Unnatural Experiences

The ancient Chinese town of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province, draws millions of visitors every year. They flock particularly to its famous West Lake (Xihu), which is widely praised as one of China’s foremost sites of ‘natural beauty.’ As with fellow ‘heaven on earth’ Suzhou, in neighbouring Jiangsu Province, Western visitors to Hangzhou tend to mix appreciation with concerns about the threat posed by development. Superficially, such apprehensions are directed at the encroaching cranes, skyscrapers and traffic, but closer attention to Xihu reveals an unsettling infusion of culture into nature that goes far deeper and wider than this.

One quite surreal example is encountered in the area where the downtown core meets the lake. Walking by the waterfront, visitors realize that their strolls have acquired musical accompaniment. Suddenly, they are surrounded by ambient ‘muzak’ or ‘elevator music’ – typically consisting of tunes once popular in the West, now stripped of vocals and instrumental specificity (and interrupted by the occasional public announcement). This is produced by a complex sound system distributed throughout the park. It seems that every tree has been wired with speakers, lights and other multimedia devices. Depending upon cultural expectations, immersion in this artificial acoustic space is experienced either as a soothing environmental enhancement or a horrifying psychic intrusion.

After leaving the urban fringe by boat, to visit the lake’s many renowned scenic spots, the encounter with ‘natural beauty’ becomes even more ambiguous. For instance, on the island site of the ‘Three Pools Mirroring the Moon’ even a casual observer may notice something slightly odd about some of the trees. It takes careful inspection, however, to expose the fact that those trunks which have begun to age in an unacceptable way have been repaired with cement, painstakingly sculpted into a simulation of bark. Foreign visitors are likely to be baffled by this degree of illusionism, finding it both pointless and bizarre.

Westerners seeking to overcome such feelings of incomprehension and cultural vertigo would do well to question some of their own deeply rooted assumptions about nature. In particular, the notion that nature is in its ideal state wild, ‘unspoilt,’ or opposed to cultural manipulation, is no less worthy of close attention than the artificial trees it disdains.  While the conceptual opposition of nature to culture has long held a profound importance in the West, it is the influence of Romanticism that has most dramatically consolidated such thinking. Narrowly conceived, Romanticism was a predominantly European artistic movement of limited duration (from roughly the late-18th to mid-19th century) arising in reaction to Enlightenment rationalism and ‘artificiality.’ The romantics idealized nature as a sublime power dwarfing human efforts and aspirations, embodying a moral and spiritual purity associated with religious feeling. When the human world intruded in this sacred domain it was only as a solitary awe-struck wanderer, a lonely hero encountering nothing crafted by his fellows -- except depopulated edifices devastated into ruins.

Beyond the wilder fringes of the environmental movement, such ideas might seem excessive today, but the broader romantic myth of nature -- as something properly outside the realm of human influences – has deeply ingrained itself into the unconscious of the West. Among Chinese, however, this ‘myth of nature’ – although echoing certain Taoist themes -- scarcely exists. After all, it makes little sense in China’s densely populated landscape, where every patch of earth has been intensely worked-over during 5,000 years of history.

The extent to which culture and nature are seen as ‘naturally’ interwoven is indicated by the commonly heard cry of appreciation: “It looks just like a scene from a traditional Chinese painting!” Westerners might understand such an exclamation as implying a largely one-way process, with the painter drawing inspiration from a natural scene, leaving it essentially unchanged. But in China the relationship between artist and landscape is far more reciprocal. A history of artistic attention is perceived as enhancing the scene itself, rather than merely reporting it. Especially treasured views are allotted poetic names, often bearing carefully placed literary inscriptions. Poetic apprehension has been sedimented into the very fabric of each place, with the names of famous sights typically specifying perspectives, times of day or seasons, even weather conditions, for instance:  ‘Autumn Moon on Calm Lake,’ ‘Spring Dawn at Sudi Causeway,’  ‘Evening Bell at Nanping Hill’ or ‘Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard.’

In the Chinese cultural context, the proper ‘capturing’ of an experience is intrinsic to the experience itself. This helps to account for the remarkable popularity of photography in the country, with the typical picture composed so as to place the visitor firmly and unapologetically in the landscape. Where Western photographs quite often depict the scene itself, with minimal human presence, their Chinese equivalents are far more likely to emphasize the fact that the site in question has been visited, inhabited and enjoyed.

For Chinese, as for pre-romantic Europeans, the perfected state of nature is not a desolate wilderness, but rather a garden. Nature is improved and enhanced by cultivation, not contaminated or degraded by it.

The Chinese garden is built by guiding nature, bringing out its hidden powers by dramatizing the tensions and harmonies of yin and yang, flow and structure, water and stone. The elements contributing to the garden are evaluated not only according to their intrinsic aesthetic merit, but also with regard to principles of resemblance and symbolism, evoking mountain ranges and other wild panoramas. Carefully chosen rocks are collected and displayed as sculptures, in such a way as to reveal the inherent artistic powers of nature and time. 

No less important than this process of selection is the direct insertion of man-made constructions. Where romantics sought to conceal the artificiality of their gardens, Chinese gardens celebrate the mutual involvement of nature and culture, with bridges crossing streams, pagodas emerging from bamboo thickets and calligraphy decorating ornamental stones. The human element is integral to the garden, which is made for its visitors and organized in terms of the paths that traverse it.

Throughout the world, the human impact on nature has been so prolonged and penetrating that historians, archaeologists and ecologists have long abandoned any belief in ‘virgin wilderness.’ Before urbanization, even before settled agriculture, the hunting patterns of the earth’s dominant predator had long since changed entire eco-systems beyond recognition. The question is not whether nature is to remain ‘untouched,’ but only whether it is to be well cared-for.

In the grand sweep of history it is the romantic ‘myth of nature’ that will seem like a fleeting illusion. Westerner’s perplexed by the artificiality of Hangzhou’s dredged, diked and manipulated Xihu need only recall their own foundational myths. According to the Biblical book of Genesis, when humans first appeared on earth they did not find themselves lost in untended wilderness, but rather at home in an already cultivated environment designed for their appreciation -- the Garden of Eden.