Chinese Garden (园林), Correlative Cosmology & Unitary Principle

Land of Illusion cyberart project visualizes a unitary principle manifested by Chinese classical philosophies and religions that undergirded the workings of the whole cosmos in all its diversity[1]. This effort reflects Chinese intellectuals’ pursuit of  insight into fundamental truths of human morality and religions in eastern civilization, their meanings and values in the age of social transformation and globalization resulting sociocultural and environmental impacts.

This unitary principle can be seen as “an intellectual synthesis exerting a major influence on the political culture and institutions” of later times in China, which merges theories of numerical correspondence and cosmic resonance in Taoism, Confucianism, legalism and other classical philosophies. The unitary principle was pervasively, symbolically employed in social and cultural practices, including architecture. Land of Illusion takes the forms of virtual Chinese courtyard (Red Chambers Courtyard) and garden (Grand View Garden) referring to this principle, which concerns about 1) order in the political realm, 2) knowledge of the workings of nature, and 3) the unity of all phenomena –

1) Most intellectuals drew on multiple philosophical traditions for their ideas, and they regarded all schools of thought as having something valuable to offer. Flexibility in government administration and the syncretic tendency were emphasized by ancient thinkers:

Under the rule of a sage the laws change with the times and the rites [li] are adapted to popular usage. As clothing and utensils must be fitted to their functions, so laws and institutions must accord with what is proper for the time. Therefore, there is nothing condemnable about modifying ancient ways, and nothing praiseworthy in adhering to fixed principles. Though the hundred rivers rise from different sources, they all find their destination in the sea; although the hundred schools of philosophy teach different methods, they all seek the ordering of the state.

2) Intellectuals in ancient China sought a deeper understanding of the inner workings of nature. Many were convinced that this quest would lead to the discovery of a unifying set of laws or principles by which all phenomena could be linked and explained. Correlative cosmology was one result of this quest. The cosmologies of premodern civilizations were applied not just to the arrangement and order of the physical universe or the natural world, but to that of social and historical worlds as well. Their components included not just the objects of physics and astronomy, but items of almost every scale and realm of being, from the architectural to the zoological.[2]

In theories of cosmic correspondence or correlation, all things affect all other things, but some things are more directly connected to each other than are others. Numerological formula were employed to quantify these degrees of correspondence. During the Song dynasty, one scholar attempted to connect every known thing and phenomenon via a complex network of mathematical correspondences.

For Chinese cosmologists, the key to understanding order in the universe was correlative thinking. In general, correlative thinking draws systematic correspondences among various orders of reality or realms of the cosmos, such as the human body, the body politic, and the heavenly bodies. It assumes that these related orders are homologous, that they correspond with one another in number, in kind, in structure, or in some other basic respect, and that they form a continuum.

In the late Ming and early Qing, as mathematical astronomy was finally assimilated into the mainstream of Confucian learning, the language of irregularity and nonuniformity, which was implicitly at odds with correlative cosmology, was raised to a higher metaphysical power. It congealed into a sort of anti-cosmology that recognized, even celebrated, the disharmonies (or at least irregularities) of the world. A simple example of this, which assumes its significance in light of the prominent numerological aspect of correlative cosmology, is Wang Tingxiang’s (1474-1544) pointed observation that while there is just one great ultimate (taiji), there are two of yin and yang, heaven and earth, male and female, and day and night, three powers (cai), namely heaven, earth, and man, four seasons, five agents, and so on. Thus, “the irregularities of things are in the nature of things.”(47)

Charles Jencks points out, “we are witnessing  a fundamental philosophical dispute between on the one hand of Confucian ideal of simple rusticity, the Taoist ideal of natural spontaneity, the painter’s ideal of ‘vital spirit’; and on the other the several conventions for representing these ideals. It is not at all surprising that the dispute should take place in a garden, for after all a garden was precisely that microcosm of the universe where all forces would be present, or at least represented – an idea which takes us to the next most important theme underlying a Chinese garden. … the garden symbolises the universe through its formal devices. This partially explains what is so characteristically strange to us about the Chinese garden: its cramming of a density of meanings into a very small space, its tight packing, and its restless changing aspect. So ceaseless is the alternation in moods and vistas that it cannot be totally accounted for in aesthetic terms. [3]”

Shen Fu’s[4] well-know passage connecting the aesthetic motivation with the symbolic:

In laying out garden pavilions and towers, suites of rooms and covered walk-ways, piling up rocks into mountains, or planting flowers to form a desired shape, the aim is to see the small in the large, to see the large in the small, to see the real in the illusory and to see the illusory in the real.




3. Charles Jencks, Meanings of the Chinese Garden. Academy Editions, London, 1978.

4. The translation is by Plaks, op. cit., p.167.

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2 replies on “Chinese Garden (园林), Correlative Cosmology & Unitary Principle”

Artist’s note:

“Architecture in Gardens”

In fact the individual rooms that go to make up the Chinese house are essentially no different from those in the garden. Despite their fanciful shapes, Chinese garden buildings, with their posts and beams supporting tiled roofs on cantilevered brackets, share the same basic structure with the most prosaic buildings of the house. … a garden pavillion may easily be converted into a dwelling which has just the same degree of comfort as a set of rooms in the house.

Nevertheless there are crucial differences. Above all house buildings are always sited on an orderly rectangular plan, and in large households are arranged as regular progressions of courtyards. A garden, on the other hand, is instantly recognisable because everything in it is irregular and confusing; it is a place where the ordinary is transformed into something new and delightful.

In a Chinese garden architecture is more playful than useful and, above all, more metaphorical. Gardens allowed the normal city architecture to be liberated from Confucian rectitude…

And the structural aspects of all these buildings seldom varied from the basic beam-framing systems, and from a limited number of roof forms which garden builders excelled in elaborating.[1]

1. Keswick, Maggie. The Chinese Garden. London: Academy Editions/New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986, pp. 117, 122.

Miniature Chinese Garden

In the gardens of Suzhou the owners expressed their rebellion against the strict Confucian order by adopting the free and more imaginative Taioist (pronounced daoist) thought in their gardens. In a small area they incorporated all the wildness of nature such as forests, mountains, caves, undulating paths and hundreds of weirdly shaped limestone rocks brought from the nearby lake Taihu. The pond was always the main feature of the garden with houses and pavilions placed around it. Vistas were created to be viewed from many vantage points.

The garden is entered through a moon gate (top right). Immediately one faces a second wall, forcing the person to turn to the right or to the left. The belief in China was that this second wall prevented the evil spirits from entering the residence – evil spirits can only move in straight lines. The zig-zag bridge serves the same purpose while affording the viewer scenes on either side.

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