Gardens = Serenity 吗?

It was great seeing the beautiful gardens in Suzhou this week, but it made me wonder how the Chinese actually consider and appreciate nature. Especially living in the booming city of Shanghai, it is easy to assume that the low air quality and lack of green space, among other urban side effects, corresponds with a lack of regard for the natural environment. And as The River Runs Black points out, one can basically assume this to be true. The rapid economic development of China has come at the cost of the health of the Chinese landscape and population. The government has repeatedly demonstrated that a regard for nature is secondary, at best, to the priority of economic growth and urbanization.

These circumstances made me think about the oddity that is gardens in general, and how they are appreciated in China specifically. It has always been my belief that gardens are meant as escapes or refuges from the urbanized world. We keep them in our backyards sometimes for growing food, but many times for the simple joy of tending to the plants and enjoying the blossoming of the flowers. I know from my conversations (and extensive tour of his crazy backyard) with Larry Ligo that gardens can be immaculately imagined and constructed, made strategically to induce specific responses both visually and on a deeper level. It was my general assumption that gardens are places to unwind and take the chance to observe and share space with the most beautiful elements of nature.

That’s why going to the gardens in Suzhou made little sense to me! I know they used to be private gardens that were serene, but they have now turned into thriving tourist hubs that are as bustling with people as city streets. I remember it was hard to even look up and enjoy seeing a tree or plant. I was able to snap this picture of a flower during one of our brief breaks from walking:

So even though this photo shows a beautiful, untouched, vibrant natural element, much of the trip was dominated by scenes that looked more like this:

This has all led me to think about how nature is perceived in China. Of course there is no simple answer. But what I have deduced is that there is an inherent desire in humans to be connected to nature in some way. Even as I look out my window, I can see trees and grass whose function is primarily superficial. And I can see that the gardens of Suzhou, though extremely crowded during Golden Week, are exceptionally beautiful and serene when absent such crowds. But I think the abundance of people and human influence that bombards these gardens is indicative of the stance that China has made in its relationship with nature. Though the Chinese still have an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, it functions now as a purely economic entity. The gardens are maintained not for the serenity they provide, but the revenue of its visitors. And as The River Runs Black explains, this type of mentality will continue to affect a gamut of environmental issues in China.

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