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The ‘Chinese Garden in Good Taste’: Jesuits and Europe’s Knowledge of Chinese Flora and Art of the Garden in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Bianca Maria Rinaldi, The ‘Chinese Garden in Good Taste’: Jesuits and Europe’s Knowledge of Chinese Flora and Art of the Garden in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Munich: Martin Meidenbauer, 2006), illus., €42.00 (hbk), ISBN 3-899-75041-1

This publication is the second from the Centre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture, founded in June 2002, at the University of Hanover, and the first that I have reviewed that contains instructions for cooking a peppered flamingo! The work is the outcome of the author’s extensive and detailed research for her doctoral thesis on the Jesuits’ writings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerning Chinese flora and gardens. The author points out that much of the previous writing on the topic has been the result of a fragmented approach, and that this publication is the result of a more comprehensive consideration of the surviving literature.

The initial chapters deal with the organization of the Jesuits in Far East Asia and how they used science as a tool for the propagation of the Catholic faith. There are some fascinating insights into how the Jesuits’ use of botanical knowledge was seen as a means to gain access to those with power and influence, including the Emperor’s court. The author describes the Jesuits as ‘the fulcrum of true cultural exchange’ between two civilisations that appeared so apparently different to each other. A summary of European knowledge concerning the Asiatic flora during the sixteenth century, and the political and commercial expansion which occurred in the seventeenth century form the basis of Part I. The early appreciation of Eastern plants for their pharmacological and culinary uses is traced back to the Greek and Roman trade with Asia, and it is from the Roman writer Apicius that the reader is given an insight into preparing flamingo with the addition of ground pepper. It was fascinating to learn that, as early as 1652, a garden was established on the Cape of Good Hope, to offer a place for the temporary acclimatization of Asian plants, since long sea voyages had a detrimental effect on the seeds, bulbs and plants destined for Europe.

The relevant herbals, treatises, and other writings compiled by the Jesuits are examined in Part II, and a detailed account shows how a knowledge of plants and their cultivation, and use in gardens reached Europe. These historical accounts range from botanical illustrations of rhubarb in the seventeenth century to reports in the early eighteenth on the decorative use of lotus in the garden ponds of China. A particularly interesting example is given of how the Jesuits introduced the Chinese to new plants as a means of gaining favour, the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) being very successful with the Emperor Qianlong.

In Part III attention is turned to the Jesuits’ contribution to European knowledge concerning the gardens of China. The author, from her extensive studies of contemporary accounts, is able to highlight how the Jesuits’ assessments of gardens changed over time as their appreciation and understanding evolved. However, it is made clear that there were aspects of garden design in China that the Jesuits found challenging, including the expenditure on naturally shaped rock and the lack of ornamentation given to water features.

This is a book for the academic or those with a deep enthusiasm and interest in Chinese flora and gardens. The maxim ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ has never been more applicable than to this publication; presumably the cover design (plain blue with the title) follows the house style for the series, but for a wider audience it would have been helpful to use some of the black and white illustrations discussed and shown from the various Jesuit treatises.

The author is both an architect and a landscape architect, and holds the post of Assistant Professor at the Institute of Landscape Architecture for the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, and her scholarship is clearly displayed. There are balanced and useful explanations, and the quality and depth of research is the great strength of this book. Sources of the wide-ranging primary data are carefully referenced allowing the dedicated scholar to find the originals. Occasionally, however, the text still reads as a dissertation, particularly when detailed justifications are given for why the work was undertaken, and at times I wished the illustrations were nearer the relevant text. However, these are minor points and though not a light read the text adds considerably to our understanding of the cross-cultural exchange that occurred, and of how China was perceived. This is summarized by the author: It is without doubt thanks to the works of the Jesuits that China, in the eyes of Europeans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, assumed its position among the great countries of the world.

Jill Raggett
Writtle College, Chelmsford

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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