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Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
ISSN 0577-9170; DOI 10.6503/THJCS


The Boat in the Garden and the Boat as Garden: Transitions and Limitations of Identity in Wang Ruqian's Boat Garden

Vol. 36 No. 1   6/2006    


The Boat in the Garden and the Boat as Garden: Transitions and Limitations of Identity in Wang Ruqian's Boat Garden


Shu-chuan Tsao









Key words

boat in the garden, boat as garden, Wang Ruqian,“Unfettered Garden (Buxiyuan)",“As Y ou Like Pavilion (Suixian)", West Lake


  Even during the decline and unrest that marked the final years of the Ming dynasty, the civilized glow of the ancient city Hangzhou (杭州) lit up

its city streets and the shores and waterways of the West Lake. At the time, most people toured the lake on small boats, with only a few government officials and businessmen being able to afford the more elaborate pagoda boat. In the winter of 1623, though, all that changed when   Wang Ruqian (汪汝謙) opened up new vistas with two boats named “Unfettered Garden" (Buxiyuan 不繫園) and “As You Like Pavilion" (Suixian 隨喜庵).

  These two boats, with their intricate craftsmanship, represented a departure from the standards of the times and successfully recreated the

touring boat even as they tweaked the notion of being boats for roaming the "garden" of the West Lake by being named, and indeed being known as, a

“garden" and a “pavilion." By taking the boat as a pavilion (both of which are integral parts in the “garden" experience) the mobility implied in the act

of perusing a garden is transformed into the stillness represented by an object residing in the garden. Wang's boats offered the ability to reside in

the “garden" of the West Lake for extended periods of time, thus leading both hosts and guests to understand the boat that they were on as being a

pavilion. And yet taking the boat to be a garden confuses the part with the whole; for indeed, from the point of view of their physical construction,

Wang's boats were naturally not identical to a garden. As such, the bold naming of these boats by Chen Jiru (陳繼儒) can be seen as a masterful stroke of a brush by a brilliant literatus that was lost on later generations. For us it is interesting to note that, at the time, judging from the numerous poems written by Wang and his guests for the occasion, people were quite receptive to Chen's notion. We might ask, then, how they interpreted the relationship between boat and garden?

  This article discusses Wang's transition from the notion of “boat in the garden" to “boat as garden" as well as his attempt to make a breakthrough

and his ultimate inability to do so by a reading focused on the Buxiyuanji (不繫園集) and the Suixianji (隨喜庵集) and supplemented by other relevant texts. We begin by reviewing the construction and design of the boats and then move on to discuss their dual identities as both vehicles for touring  the West Lake and pavilions residing in a garden, and the aesthetic experience that they provide in each of their roles. We then discuss Wang's intent in constructing the West Lake not for himself Pavilions and bring them into the context of the Ming dynastic discourse on gardens by interpreting the notion of “boat as garden" in terms of the idea “where the thought is, that is where the garden is" (意在園在). Finally, we look at the meaning of the terms "unfettered" and “as you like" in a summary of the potential connotations of the different identities discussed in this article. We will see that the appearance of the “Unfettered Garden" not only builds on the traditions of gardens at the time but also results from a contrarian reflection that tradition.



Author: Shu-chuan Tsao
Genre: Article
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