Lunch with Kongjian

by MT

Professor Yu from Beijing comes here for a lecture. His name has been known for more than a decade, but the real person looked more earthy and amiable than I thought of. During the lunch, there is a constant flow of eager questions from curious students. I sat next to him and for most of the time listen quietly. Perhaps due to the language and its sheer size, the whole continent that is called China is still opaque and impenetrable to outsiders and therefore raises many interests among the students. The conversation becomes more revelatory when it gets to farming and the relation between people and land: productive landscape as opposed to garden as fine art, a more intimate relation with the land rather than segregated elites as spectators. Nothing new in this rustic, pastoral ideal, which has its root in Chinese literati culture itself, but still very refreshing coming out from a successful landscape architect who is able to sell his ideals to the great client pool of the continent. People all over are so absorbed into this economic, social, and disciplinary specialization since the dawn of Enlightenment and industrialization. Somehow sometime this pre-industrial, more “holistic” (a term he used) view was lost. In a way reminiscent of Lefebvre, Yu sees landscape as a medium where everything comes together. In these reciprocal or contradictory processes, the world is manifested, manipulated and reshaped (Corner would use the term “operation” here.) I am glad that I hear little nationalistic undertone so pronounced in the firm website, although terms such as “western” still popped up during the conversation. Inconsistent manifestos aside, it is really amazing to see the ways a big domestic firm is administered and organized so that its practice spreads across the vast continent. It takes strong will and courage to be so persistent. Indeed, persistence is the virtue I need at this time. In addition, I see in him administrative, marketing and diplomat talents that are wanting in me. Skills could be taught, but talent cannot. A scholar looks for minute details out of his optimism about, if not belief in, reason. No matter how dexterously he zooms in and out among different scales and connects different issues, excessive care for consistency and long durée (later a disease among historians in particular) hinders effective communication—synonym with bad self-promotion and high unemployment chance. [for optimists jump to alternative closing below] After all there is hardly any change in the world of historians. So the quagmire persists.

*[Alternative closing]: Perhaps that is why the grand narrative approach as an ideal model has been abandoned by most. Allow holes in a world that is like a Swiss cheese.