Nature Entangled

Entangled histories of ‘Nature’ in the landscape discourses of early modern China and Europe

China in the 17th and 18th centuries was a model of moral, economic and political strength, viewed by the Europeans as the greatest empire in the world. At the same time, imagery of Chinese landscapes and gardens, associated with the idea of ‘imitating nature’ was a key focus of the European imagination. Historians have long documented the importance of China to the 18th-century Enlightenment. Landscape art historians have also discussed the Chinese connection with naturalistic English landscape gardens. But little attempt has been made to integrate both the importance of China and the garden connections —to examine the landscape exchange between China and Europe in a broader social and cultural context, namely Europe during the Enlightenment.

As has been widely and convincingly argued in the past few decades, landscape images are not objective renderings of nature, but rather cultural constructs conditioned by world views and social formations. This understanding particularly applies to the flagship idea of landscape ‘imitating nature’ in 17th to 18th-century Europe. However, whilst many scholars today would agree that this discourse of ‘imitating nature’ was not merely about forging a new aesthetic taste, few have recognised that this landscape discourse reflected many shifts of ideas in European societies and sciences during the Enlightenment – body and psychology, health and wellbeing, philosophy, religion, economy and politics. Upon this ground this project will investigate the entangled histories of the discourse of landscape imitating nature between early modern China and Europe.

Employing case studies of certain figures, images, and literature of the concerned period, we aim to reveal how ideas of imitating nature in the British landscape imagination were interrelated with 17th and 18th-century European discourses on the varied aspects of nature in: moral philosophy (nature as moral natural law), governance (nature as natural government in classical republicanism), geology (nature as the earth), physiology (nature as vitality in the vital, human body), economy (nature as natural economy) and landscape urbanism. We shall highlight that many of these ideas of imitating nature may be derived from both classical and renaissance thoughts which interacted or were entangled with flows of knowledge from China.

Through such investigations, the project aims to articulate how the parallels and linkages between Chinese culture and European antiquity were evoked by those (often associated with ‘the ancients’) who were concerned with separating humanities from the conceptualisation of nature by ‘the moderns’. It will be shown how an entangled landscape imitating nature, with its Chinese garb, expressed a moral, psychophysical, and ecological order quite contrary to the emerging values based on the acquisitive individualism and mechanism of the 17th-18th century. The project therefore manifests how the historical legacy of landscape imitating nature shared between China and Europe has shaped and continues to shape our landscape and our perceptions of man and nature relations.

This project is a continuation of my previous project on the ‘Entangled histories of 18th century European and Chinese landscape representations,’ also funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

A sub-project of ‘Nature Entangled,’ ‘Cultivating Happiness: Sir William Temple, Confucianism, and the English Landscape Garden’ is funded by Leverhulme Trust.

Funded by

Image: Kew Gardens - The Pagoda and bridge.
Credit: Richard Wilson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons