Although the arts of the Japanese classical court of Heian (794-1185) abound in descriptions of the natural world, ‘Nature’ probably did not exist in traditional Japan. That is, it is highly debatable that it knew any abstract concepts of ‘nature’ as such, in the sense of the totality of objects and phenomena not created by man. The word used today to designate such a notion of ‘nature’ (Ch. ziran 自然, Jp. shizen), is in essence a modern term, used in Japan from 1878 onwards as a translation of the English concept.
In traditional Japan, as in East Asia at large, ‘Nature’ was cut up into the constituent elements of extensive sets of classified categories (Ch. lei 類, Jp. rui) of concrete and usually tangible elements at could mingle with other tangible elements that are today often associated with the world of human artefact. These elements of the natural world were reassembled in ideal combinations (poetry, painting, gardens). Ultimately, this was a world in which the environment was understood through representation.
This paper analyses this dissection, that is, the categorical understanding of the natural world, and then looks into instances of its dissemination, specifically in the form of reconstituting idealized landscapes in the gardens of the classical Japanese court. Through a number of Sinitic and Japanese texts about gardens produced at this court, I question the position of humans within, and in relation to, their ecosphere, and with it some long-held assumptions about traditional views of ‘Nature.’