According to G. and S. Jellicoe, there are a number of design motifs that Oriental and Occidental gardens shared during the 18th Century. I would categorise these under two main rubrics: a) Symbolism and b) The Elevation of Nature in Man’s Estimation.
a) Symbolism – this includes allegory and metaphor. These are found in Chinese gardens, where, for example, water and rock represent mutability and immutability respectively. The features of the garden come together to ‘represent…a natural and wild View of the Country’ (letter by Father Attiret, in Jellicoe, 1975, p 225). Although the West also began to include symbolism in its gardens at this time, it was qualitatively different from that found in Chinese gardens – indeed, ‘Imitators did not appreciate that the spirit of the traditional Chinese garden was one of symbolism’ (ibid., p 223). The type of representation to be found in English gardens had less to do with a philosophy of the earth, and more to do with story, allegory and metaphor. Stourhead takes the visitor on a journey through the human life, from birth to death, and Painshill tells ‘the story of past civilizations and their place in the great wilderness of nature’ (ibid., pp 240-242).
b) The Elevation of Nature in Man’s Estimation – Chinese gardens placed buildings and their layouts in ‘a geometrical design totally subordinate to natural landscape’ (ibid., p 224): they might be said to be in, rather than on, the landscape. In describing the English School, Jellicoe explains that in the 18th Century, ‘Nature was no longer subservient to man’ and that ‘irregularity rather than regularity’ was what designers now strove after (ibid., p 233). The use of the ha ha came from the new maxim that ‘all nature was a garden’ (ibid.), and the lakes and riverscapes at Chiswick House and Rousham (ibid., p 236) reminiscent of the Chinese lake gardens express the ability of nature to be chaotic – for after all, nothing is more untameable and unpredictable than water, which humans cannot inhabit and which may without warning even invade and destroy their habitations on land.
The two categories are on the one hand mutually exclusive, since symbolism is something created entirely in the human mind. There is no allegory in nature – all nature simply is itself. There is falsehood and deceit in nature – the eye patterns on a moth’s wings, or the trickery of a squirrel that buries a nut in plain view and then reburies it elsewhere when no other creatures are watching – but there is no representation, only pretense.
On the other hand, it is exactly this dichotomy of the unreal and the real that the Chinese gardens synthesise, by using nature to represent itself. I’m not sure whether I think this is beautifully poetic or a tremendous conceit. It is like carving a tree out of wood.