While the European and Middle-Eastern designers were applying their technological capabilities and cultural influences to water fountain design and function, the Chinese were also developing their own approach to the use of water.
The ancient, and somewhat universal, thought that water is the source of life has continued into the present and we now know that our physical bodies are composed of substantial quantities of water, without which we would not survive. There are qualities sometimes attributed to water that almost make it seem to be alive. We say it moves, runs, even jumps over objects in its path, all of which imply that water has “sentient” qualities. It may be trained, guided, or forced to move around corners or bends and even to flow upwards.
The Chinese have harnessed water in these and other ways for thousands of years. At first they made water work for them to irrigate crops, much like the Romans did-that is they used gravity as the primary means of moving water from a mountain stream through systems of ditches down to the growing fields. During the Han Dynasty, some time around the first century BC, some historians attribute the invention of the chain pump to the Chinese, although this is not universally accepted.
These first pumps were mechanisms that could raise water about 15 feet via a series of buckets or pallets attached to a chain looped around a top and bottom wheel. A water source at the bottom permitted the buckets to fill, and the turning wheels guided the buckets upward to be emptied at the top. The efficiency of the system was dependent on the size of the containers and the degree to which they were sealed against leakage. Power was supplied first by human effort, later by harnessed animals; the steady power source allowed the height of the raised water to be increased. (Some historians believe that this may have been the mechanism that irrigated the Hanging Gardens in Mesopotamia, raising water from the Euphrates River to a reservoir at the top of the structure.)
All this early activity had the purpose of boosting economic benefits. It wasn’t until later that the Chinese began to utilize water for aesthetic or recreational purposes, when they ventured into their development of the garden. The Chinese garden’s basic feature is water, and the desired presentation is to have the appearance of a perfectly natural setting, designed to evoke a sense of calm.
One of the most beautiful examples of this is the West Lake of Hang Chou developed in the 8th century (T’ang Dynasty). This lake was created through dredging out a large shallow “bowl” encompassing many acres of land and diverting water into it. Meticulous landscaping around the lake completed the ‘natural’ effect. This beautiful marvel of engineering and aesthetic design was first reported to the Western world in the early 14th Century by Marco Polo and continues to be a destination for tourists today.
There is quite a bit of evidence that the Chinese also harnessed the capabilities of water for air cooling based on evaporation and had developed early versions of water fountains that may have been either gravity or chain pump powered. This seems to call into question the notion that water fountains were unknown in China prior to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries who incorporated water fountains in the courtyards of their missions.
As the Chinese integrated and expanded the use of water fountains within their culture, they tended to depart from the European multi-spouted variety, preferring rather to focus on simpler displays. Chinese aesthetics emphasized the shapes / arcs of water as a complement to the overall design of the fountain, again, with the purpose of evoking a sense of tranquility through simple shapes.
When we consider water features for our gardens and yards today, the most adopted design is the natural setting – a direct connection to the ancient Chinese perspective. Also, many contemporary indoor water fountain designs feature natural appearance or produce a simple stream of water, both having their aesthetic origins in China. So, today’s water fountain is a device that brings together centuries of technological development, esthetic and cultural perspectives from all parts of the world. I believe that is why today’s water fountain, with its seemingly endless variety of designs, styles, and materials, can be integrated into any setting in a very personal way to reflect the personality of its owner.