Do Chinese wallpapers show the gardens of Guangzhou?

Chinese painting on paper showing a garden, used as wallpaper at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Chinese painting on paper showing a garden, used as wallpaper at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Two papers presented at the Chinese garden history conference, held at the University of Sheffield last week, gave me a lot to think about with regard to the – at first sight unrelated – subject of Chinese wallpapers.

Photograph by Felice Beato showing Howqua's garden, Canton, 1860. ©J. Paul Getty Trust

Photograph by Felice Beato showing Howqua’s garden, Canton, 1860. ©J. Paul Getty Trust

Liyuan Gu spoke about rockwork in Chinese gardens and Josepha Richard discussed the gardens of Guangzhou (Canton) in the nineteenth century. The images both Liyuan and Josepha showed were very reminiscent of Chinese wallpapers.

Chinese wallpaper previously at Beaudesert, Staffordshire, illustrated in Nancy McClelland's book Historic Wallpapers (1924).

Chinese wallpaper previously at Beaudesert, Staffordshire, illustrated in Nancy McClelland’s book Historic Wallpapers (1924).

Many Chinese wallpapers show floral imagery, and it is generally assumed that most of these wallpapers were made in Guangzhou, the international port from where they were shipped to the west.

Photograph by John Thomson of a garden in Guangzhou, probably Howqua's garden, 1870s. ©J. Paul Getty Trust

Photograph by John Thomson of a garden in Guangzhou, probably Howqua’s garden, 1870s. ©J. Paul Getty Trust

The visual evidence shown at the conference strongly suggests that at least some of these wallpapers specifically show the gardens of Guangzhou, or of the wider Lingnan region, with their abundant use of water, their stone embankments and balustrades and their profusion of potted shrubs and dwarf trees.

Chinese wallpaper in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, including decorative rockwork and a stone-edged waterway in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Michael Caldwell

Chinese wallpaper in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, including decorative rockwork and a stone-edged waterway in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Michael Caldwell

So this would seem to confirm the link between the wallpapers and Guangzhou. And it also provides more clues as to what we are actually seeing in Chinese wallpapers: a glimpse of Guangzhou on our British walls.

13 Responses to “Do Chinese wallpapers show the gardens of Guangzhou?”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Ah, I see Josepha Richard has a blog with abstracts from the conference here:

    Here is another image of the garden.

    Are the gardens of Guangzhou (Canton) typical of the gardens of China as a whole, or are there considerable regional variations?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for those links Andrew. Yes Howqua’s garden was famous and could be visited, just like famous private gardens in Britain. It is no longer extant, but other historic gardens do still exist in this region, for instance those known as the ‘four renowned gardens of Lingnan’: the Yuyin Shanfang in Panyu, the Keyuan in Dongguan, the Liangyuan in Foshan and the Qinghuiyuan in Shunde.

    There are definitely regional differences in Chinese gardens. Traditionally, westerners were only able to visit the gardens situated near the trading posts in Guangzhou, so the Lingnan style became ‘the Chinese garden’ in the western consciousness. More recently, Suzhou gardens have taken over as the perceived ‘classic Chinese garden’.

    But over the last few decades both western and Chinese scholars have been researching and identifying other garden styles, both geographically and as they developed through time. The contributors to last week’s conference are at the forefront of this research (apart from me, as I was merely discussing ‘Chinese’ elements in British gardens).

  3. Josepha Richard (@GardensOfChina) Says:

    Dear both,
    First of all permit me to say that Emile is indeed at the forefront of the research because although it is not a new field of study, there is still much work to be done regarding wallpapers and this is indeed one of the directions well worth pushing forward.

    Secondly, finding “typical” Chinese gardens seems to have been a strong aim for Western observers early on, and as much as it makes sense to try to obtain a general idea of the garden of a given culture, it seems to have led to the generalisation of the Chinese garden as a single entity, whether one chooses to find it in Imperial Gardens in Beijing or private garden of Suzhou. The diversity in geography and the length of time involved makes a typical Chinese garden difficult to be found, although the modern examples built outside of China have usually chosen Suzhou models.

