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Nature Entangled

Entangled histories of ‘Nature’ in the landscape discourses of early modern China and Europe

China in the 17th and 18th centuries was a model of moral, economic and political strength, viewed by the Europeans as the greatest empire in the world. At the same time, imagery of Chinese landscapes and gardens, associated with the idea of ‘imitating nature’ was a key focus of the European imagination. Historians have long documented the importance of China to the 18th-century Enlightenment. Landscape art historians have also discussed the Chinese connection with naturalistic English landscape gardens. But little attempt has been made to integrate both the importance of China and the garden connections —to examine the landscape exchange between China and Europe in a broader social and cultural context, namely Europe during the Enlightenment.

As has been widely and convincingly argued in the past few decades, landscape images are not objective renderings of nature, but rather cultural constructs conditioned by world views and social formations. This understanding particularly applies to the flagship idea of landscape ‘imitating nature’ in 17th to 18th-century Europe. However, whilst many scholars today would agree that this discourse of ‘imitating nature’ was not merely about forging a new aesthetic taste, few have recognised that this landscape discourse reflected many shifts of ideas in European societies and sciences during the Enlightenment – body and psychology, health and wellbeing, philosophy, religion, economy and politics. Upon this ground this project will investigate the entangled histories of the discourse of landscape imitating nature between early modern China and Europe.

Employing case studies of certain figures, images, and literature of the concerned period, we aim to reveal how ideas of imitating nature in the British landscape imagination were interrelated with 17th and 18th-century European discourses on the varied aspects of nature in: moral philosophy (nature as moral natural law), governance (nature as natural government in classical republicanism), geology (nature as the earth), physiology (nature as vitality in the vital, human body), economy (nature as natural economy) and landscape urbanism. We shall highlight that many of these ideas of imitating nature may be derived from both classical and renaissance thoughts which interacted or were entangled with flows of knowledge from China.

Through such investigations, the project aims to articulate how the parallels and linkages between Chinese culture and European antiquity were evoked by those (often associated with ‘the ancients’) who were concerned with separating humanities from the conceptualisation of nature by ‘the moderns’. It will be shown how an entangled landscape imitating nature, with its Chinese garb, expressed a moral, psychophysical, and ecological order quite contrary to the emerging values based on the acquisitive individualism and mechanism of the 17th-18th century. The project therefore manifests how the historical legacy of landscape imitating nature shared between China and Europe has shaped and continues to shape our landscape and our perceptions of man and nature relations.

This project is a continuation of my previous project on the ‘Entangled histories of 18th century European and Chinese landscape representations,’ also funded by Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie Actions.

A sub-project of ‘Nature Entangled,’ ‘Cultivating Happiness: Sir William Temple, Confucianism, and the English Landscape Garden’ is funded by Leverhulme Trust.

This project is funded by Marie Curie Actions and the Seventh Framework Programme.

Focusing on the multifaceted theme of ‘landscape imitating nature’ in a range of texts, images, and sites, our investigation has been carried out in the context of an interconnected China and Europe in different domains (e.g. ideological, cultural, religious, sociopolitical and economic) during the 17th-18th centuries, thus integrating Sino-European landscapes within the Enlightenment discourse.

The grant involves two PhD studentships: one sponsored by EU Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie Actions, the other funded by the University of Exeter’s College of Humanities (see below under PhD Theses).

The project also involved a series of workshops or symposia in conjunction with the Chinese Studies Seminar Series at the University of Exeter.

For a list of outputs and dissemination activities, please see below.



(2015 c) Yue Zhuang and Qiheng Wang. Zhongguo Yuanlin Chuangzuo de Jieshixue Chuantong (The Hermeneutical Tradition of Chinese Gardens). Tianjin: Tianjin University Press. 

(2017 a) Yue Zhuang and Andrea Riemenschnitter, eds., Entangled Landscapes: Early modern China and Europe. Yale-NUS Art History Series. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.

(2020 a) Yue Zhuang, Imperial Arcadia: Architecture, landscape and the funereal imagination in 18th century Britain. Abingdon: Routledge.

Book Chapters

(2015 d) Yue Zhuang, 'Hatchings in the Void: Ritual and Order in Bishu Shanzhuang Shi and Views of Jehol', in Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West, ed. Petra Chu and Ning Ding. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute. 142-157.

