In the Humble Adminstrator’s Garden with camera and crowds: thoughts on nature, touring and auto-photography

I’d been visiting the famous gardens of Suzhou. I had good luck in the Garden for Lingering (留园) on my first day: this garden lies a bit outside of the old city center, west of the moat and the line of the old city wall, thus it’s not on as many tour groups’ itineraries. It happens to be very close to my hotel though, so I could get there relatively early on a partly sunny morning. As a result, I could indeed linger there, and took in the many vistas with my camera without people getting in the way. The Humble Administrator’s Garden 拙政园 was a different story, however.

I was aware, of course, not for the first time, that I was using my camera very differently from Chinese visitors, for most of whom the camera was primarily for taking pictures of people, sometimes of fish (leviathan goldfish prowl the streams and pools of Suzhou’s gardens). When I say camera, of course, nine times out of ten that means a mobile phone, usually a late-model Apple. When I say they take pictures of “people,” that includes one’s self as well as one’s friends, family and co-travelers, and occasionally other visitors who ask for help with a shot, or who want to take a picture together with you. I was asked to heying 合影 several times. It’s perfectly okay to ask a stranger to pose for a photo together when in a tourist setting, just as one poses with the gnarly Taihu rocks, artful botany or tranquil pavilions throughout these gardens. Whomever it’s with, one definitely must pose, often while making a two-fingered V-sign or wearing hair-pinned animal ears. Selfies too, in ones, twos and threes, are a very big thing, and people are very good at making them, posing with balletic grace. Selfie-sticks were apparently invented in China and have remained a la mode even as their popularity has tapered off in the US and Europe and been banished from museums. (Do they pose a danger to other patrons? To the art? Or to conventions about how one is supposed to appreciate art?) There are various designs of these zipaigan自拍杆, “self-shooting poles,” which become, in effect, a remote-control monopod, more useful than we usually give them credit for.

My own first impulse in such a scenic place is to take photos with neither myself nor anybody else in them. No doubt imprinted in my youth on Ansel Adams (The Moon and Half Dome in every dorm-room), I’ve liked silver oxide landscapes untinted by flesh and blood. But in fact, Chinese landscape painters of the past — whose work looks austere and natural to us today — often placed a small man in their mountain- and river-scapes, a robed scholar or straw-hatted boatman, to encourage the viewer, too, to stand amidst the numinous peaks and misty canyons and share the awesome rush of wind and water. Landscape painting and garden building are closely entwined art-forms. So it’s arguably the Chinese tourists in Suzhou’s gardens, not me, who are aesthetically “correct.” And why wouldn’t that be the case?

My thoughts were perhaps led along this garden path by none other than Lonely Planet. I’d quickly downloaded the ubiquitous guidebook as a handy fallback when planning this side-trip following a conference in Shanghai. LP’s glib tone annoys me, but since I once wrote for Let’s Go and perpetrated many of the same sins, and since LP is convenient, I still go to it for certain kinds of logistical information. Reading it about Suzhou this time, I realized one of its central contradictions, at least when it comes to China: LP exists to assist “travelers.” It promotes authentic experiences, just as the “locals” experience them, while offering tips on how to avoid crowds, touts and above all, tourists. In Andalusia, therefore, the guidebook will encourage you to find your way to a plebeian tapas bar where the “real” flamenco can be heard, rather than the professional performances of cultural societies or dinner shows in restaurants that the guidebook judges overpriced and inauthentic because aimed at tourists.

But in China, amidst crowds of Chinese, who is not a “local,” at least relative to foreign readers of Lonely Planet? The tourists are locals as well. Some LP writers can perhaps distinguish among the Babel of Chinese accents one hears at a popular lü you dian, or “travel spot,” but surely few if any of their readers can. The handful of Suzhou people I’ve talked to have all expressed great pride in their gardens; they may prefer some of the less visited ones, or know to go in winter after a rare snow storm rather than in peak season, but I’m pretty sure they, too, take pictures of themselves when they visit the gardens. That’s just what you do when you visit attractive or interesting places.

In the imperial past, visiting a scenic spot, especially a designed landscape like a scholar-official or prince’s garden, might have meant roaming rocky paths alone or with literati friends, pausing in a pavilion to drink tea or wine, composing poetry that could be inscribed on stone or wood and displayed on the grounds, or painting one of the garden’s famous named vistas — all activities with a central human element. Naming those vistas in the first place is a formative act that makes the garden a garden. In a famous scene from the 18th century novel Hong Lou Meng 红楼梦 , the bright but under-achieving scion of a wealthy family, Baoyu, is dragged around the new garden by his father in the company of his father’s scholar friends. Baoyu is forced on the spot to name rockeries, hills, and waterways with suitable literary allusions. His clever choices, lauded by by the obsequious scholars, become the setting for the novel to come, and give the landscape meaning, without which it is just rocks and plants.

In more recent times, with less leisure, many more people and different forms of expression, visiting a garden still means putting oneself in the picture. If one thinks in a revolutionary vein — which is how the Chinese Communist Party used to justify continued valuation of such “feudal” cultural relics as palaces and gardens — one might see people swarming over these spots taking selfies everywhere as reclaiming places built by the labor of the broad masses, wresting access to culture, beauty and nature away from the corrupt elites of old. I don’t think that narrative resonates for most Chinese visitors now, almost all of whom have grown up well after the nationalization of such places and their inscription as national treasures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Rather, people just take pictures of themselves when visiting pretty places. It’s not political in the least, and there’s much reverence or at least vicarious interest in the affairs of dead rich people, who created pleasant spots to take photos in. That’s been the case for the thirty years I’ve been coming China, since its first post-Revolutionary opening in the 1980s. But what I noticed this time, after a seven-year absence, is how the ubiquity of the mobile phone has amplified and reshaped the auto-photographic impulse. The garden-visiting experience (like many other experiences) is now inextricably connected to one’s mobile phone. Besides the powerful, intuitively designed photographic tools in every phone, the shouji 手机 or “hand devices” and their apps offer connectivity (through WeChat Weixin 微信 and other social media). By sharing the experience simultaneously both with everyone else in the gardens and ones Weixin friends, they offer collectivity as well. Creativity, connectivity and collectivity: everyone everywhere is crazy about cell phones, of course, but the shouji is really Chinese cultural catnip.

(Others have written about how Chinese do so much more with their hand devices than Americans do, from reading, O2O shopping, directly paying for everything, renting bike-share bikes, listening quietly to live guided tours while walking through gardens and museums, to scanning QR codes to get and share just about anything.)

Thus as I walked through the Humble Administrator’s Garden 拙政园 today, as involved with my own camera as everyone else was, I realized that trying to grab snapshots of unpopulated scenery was not only impossible, but quite likely entirely missing the point. I thus decided to focus on how all the people, their mobiles, and the landscapes were interacting. These pictures are the result. I used to be shy about taking peoples’ pictures, or even asking permission. But when everyone has a camera and is constantly shooting pictures, everyone is fair game — we are all each other’s papparazzi and photo-bombers, by default or design.

2017.6.20 于苏州

The author.