by Duncan Campbell, New Zealand Contemporary China Centre, Victoria University of Wellington
Gardens are quiet and beneficent places. They provide a sheltering space set apart from the world but not entirely removed from it, offering respite rather than escape from the impatient and pressing demands of our day-to-day lives. In our urban circumstances, particularly and if only briefly, they allow us to reengage with the rhythms of nature, to experience afresh the sounds, smells, touch, and sight of flower and tree, insect and bird, of water both flowing and stilled.
More than twenty years ago, a group of engaged and energetic Wellington-based Chinese New Zealanders decided that the city needed a Chinese garden and established the Wellington Chinese Garden Society (惠靈頓園林協會) to promote the idea. Now, finally, the garden that was designed by Wraight + Associates in conjunction with Athfield Architects and myself, intended as one part of the revitalization of the harbour-front Frank Kitts Park, has overcome all the various legal challenges that it faced and has been granted resource consent. Much delayed fund-raising has recommenced, with a view to work on the garden starting sometime next year.
In China, historically, the private gardens of the late imperial period were where scholarship was engaged in, where poems and essays were both written and read, where calligraphers and painters discussed their art and viewed, in keeping with the turn of the seasons in the garden outside the windows of their studies, the great examples of the art of the past. The garden was where one listened to the music of the Chinese lute or qin 琴 or watched the latest Kunqu opera, a cup of tea or wine in hand. For those of a somewhat more scientific bent of mind, the garden was the great schoolroom wherein, through careful, year-long observation, one learned of the principles or, in Chinese philosophical terms, the li 理 that, from the Song dynasty onwards, were understood to weave the basic pattern of the world around us. “People say that ‘Heaven and Earth are the Mother of All Things,’ but if things are not observed carefully, their origins not scrutinized thoroughly, they are to us like the mushroom that arises at dawn only to die by nightfall,” writes Chen Jingyi 陳景沂 in around 1256 in the “Preface” to his splendidly entitled Complete Genealogy of All the Plants (Quan fang beizu 全芳備祖), a book that is often described as the world’s first botanical dictionary. He continues: “Why is it that bamboos are hollow and trees solid? Why do some plants sprout in spring and die away in autumn whilst others live throughout all four seasons without any change? It is the principles that underlie these changes that is the most difficult thing to understand.” For others, the lifecycle of the plant life of a garden offered more general and historical lessons for as “the flowers bloomed and then faded away, the trajectories of their lives are surely no different from the ruts along which travel the birth and death, the waxing and the waning of kingdoms,” claimed the late Ming essayist and calligrapher Chen Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558-1639).
As a public garden that seeks to be of our time and this place, by way of contrast with these traditions, the design brief for Beneficence (one meaning of the first Chinese character in the transliterated Chinese name for Wellington, hui 惠) called for “a unique, contemporary Chinese garden that [will] symbolise the history of the Chinese people in Wellington, the Chinese migrant experience, and the contribution of the Chinese community [to] the enrichment of the cultural experience and fabric of the city.” In response to this brief, the design of garden did not seek to replicate the form and meaning of the gardens of China’s past, but rather to engage creatively with design features such as symmetry, axiality, hierarchy, suspension, and disclosure that were quintessential to the gardens of the past in China. What is it, then, that Beneficence, once built, might offer the inhabitants of Wellington and other occasional visitors to the city’s fine harbour front? It will enhance the existing relationship between city and sea, add interest and an element of drama to the journey between the two; it will afford a designed and pleasant place to sit and converse, take lunch or read a book; it will be a living commemoration of the history of the Chinese New Zealand communities, of their connections with this place and their memories of the ancestral lands from where they came. As the embodiment of a contemporary understanding of the quintessential traditional Chinese expression of the ideal of the interrelatedness of humankind and nature, the garden will offer to all who enter into it with all their senses attuned to its particular rhythms the momentary respite that serves to reinvigorate.