Emeritus Professor Paul White releases new book ‘A brief History of Chinese Design Thought’

The new book, which is out now, introduces readers to the history of design thinking in pre-modern China.

The entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing
The entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing

This extraordinary piece of work explores the ways in which the great philosophical traditions in pre-modern China (before the downfall of the Empire in 1911) influenced all aspects of design from porcelain to furniture, from sculpture to ornaments.

Of particular interest to geographers are discussions about architecture, gardens, and urban planning in the past. Many aspects of such designs were alighted upon by Europeans from the sixteenth century onwards and were emulated in Europe, but in very different philosophical, cultural and political contexts. 

Known to many alumni and others as an expert on the geography of Europe, Professor Paul White has turned his attention in ‘retirement’ to a wider geographical scale. He is now researching and publishing comparisons between Europe as a whole and China, many of these comparisons are embedded throughout the book. 

Professor White said “Having published many books and papers with colleagues from mainland Europe, it was fascinating to work with colleagues from China on this project. The world of knowledge should have no boundaries.”

In 2019, the scholar was joined in Sheffield by Dr Rachael Wen from Shanghai Jiaotong University, who took up a two year position as Visiting Scholar in the Department of Geography. Despite the hardships of the Covid pandemic, the pair conducted discussions via zoom (an all too relatable image for many of us), and managed to publish two papers and their book ‘A Brief History of Design Thought’ alongside Qi Shao.

The book, published by Springer, is heavily illustrated, with a number of the photographs having been taken by Paul himself during pre-Covid visits to China, or as examples of Chinese-influenced design in Europe.

When reflecting on his trips, Professor White said “it was a great experience visiting some of the sights we drew on in the book - particularly the gardens of Suzhou and the West Lake at Hangzhou."

The ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden’ in Suzhou

The ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden’ in Suzhou is depicted above. Work started on this in 1513, and was designed and created for a private citizen. It contrasts significantly with garden design in Europe at the time.  A notable feature is that of ‘view borrowing’, creating a vista of a distant pagoda that lies several kilometres outside the garden yet which appears to be a feature within it.

If you enjoyed that sneaky insight into the book, then click the link here to order it online: A Brief History of Chinese Design Thought | SpringerLink 


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