese garden, or Chinese gardens, developed.

AT: And perhaps its evolution as well, so it won’t be seen as a static concept.

AH: Hopefully it will be of interest to people who are landscape architects and historians, and people who don’t read Chinese but would like to know more about Chinese gardens. As China becomes more economically dominant, people want to know more about it, so that can’t be bad. It will be a resource that people can turn to. So I think it was very visionary of Stan to think of this in 1999. I’m sure that now, or in a couple years’ time, the audience for it will be much broader and bigger than could have been imagined at that time.

AT: And we are also delighted and grateful that you have agreed to bring this project to completion. It’s a great pleasure to have you here, because as a Senior Fellow you only come twice a year.

AH: I mean, it’s great for me to be here. It’s a fantastic scholarly community, and I’m working on such a fun project.

AT: Thank you, Alison.