Osvald Siren (1879-1966) was one of the pioneers of Chinese art history in the world. He left his mark on its major areas including Chinese gardens, painting, sculpture, archaeology and architecture. The curator of Chinese painting and sculpture at the National Museum of Art in Stockholm from 1926 to 1944, he was instrumental in forming its collection, having made the first systematic studies of both disciplines.

Siren began his career as an art historian and scholar of the early Italian Renaissance. Born in Helsinki in 1879, he moved to Stockholm by the 19th century’s end. However he retained contact with his birthplace as art consultant for the Sinebrychoff family of Helsinki, owners of the oldest and largest brewery in Finland. Sometime around 1914, Siren became fascinated by Chinese art and his career took a new turn.

A keen photographer, Siren was already aware at the turn of the 20th century of the possibilities photography offered as a medium for documentation. When he travelled to China and Japan on four occasions in 1918, 1921-23, 1929-30 and 1935, his camera accompanied him. Siren’s garden pictures are a unique document of this vulnerable art form, the basis of his book, Gardens of China (1948), (Tradgardar i Kina), written during World War II in Lidingo, Sweden. A special summer exhibition, With Osvald Siren in the Chinese Gardens (I Kinas Tradgardar med Osvald Siren) at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, (Ostasiatiska Museet), Stockholm, revisted gardens in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Suzhou that Siren photographed between 1918 and 1935. They are given a personal context by excerpts of Siren’s wanderings in China from his notebooks and private correspondence of the same period.

The Chinese garden represented the coming together of nature and art made by man. A place for contemplation of, and communion with, nature, it was an imitation as well as an improvement on nature in a limited space. When exploring a Chinese garden Siren considered: ‘ … knowledge of the garden’s historical background … the plan and pattern of the garden, for the different parts have been carefully weighed against each other like the pairs of inscribed tablets on the pavilions … One should endeavour to attain an inner communion with the soul of the garden … the mysterious forces governing the landscape, and making it cohere.’

There were broadly, three types of gardens in Chinese landscape design. The largest were associated with the imperial household in Beijing or with high officialdom. The tradition of ‘paradise gardens’ might be traced to the Han Emperor Wu (156-87 BC), who constructed ‘islands of immortality’ in an artificial lake. The idea played an exceedingly important role in horticultural history. Successive dynasties created artificial lakes with grandiose islands dotting imperial parks. ‘One lake, three mountains’, the standard three island formula, was de rigueur in later imperial garden design.

The Forbidden City in Beijing was once even more extensive than it is now. A vast imperial garden around a natural lake was known as the Xiyuan, ‘West Park’, dating back to the Liao dynasty (907-1125). During the mid-15th century, its original structure was substantially modified. South of Qionghua Island, a peninsula was created by linking a small island on the lake to its eastern shoreline. Another lake was added in the south fed by a canal from the main lake. The West Park emerged with three component areas, Beihai, ‘North Lake’, Zhonghai, ‘Central Lake’ and Nanhai, ‘South Lake’.

On his second visit to China from 1921-23, Osvald Siren spent four months in Beijing from spring 1922 onwards. In early June 1922, he gained admittance to the imperial quarters of the Forbidden City and received permission to photograph its inner sanctum. On that occasion he made the acquaintance of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi (described in A Chinese Emperor plays Photographer’s Assistant, a New York Times magazine article of 22 April 1923). Siren visited the Zhongnanhai, ‘Central and South Lakes’, where his lens captured the Rizhige ‘House of Daily Progress’ by a pond surrounded by rockery and the Yingxunting, ‘Hall of Welcoming Fragrance’ facing a huge expanse of water. The Jingxinzhai, ‘Quiet Heart Studio’ connected to a stone bridge in the Beihai, North Lake – the only area open to the visitor today – was another subject.

The Forbidden City and the West Park were officially open to the public in 1925. When the Zhongnanhai became the Chinese Communist Party’s headquarters in 1949, it was closed to visitors. In retrospect, Siren managed to make valuable documentation of the West Park as it was before communist rule. In 1949 he wrote: ‘… the atmosphere itself, so redolent of the past, and now so peaceful, since all the tragic fates and brilliant ceremonies, here unfolded during successive periods, have been levelled by time and faded into the world of shades, where all is reconciled.’

Imperial gardens apart, smaller gardens belonged to natural parks, Buddhist temple complexes and ancestral halls. On Siren’s notebook entry of 27 May 1922, the Yigong Qin Wangfu, ‘Prince Gong Palace Garden’ or ‘Garden of Gathered Brocade’ was described as: ‘The largest princely park in Beijing, comprising some 17 entities, surrounded by low and decidedly very picturesque buildings. A large and a smaller pond, the latter with a pavilion set on an island. Also a man-made hill of stones, onto which lead some narrow footpaths. The garden overall in quite some decay, yet utterly charming nevertheless …’

In the Chinese world-view, garden size was not of prime consideration. The experience of the garden was more important. A singular concept was the coexistence of man-made features with nature, such as rockery, ponds and all manner of pavilions. Chinese gardens had a message similar to landscape paintings: To depict the spirit of a favoured spot as a three-dimensional installation.

Conforming to this ideal was the Lingyinsi, the most famous Hangzhou temple, which Siren noted in February 1922: ‘Just before arriving at the temple’s gate, (one sees) some rock formations and numerous niches and grottoes. Sculptures dating from the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. The temple is stately in appearance, extremely tall; (architecture of) its entrance the most beautiful and peculiar. Lovely small pagodas dating from the Wuyue (Song-ish?).’