(2017 b) Yue Zhuang and Andrea Riemenschnitter, “Introduction: Entangled Landscapes: A new research paradigm”, in Entangled Landscapes: Early modern China and Europe. National University of Singapore Press. 1-37.

(2017 c) Yue Zhuang, “Fear and Pride: Sir William Chambers’ Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, Burke’s sublime and China”, in Entangled Landscapes: Early modern China and Europe. National University of Singapore Press. 56-114.

(2017 d) Michele Fatica and Yue Zhuang, “Copperplate Controversy: Matteo Ripa’s Views of Jehol and the Chinese Rites Controversy”, in Entangled Landscapes: Early modern China and Europe. National University of Singapore Press. 144-186

(2017 e) Yue Zhuang, “Confucius”, Key Thinkers on the Environment, ed. David E. Cooper and Joy Palmer Cooper. Routledge. 1-5.

(2020 b) Yue Zhuang, ‘Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Classicism in England: John Soane’s Language and imagination’, in The Routledge Handbook on the Reception of Classical Architecture, ed. Nicholas Temple, Andrzej Piotrowski & Juan Manuel Heredia. Routledge.

(2020 c) ‘Sir William Temple, Constantijn Huygens and ‘sharawadgi’: Pleasures of the Poetics of Variety’, in Netherlandish Art and the World, ed. Thijs Weststeijn, Brill.

Journal Articles

(2015a) Yue Zhuang, ‘Confucian ecological vision and the Chinese eco-city,’ Cities: international journal of urban policy and planning, vol. 42, 142-147.

(2015b) Yue Zhuang, ‘Death and Regeneration of Architectural Language: Ruin and Strata in John Soane's Crude Hints,’ World Architecture, vol. 302, no. 8, Tsinghua University Press, 102-109.

(2016a) Leonidas Koutsoumpous and Yue Zhuang, ‘Phronesis and Tao: Cultivating Wisdom and Ethics in the Process of Making Architecture,’, Fudan Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Volume 9, Issue 2, 213-228.

Presentations at international conferences and specialized workshops

(All by Yue Zhuang, if not otherwise mentioned)

(2014a) ‘City for virtues: Sir William Chambers' Dissertation on Oriental Gardening and Burke's Sublime-Effect,’ International Conference, Cityscapes in Europe and Asia (13th to 20th centuries), University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland, 10-12 October.

(2014b) ‘Living spirit, body-politic and landscapes amidst the cultural contacts between China and Europe in the 17th-18th centuries,’ Fudan-Exeter joint workshop, Body, medicine, and landscape: China and Europe, 17th-19th centuries, University of Exeter, 25 November.

(2015e) ‘The Chinese garden that “strikes the eye”: Sir William Temple’s psychotherapy and his Chinese references,’ Fudan-Exeter joint Advanced Workshop, The Senses in Sino-European cultural exchange in the early modern period, International Centre for Studies of Chinese Civilization, Fudan University, Shanghai 15-18 May.

(2015f) ‘The sublime: A perspective on Confucian aesthetics and politics,’ 11th East-West Philosophers’ Conference – ‘Place’, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 24-31 May.

(2016b) ‘Entangled Landscapes: a new research paradigm’, Global China Centre one-day conference, China in the Modern World: Methodologies and Paradigms, University of Exeter, 11 June 2016.

(2016c) ‘Liberty and fear: Sir William Chambers' Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, Burke's Sublime-Effect and China’, Exeter-Fudan colloquium, Bridging the Globe: Comparing and Contesting Perspectives in Literary, Visual and Digital Cultures, University of Exeter, 17-18 October.

(2016d) ‘Moulding moral emotions: Burke’s sublime and China in Sir William Chambers’ landscape theory’, international symposium, Artistic exchanges as cultural transfers between China and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, Université de Lille Sciences humaines et sociales, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, 20-21 October.

(2016e) ‘The Politics of Feeling: Confucian and European Classical traditions in comparison,’ Political Theory Reading Group, University of Exeter, 23 November.

(2016) Maria Anesti, ‘From the poetic Elysium of Virgil to the tangible Elysium of Charles Hamilton: The moral dimension of landscape garden as cultural accomplishment of the young empire,’ Annual Postgraduate Conference, College of Humanities, University of Exeter, 18-19 April.

