In the garden, shakkei ‘borrows scenery’ to frame, as would a photographer

A traditional Chinese garden in Taipei's National Palace Museum. Photo: James. Public domain

As someone who likes to garden, one of the more delightful concepts I recently learnt about is shakkei. Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Garden of Evening Mists mentions this technique, which isn’t really a design principle so much as a philosophy.

Shakkei, a Chinese word, literally means “borrowed scenery”. First appearing in a 17th century garden treatise Yuanye, it is about learning how to see and how to show.

The gardener uses shakkei to embed their garden in the landscape. Either the gardener borrows a distant feature – a mountain, a lake – or an adjacent one – say, the building next door. They could look upward to the clouds and stars or downwards to rocks and ponds. What they create is a garden that is indivisible from the place in which it exists. It is about ecological holism but also about composition and framing, as in a photograph.

In the novel, an absent character whose presence is deeply felt throughout the telling, has used shakkei to great effect high in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Nakamura Aritomo, formerly gardener to Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, had relocated to Malaya after World War II. In self-exile, he spent years designing and building a garden named Yugiri, which means evening mist in Japanese. Aritomo has died many years ago but the garden remains and it is to this that the newly retired supreme court Judge Teoh Yun Ling returns as she tries to come to terms with unsettled business from her past. Yun Ling had spent time at Yugiri, serving as Aritomo’s apprentice. The idea was for him to teach her enough to design a memorial garden for her sister, who had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

There are some big themes in the novel. As The Guardian review from 2012, when the book was published (and longlisted for the Booker Prize) put it, “This is a novel that overflows with historical and specialist information”.

No more so than shakkei.

Centuries after its inception, the name continues to be used, widely, in diverse sectors, not least gamingarchitecture and photography.