Landscape painting and poetry representative of the Southern Song (1127-1279) was quite exceptional. Its capital, Hangzhou was the world’s largest city boasting a population of over a million. Particularly evocative was landscape painting of the small format embodying lyrical mood. Gnarled trees and blossoming flowers appeared on mist-covered perspectives. The garden, as in the classical landscape tradition, revolved around the idea of ‘untrammelled nature’. Nature, especially rocks and water took precedence over other elements.

Siren contemplated Chinese gardens through a succession of scenes. As in the unfolding of a landscape scroll painting, they were designed to unfold one after another. And as in a painting, the garden had multiple viewpoints: ‘The Chinese garden can never be completely surveyed from a certain point. It consists of more or less isolated sections which must be discovered gradually and enjoyed as the beholder continues his stroll: He must follow the paths … wander through tunnels, ponder the water, reach a pavilion … from which a fascinating view unfolds … he is led on into a composition that is never completely revealed …’

Rocks in traditional Chinese gardens were recumbent, with a heaping effect suggesting partial mountain landscapes. They were also solitary, often standing in isolation. ‘Their decorative function in the Chinese gardens,’ Siren explained, ‘is often the same as that of the statues, obelisks and urns found in European gardens, only with the difference that they merge so much more naturally in the picturesque play of light and shade of their surroundings.’

The idea of rocks eroded by water creating exquisite shapes was a critical element of garden design. A Daoist proverb says: ‘Nothing under Heaven is weaker and more submissive than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong, nothing can take its place.’ The presence of lakes and ponds attained greater symbolism after Buddhism developed in 8th century China. Water was a Buddhist metaphor for purity associated with the enlightened mind. A mirror for the reflection and cultivation of the mind, water created the mirror principle in landscape water design.

Another prominent design objective was the idea of ‘borrowing scenery’, jiejing in Chinese or shakkei in Japanese. The outdoors were borrowed for the indoors. A moongate served as an entrée to another world. A window framed part of the outside, whether a bamboo thicket, or a lakeside view, so that it became a part of the inside. This ideal applied particularly to the still smaller, private scholar gardens designed for the literati, scholar-officials, ‘retired’ officials and artists. Space for the scholar’s garden was often limited; scenery was thus ‘borrowed’ to juxtapose reality and illusion. The ultimate aim was to make the garden appear larger than it actually was.

Once the wealthiest of Chinese cities on account of prolific rice, tea and silk production, Suzhou in Jiangsu boasts of remarkable gardens with lives of their own. The Canglangting, ‘Pavilion of Blue Waves’ is a Song dynasty garden built by the famous poet-official, Su Shunqin (1008-48). The land was previously owned by a Wuyue kingdom (907-978) general. Su named it after a poetic term in Yufu, ‘The Fisherman’ in The Songs of Chu: ‘When the water of the Canglang River is clean, I wash the ribbon of my hat in it; when it is dirty, I wash my feet.’ When Siren visited Suzhou in February and March 1935, the garden had an art school with western-style buildings. Nothing remains of Su’s original garden, now restored, only its name and place evoking memories of the famous and of poetry.

A Yuan (1279-1368) dynasty garden, the Shizilin Yuan, ‘Lion Grove Garden’ was a popular meeting place in its heyday. Constructed by disciples in 1342 for a chan or Zen monk, Tianruo Weize, it still occupies its original northeast Suzhou spot. An account by Ouyang Xuan (1283-1357), a major author of the time said: ‘There was a forest of ten thousand bamboo stems and beneath it were remarkable stones shaped like lions, so the garden was called Lion Grove. In addition, the Master studied Buddhist teachings under Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323), who taught on the Lion Rock on Tianmu Mountain (Zhejiang province).’ The garden had since undergone enormous change. Restoration begun in 1908 was still in progress when Siren arrived in 1918 on his first Chinese visit, but the Lion Grove retained its appeal.

One of the most famous private Suzhou gardens is the Zhuozhengyuan, ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden’, of the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty. Dating back to the 3rd century as an abode, it housed a late Tang (618-906) garden which changed hands several times. Early in the 16th century, former Imperial Censor, Wang Xianchen with a lapsed career, acquired the property as a retreat from public life. He named it after a passage in ‘On Idle Living’ by the poet Pan Yue (d 300): ‘Building houses and planting trees, watering one’s garden and selling vegetables, thereby helping to procure one’s daily sustenance, this is a humble way of holding office.’

Immortalised by the eminent Ming artist, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) who painted two album views of it, the larger 31-leaf one depicted a large verdant garden with built forms by the water. Cao Xueqin (d.1763), author of the literary classic, ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, played in the garden as a child; it was the home of his grandfather, Cao Yin (1658-1712), Suzhou’s Inspector of Imperial Silk Weaveries. In the mid-1800’s, the Humble Administrator’s Garden housed the Taiping General, Li Xiucheng’s (d.1864) splendid residence.

Split thereafter into three sections, it fell into disarray. By the early 20th century, it was in serious neglect as Siren’s images testify. Capturing its Moongate framing a vista, he noted: ‘Despite all this, the garden has retained in parts a delightful picturesque charm; decay has not altogether ruined the original beauty, though it has in the main toned it down and veiled it.’

Embodying a sense of the unfinished, and the incomplete, the Chinese garden was vulnerability itself. As Osvald Siren remembered: ‘What has stood most clearly in my recollection, were not the formal elements of the gardens, but the impressions of them as a whole, the atmosphere and the emotional values attaching to this … despite the far advanced decay that has overtaken them … a certain measure of living charm and expressiveness.’


With Osvald Siren in the Chinese Gardens (I Kinas Tradgardar med Osvald Siren) is at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, (Ostasiatiska Museet), Skeppsholmen, Tyghusplan, Stockholm until 8 September, 2007, ostasiatiska.se