(2017f) “From Confucian virtue to ‘natural reason’ in Enlightenment”, Workshop organized by the Centre of Political Thought – Global China Centre, University of Exeter, 11 May.

(2017g) “Natural Reason and Happiness: Confucianism and Sir William Temple’s defence of the Ancients”, The Paradigm and Values of Chinese Philosophy within a Global Context, Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy, 49th Annual Conference, Peking University, 9 –12 June.

(2017h) ‘Emotions, the garden, and pleasure: Between the Confucians and the Epicureans’, Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn, Annual Conference of the International Society of Cultural History, University of Umeå, 26–29 June.

(2017 i) ‘Gardens of Happiness: Sir William Temple, Epicureanism and Confucianism’, British Association for Chinese Studies, Annual Conference 2017, University of Glasgow, 7-9 September.

(2017 j) ‘Gardens of Happiness: Sir William Temple, Epicureanism and Confucianism’, Imagination and Representation: Descriptions of Arcadia from Antiquity to Pre-Modernity, the 11th Conference of the Taiwan Association of Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 20-21 October 2017

(2018 a) ‘On “Discourse on Music”’, Sino-European Dialogues, Workshop organised by Global China Centre – Centre for Political Thought, University of Exeter, 17 May.

(2018 b) ‘Stimulating Pride: Sir William Chambers’ Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, China and British Urban Culture’, Tools and Narratives of Legacy, Politecnico di Torino, Italy, 14 June. 

(2018 c) ‘Public Parks and Politeness: an imported modernity? A Case study of Shichahai, Beijing’, in Workshop ‘Senses and modernity’, SOAS, 18 June.

(2018 d) ‘Sir William Temple, Constantijn Huygens and ‘sharawadgi’: Pleasures of the Poetics of Variety’, International Conference, Netherlandish Art and the World, Utrecht University, 25-27 October.

(2019 b) ‘Xian and Otium, self and community: Leisure in gardens and landscapes in ancient China and Rome’, ICAS 2019, Leiden University, 16-19 July. 

PhD theses 

Russell Sanchez, ‘The Sceptre and the Sextant: Imperialism and Scientism in the travelogues of Johan Nieuhof, Lord George Macartney, and A.E. Van Braam Houckgeest’, University of Exeter (viva scheduled for 29 Jan 2019)

Maria Anesti, ‘Garden culture in China and eighteenth-century Europe: image, text and the improvement of human nature’, University of Exeter (target submission date: Jun 2019)

Associated events

  • 'Culturally-Rooted Forms of Urban Renewal in Europe, Middle-East and Asia (from antiquity to the present) European Association for Urban History, Annual Conference 2018, Rome. 31 August                                                Organizers: Professor Nicholas Temple (Huddersfield University) and Dr Yue Zhuang

Seminars at other universities and research organisations 

  • Talk on ‘Senses, virtue and landscape urbanism’ at an architectural forum held at Nanjing University, Nanjing, China on 15 May 2015.
  • Talk on ‘Liberty and Fear: Sir William Chambers' Dissertation on Oriental Gardening and Burke's Sublime-Effect’ at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture seminar, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 20 March 2015.
  • Talk on ‘The City and the Landscape in Chinese Ancient Maps’. Invited talk. Museo d’Arte Orientale, Torino, Italy, 15 June 2018.

Outreach activities

  • Public talk to Exeter Alumni Reunion, ‘Liberty and Fear: Sir William Chambers' Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, Burke's Sublime-Effect and China’, Reed Hall, University of Exeter, 2 September 2016.
  •  ‘Why doesn’t China want any more ‘weird’ buildings?’ with F. Qing, article published on (3 March 2016)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

  • ‘Many Faces of Chinese Culture’ (Week1.8-1.12 ‘Harmony and the beautiful: Imagining China’; and 4: ‘Landscape aestheticisation and the production of harmony’) (University of Exeter/FutureLearn)

Image: Kew Gardens - The Pagoda and bridge.
Credit: Richard Wilson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Principal Investigator

Dr Yue Zhuang (University of Exeter)

PhD Student

Russell Sanchez

Maria Anesti


Professor Emma Cayley (University of Exeter)

Professor Melissa Percival (University of Exeter)

Advisory board

Professor Shaoxin Dong (Fudan University)

Professor John Wilkins (University of Exeter)