So we’ve been studying Asia for the past couple weeks, and one of the awesome ways we’re doing that is to study the history of gardens. China is interesting because its gardening philosophy has historically been exactly the opposite of ours here in the West. Europeans and, by tradition, Americans, have spent their histories trying to contain and conquer nature. The great, wild world is a dangerous place, so we put up our walls and plant things in orderly rows, and show our dominance in order to hide from our fears.
Okay, so maybe it’s not so much like that anymore, but that’s exactly how gardening began in Europe. When we turn our faces to the East, we find a much different approach to nature and gardening. The Chinese culture has traditionally considered their gardens to be works of art, much like their landscape paintings. For an example of Chinese painting, see my earlier post about China. The Chinese believe that in painting, as in gardening, an imaginative approach to simply copying nature is the best way to feed one’s soul. So they don’t try to conquer the natural world. They celebrate it.
A lot of that philosophy goes back thousands of years to Daoism (or Taoism, however you want to spell it). Daoism is based on the “totality of all things,” both past and future, in its constant state of flux and transformation. Daoists believe that if a person can give himself up to the changing currents of nature, he will become one with those forces in celebration of an unalterable cosmic plan. Unity with nature as a benign wilderness is a source of awe, magic, and sustenance, and inspires the Chinese to recreate its poetic wonders within the garden. Keep in mind, neither gardens nor landscape paintings are meant to present nature in any literal way. Rather, gardening is without rules beyond the intuitive powers inspired by a particular place or setting.
Without rules? You can imagine the folks in 17th century Europe, who produced gardens like the orderly rows in Versailles, trying to interpret that? Let nature in? Celebrate it?! Frightening!
We learned about the basic beliefs of Chinese gardening philosophy today, as well as the European reaction to it. The lesson truly showed the stark contrast between the gentle beliefs of the East and the mighty explorer/conquerors of the West. It was fascinating for the boys to compare our summer vegetable gardens with the pictures of the flowing Chinese gardens. They decided my flower garden would be more Eastern if my paths weren’t so symmetrical. I’ll give them that.
To wrap up the lesson, we made our own miniature Chinese garden. I reminded the boys that a Chinese garden isn’t symmetrical or uniform, that it is best thought of as impressive through disorderly grace. We got together our supplies–a small wooden birdhouse to represent a pagoda, some moss, tall grasses, willow leaves, and stones–and I set them to work. One of the main features of a Chinese garden is a pond or other water feature that represents the yin, or feminine side of the universe. The water balances the interesting rock features that represent mountains or the yang (masculine) side. So I got a small, plastic jar and used a box cutter to cut off the bottom. The Littles buried it in the sand, cut up some leaves to represent lotus flowers, and filled it with water.
It turned out so cute! I wish I would have thought to cut off some flower heads from my mums, since mums are a sacred flower in China (representing long life). But it turned out quite well, even without a bit of color.
Stay tuned for Friday when I start a new series called Story Time, that will be chock full of ideas for doing an entire lesson based on a picture book. The first book, in honor of October, will be The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda D. Williams. Till then, remember