Engaging with Alterity: The Chinese Style of Gardening in 18th-century Britain

The Chinese style of gardening in 18th-century Britain has long been a focus of attention and debate. While mainstream Anglo-American scholarship maintains that the roots of naturalistic English gardens developed from the classical and continental tradition, a counter-argument emphasises Chinese influence. Just as the Anglo-American scholarship was attacked for being Eurocentric, so the ‘Chinese influence’ proposition has been criticised for Sinocentrism.

In this talk, Dr Yue Zhuang proposes the postcolonial concept of alterity to assess the shifting image of Chinese gardens in British perceptions and its implications for constructing British imperial identity. My overview will range: from Sir William Temple’s (1685) praise of irregular Chinese gardens as a greater beauty to the remarkable commercial successes of William and John Halfpennies’ prints mingling the Chinese and the Gothic in the mid-century; from William Chambers’ works on Chinese buildings and gardens (1757; 1772) asserting Chinese authenticity to Horace Walpole’s ridicule of the Chinese style as bad taste. Rather than construing the malleable British presentations of the Chinese style through a binary of the colonial self and the colonised or marginalised other, I follow Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of alterity which does not mean alienness, but rather an apartness that stands as a precondition for dialogue between Britain and China. This Bakhtinian alterity, which allows us to focus on similarities and entanglements as well as differences between the cultures of Britain and China, may offer sinology a critical perspective on both Eurocentrism and Sinocentrism.

Yue Zhuang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese, Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter. She specialises in the landscape art history of China and Britain as well as the cross-cultural contacts between China and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Her research projects have been funded by various institutions such as the Swiss National Foundation, EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the Leverhulme Trust. Her publications include The Hermeneutical Tradition of Chinese Gardens (2015) and Entangled Landscapes: Early Modern China and Europe (2017) as well as journal articles focusing on the key figures in the history of the British reception of the Chinese style of gardening in the 18th century. She is currently co-editing a volume on The Garden Retreat in Asia and Europe: Ways of Dwelling in a Torn World and completing a monograph entitled Imperial Arcadia: Architecture, Landscape and the Funereal Imagination in 18th-century Britain.