Note: This is a paper I wrote for one of my graduate history classes, “Testimony, Life, History” on May 2, 2010 at California State University, Northridge. The short paper focuses on historian Vera Schwarcz’s book, Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden.
Background and Timeline:
The Singing Crane garden is located Northwest of Beijing, China. The garden was built by the Manchu Prince Mianyu in the mid-nineteenth century. The garden’s purpose was to serve as a refuge from the clutter of daily life near the Forbidden City.
1860: The garden was destroyed during the Anglo-French war in China.
1960s: The garden was transformed as “oxpens” where dissident university professors were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.
1986: With peaceful Western involvement, ground was broken for the Arthur Sackler Museum Art and Archaeology.
1993: The museum and the Julian Sackler Sculpture Garden stand on the same grounds today as the Singing Crane Garden did.
In Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden, historian Vera Schwarcz attempts to explore ways in reconstructing the history of the Singing Crane garden. As a result, she learns that the garden is a historical memory and its remnants provide a voice to the voiceless, more specifically, to the artists and intellectuals who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. In turn, the persecuted give the garden a voice by seeking its history for refuge, hope and comfort. As Schwarcz describes, a stone “…hints at a prince-ling retreat of the nineteenth century while remaining quite mute about the atrocities that took place on this ground in the 1960s. Cultural memory is evoked and dismissed all at once (Schwarcz, 2).” The Singing Crane garden is a cultural memory and symbolic landscape for Chinese society as a whole.
Schwarcz notes there is a shortage of material to help in reconstructing the making of the garden. The reason for this is “…because the monopoly of the theory of class struggle prohibited any mentioned of literati culture (Schwarcz, 4).” The literati culture consisted of intellectuals who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. This was repressive politics during the Maoist era. The intellectuals appreciated gardens such as the Singing Crane located in the heart of Beijing University, where the literati were persecuted. While the literati were smeared, so were the gardens and other historical and ancient landscapes and artifacts. As Schwarcz points out, “Not only are there fewer gardens left to study, but the very language for their explanation has been decimated by decades of propaganda and murderously real class struggle (Schwarcz, 4).” One required source to assist in decoding the Chinese gardens such as the Singing Crane is narrative strategies. The purpose of narrative strategies is to help “…give voice to all that has been silenced through violence and indirect commemoration (Schwarcz, 4).”
One important dimension of narrative strategies is Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry is crucial because at the heart of Chinese poetry is landscape, more specifically, the gardens. Since there are few actual gardens, the words in the poetry can help describe the gardens and give voice to the literati who appreciated and built these gardens. But “…with war and revolution, however, both gardens and the refined literati consciousness that nurtured them came under attack (Schwarcz, 4).” During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals and artists sought out the ruin landscape of the gardens during and after the Maoist era to help “…articulate their own severed connection to history (Schwarcz, 4).” Similar to the purpose of the truth commission reports in various countries, the artists and intellectuals sought to mentally and emotionally reconstruct the gardens as a form of reconciliation since the remnants of a garden gave comfort in the midst of political upheaval and the torture they endured.
The gardens is also a mirror reflection of society’s destruction due to wars, revolutions, foreign empires and influences but also a reflection of how society and the gardens have been built and rebuilt over time. The gardens parallel to what the literati experienced in their own lives and the tumultuous history of Chinese society. There may be few gardens now, but it is their memory that still lives on. For the individuals who were persecuted, the gardens gave them hope and became the focal point for “…meditations about loss and desolation – as well as about renewal (Schwarcz, 5).” The gardens offered renewed cultural imagination. The Singing Crane garden for example, may be in ruins, but if one looks closely and pays attention, the garden has not been completely destroyed. There are remnants still there reminding us of the beauty of the garden and its history. The history of the garden is the history of China. Schwarcz quotes Primo Levi that one needs to practice “hard listening.” To practice “hard listening” is where “One has to dig below stone markers and refurbished monuments to hear what Levi called ‘the hoarse voices of those who can no longer speak’ (Schwarcz, 10).” Schwarcz applies Levi’s experiences as a survivor in Auschwitz to the Singing Crane garden “…with an informed ear one can hear subtle reference to the suffering inflicted on Chinese intellectuals at Beijing University during the Cultural Revolution (Schwarcz, 11).” Chinese historian, Hou Renzhi, was incarcerated during the Cultural Revolution and similar to the truth commissions “…knows that without recalling the past without providing glimpses of the Yi Ran Ting, future generations will not be able to converse with the landscape, with language itself (Schwarcz, 11).”
What is physically left of the Singing Crane garden is what gave persecuted literati hope and a purpose to live. The Singing Crane garden is a cultural memory and symbolic landscape. Schwarcz references Simon Schama’s argument in Landscape and Memory that to make up what lacks in space, these individuals constructed “…a refuge in their mind, an imaginary landscape to house what is missing in space (Schwarcz, 12).” Ultimately, in the midst of pain and violence, a restoration of life can occur through the memory and remembrance of the Singing Crane garden. More importantly, the persecuted give voice to the garden and the garden gives not only a voice to the persecuted but the historical memory of the garden itself gives hope and refuge.