Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China

Diwen Tan

How was botany as a new science established in modern China? In his book Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China, Nicholas K. Menzies unravels the story of the transition from traditional knowledge about plants to the science of botany, particularly during the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. In light of various potential epistemological representations of an objective nature, he acknowledges the profound difference between the Chinese traditional way of understanding the world and the Eurocentric scientific approach. Menzies gives his attention to the places that they intersect.  

The book is organised into ten chapters, and each chapter shows an image of transition—­­­how scientific practices were set, and how they differed from or learned from the past. Menzies opens the story with a case of the popular mountain tea flower (shan cha hua 山茶花), specifically how this locally familiar flower was, in the past, described in Chinese literature and fine arts in comparison to how now, in the present, it is identified as Camellia reticulata, which mirrors the story of transition for all plants. He ends with another case of the dawn redwood (shui sha 水杉); identification of this tree marks the moment that Chinese botany became firmly established as a distinct field and “Chinese flora as part of global heritage” (p. 178). Between these two cases, he dives into the endeavours of influential scholars and institutions to make Chinese botany a scientific field, including language and translation, fieldwork, rectifying names, botanical illustration, institutionalisation, and popularisation of science.

Knowledge as perceptions of nature

Each of these endeavours reveals the fundamental difference in how people perceive and order the myriad things in the natural world, of which Menzies gives a detailed examination in Chapter 3. Drawing on classic Chinese cosmology, he states that the Chinese word ziran (自然) bears the meaning of ‘natural,’ being self-generative (p. 43). From yin and yang to the formation of myriad things, building a harmonious, well-ordered society requires a comprehensive ordering system. Conversely, Western science favours using systematic ordering to build a body of knowledge. Thus, it is not difficult to understand that literature and the arts contained traditional representations with associations between nature and spiritual awareness, whereas the scientific side emphasized object accuracy and involved fieldwork and classification.

The encounter with Western natural sciences shifted from the early exchanges between missionaries and Chinese (unknown) individuals to the later collaborations between Chinese teams and Western colleagues. Since the early 20th century, Chinese society was no longer receptive to new learning but rather was more active in adapted uses. As Menzies observes, the first generations of Chinese botanists took the old learning and matched it with the new. Through translation, terminology standardisation, fieldwork, name rectification, and integration of science and art for botanical illustration, those botanists applied Western technologies innovatively. Language as a medium for knowledge is probably the most fundamental issue. Translation as a practice, therefore, must come first and foremost, as elucidated in Chapter 4. Early scientists drew ‘on the past to generate the vocabularies for whole fields of study’ (p. 70): they set an approach to standardise scientific terminology, creating links to the international norms for botanical nomenclature. Rooted in culture, the meaning of the Chinese character matters; that’s why semantic adaptation rather than phonetic is often used for translation (p. 67). The early Chinese botanists, primarily trained abroad in the United States and Japan, differed from Western plant hunters, whose discoveries associated with particular interest in new species to strengthen the empire’s power as well as for economic demand; they cared about science as a field and also as the future of their country and the public.

Nationalism and botany

The story of botany is framed as a wide picture of history. As Menzies states at the end of his book, “the connection between nationalism and botany—and other fields of science—is a theme that has recurred in almost every chapter” (p. 180). Since the First Opium War (1839-1842), China had been in a century of “insecurity, wars, warlords, natural disasters, and more” (p. 27). It was a time of political, economic and social transformation. One of the driving forces for modernisation was national pride, which included building scientific studies as an approach to counteract European aggression. A “new cultural model that would advance, not hinder, China’s modernization” was largely advocated (p. 38), and the scientific method was adopted for model building (p. 50). Nationalism promoted more active engagement of Western learning and popularisation of Western science while at the same time triggering reforms (e.g., language reform) within China. In particular, this history shaped the uniqueness of early Chinese botanists like Zhong Guanguang and his contemporaries. They saw themselves not only as botanists and explorers who recorded landscapes as “habitats harbouring the diversity of plant life” (p. 96), but also as “reporters of a kind, too, who saw themselves as participants in China’s march to modernisation” (p. 93).

Though the book particularly focuses on the late Qing and Republican China periods, its richness of knowledge stretches from the ancient Chinese philosophies, such as yin and yang, to contemporary study as a scientific field. Menzies examines a wide range of traditional classical literature materials, including written texts in Chinese classic thoughts, horticultural manuals, poems and monographs, and he arranges them into enchanting stories centred around the study of botany. The comprehensive discourse from biological, linguistic, aesthetic, artistic and philosophical points of view serves well a wide audience range, but the book would benefit if some repetitive details were avoided.

This book shows how Chinese scholars and society adapted the Eurocentric concept to meet international norms. As Menzies concludes, “the past was very much a part of the way the early Chinese botanists negotiated the present and faced the future.” This shows a transition rather than a break in epistemological understanding of nature. Behind the story, we see different ways of viewing the world, of interpreting, and organising nature and of thinking about humans' relationship with nature. The ideological changes in China provokes a question—how can we coexist with such diversity in an international community?