As Pierre Ryckmans notes in ‘The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past‘, the Fifty-seventh George E. Morrison Lecture that he presented in July 1986:

… the vital strength, the creativity, the seemingly unlimited capacity for metamorphosis and adaptation which the Chinese tradition displayed for 3,500 years may well derive from the fact that this tradition never let itself be trapped into set forms, static objects and things, where it would have run the risk of paralysis and death.

In a sense, one of the best metaphors for this tradition could be provided by the description of a Chinese garden which a Ming scholar wrote in the 16th century. It was a fashion among intellectuals and artists to write records of beautiful gardens, but in the case of our writer, there was a new dimension added to the genre. The garden which he described was called the Wuyou Garden — which means ‘The Garden-that-does-not-exist’. [see 劉士龍《烏有園記》— Ed.] In his essay, the author observed that many famous gardens of the past have entirely disappeared and survive only on paper in literary descriptions. Hence, he wondered why it should be necessary for a garden to have first existed in reality. Why not skip the preliminary stage of actual existence and jump directly into the final state of literary existence which, after all, is the common end of all gardens? What difference is there between a famous garden which exists no more, and this particular garden which never existed at all, since in the end both the former and the latter are known only through the same medium of the written word?

Gardens, in words and images, feature prominently in the work of the Wairarapa scholars Geremie R. Barmé, Duncan Campbell, Lois Conner and John Minford. The following links provide access to some of that work:

Geremie R. Barmé

Duncan Campbell

Lois Conner

John Minford