    Guangzhou gardens of the 19th century seem at this stage of my research to be an interesting result of the juxtaposition of a unique cosmopolitan urban elites, unique sub-tropical weather, and abundant wealth produced by the Western trade. I hope that gives a small answer to your question, and in case you did not know that very useful bibliography:


  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you very much, Josepha. I will have a look at that bibliography.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Thank you, Josepha. Apologies if I am repeating the errors of my ancestors in looking for the “typical”!

    I suppose it might be worth considering the question from the other side: what would we say if a Chinese person were to ask about a “typical English garden”? I think the answer would be, well, it depends when and where you think is typical – formal knot gardens, or botanical specimens, or carefully-arranged-to-look-informal English landscape, or bedding planting, or the walled garden, or cottage gardens, or modern design. Which is more typical: Sissinghurst, or Stowe, or Stourhead, or Chatsworth, … or Chelsea Flower Show?

    You take my point?

    That said, I expect you could provide a list of typical features in a Chinese garden (planting, landscaping, philosophy, etc), and a similar but somewhat different list of typical features in an English garden.

  6. Josepha Richard (@GardensOfChina) Says:

    Dear Emile, you are most welcome, thanks for writing this post.

    Dear Andrew, first of all I hope you understood that my answer was a friendly and genuine attempt to answer.
    I agree that this problem is the same for any given culture.
    Secondly, lists of typical features in Chinese gardens are quite often given in publications, and usually boiled down to the following elements: rock, water, vegetation and buildings. There are many, many books repeating this but it is always better to go back to the Chinese treaty “The Craft of Gardens”, well translated by Alison Hardie.
    Reading this 17th century treaty makes it clear that the arrangement of the elements has to follow a poetic elegance which is likely to have changed over time, and much harder to define with only writing and paitings. The Ming and Qing periods are for example quite different. I have a personal fondness for colourful 19th century Guangzhou gardens but many a Ming specialist would find them positively vulgar!
    That is where it is interesting to read Craig Clunas’ Fruitful Sites which explains the transition from productive garden to aesthetic garden in China. I imagine that is already a lot of recommended readings!


  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it would be a bit like assuming that all British gardens are like the classic English landscape garden ( and even that phrase is a generalisation). And I suppose that the fact that so many important Chinese gardens only survive in written descriptions could be compared to trying to reconstruct the development of English gardens just from the writings of Horace Walpole, Uvedale Price, Humphrey Repton etc. Josepha, you must feel like Borges’s Pierre Menard sometimes 🙂

  8. Andrew Says:

    Thank you, both. I do appreciate you engaging with someone like me who is largely ignorant in this area.

    I am sure it is a horrible cliche, but my (unscholarly westerner’s) expectation of a Chinese garden would include a river or pond with waterlilies or lotus and fish, red bridge, pagoda/pavilion, bamboo, specimen trees (fruit, willow), probably enclosed by a wall.

    Now, the challenge will be to distinguish that from say a Japanese garden! Many of the elements will be similar, but arranged in subtly different ways.

  9. reocochran Says:

    I love your attention to historic details from tapestries to which garden is depicted in traditional Chinese wallpaper.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Glad you like it!

  11. Josepha Richard (@GardensOfChina) Says:

    Dear Andrew,
    Some of the bridges were red but most would be white or stone coloured, and the presence of strangely shaped rocks is usually accepted as very important. There would be no grass area, and the paths would be paved or made of bricks or assembled pebbles to form a pattern. There would be walls dividing the scenes but pierced by a variety of openings such as moongates or fan-shaped windows. As long as you don’t imagine a Zen sand landscape in your mind, you would be right to say that there are similarities with Japanese landscapes which partly finds its origins in the Chinese one. Have you visited a Chinese garden outside of China? Depending on the continent there are various interpretations.


  12. Andrew Says:

    Thanks, Josepha – not doubt the reality differs somewhat from the stereotype. Yes, I have visited a few Chinese gardens – the ones in Vancouver and Sydney come to mind.

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