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Reviewed by:
  • British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter
  • Kai-wing Chow
British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter. By Fa-Ti Fan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. 272 pp. $52.00 (cloth).

This book is a study of the history of science as a global enterprise involving China and the British Empire. Based on extensive archival and meticulous original research, this excellent work addresses important issues in the study of natural history and the cross-cultural encounter between Britain and China. Fa-ti Fan draws upon theoretical insights from many fields: empire study, colonial studies, visual culture, and the history of science. The result is a rich, multifaceted, vigorous, and theoretically sophisticated work on the formative stage in the development of natural history as a modern discipline in a global network of communication. Natural history is examined as a site where various discourses—natural history, horticulture, visual art, Chinese folk knowledge, and Sinology—intersect. Fan situates his subject in a "sociocultural continuum" tracing the change in practices of the British naturalists in multiple contexts: the China trade centered in Canton, British imperialism in China, the information network of the British empire, the cultural encounter of the British and the Chinese at the micro-level of daily operation, as well as the intersection of science and Sinology. [End Page 231]

Fan argues that the formation and practice of natural history in the nineteenth century involved participation of Chinese—gardeners, painters, herbal doctors, hunters, villagers, and children—as well as British working in various capacities—officials at the Consular Office, merchants, missionaries, and gardeners—in China and elsewhere within the British empire. British naturalists throughout most of the century depended on their Chinese agents for collecting and identifying specimens. First, before 1842 the naturalists' operations were restricted by the China trade to Macau and Canton. They obtained animals and plants from local gardens and markets in Macau and Canton. Because of the low survival rate of specimens and the inaccessibility of China's interior, British naturalists also had to depend on export painting by Chinese artists as an alternative method of recording, preserving, and transmitting scientific data. The situation did not change drastically for the British naturalists after the Opium War. Unlike in India, there was no imperial structure to provide facilities for transportation and travel in rural areas and the interior. It was primarily within the infrastructure of domestic trade and travel that the British naturalists carried out their field research.

Since most British naturalists had primary responsibilities and took up natural history only as a hobby, they found it efficient and economical to depend on Chinese natives for collecting plants as well as catching insects and animals. Folk knowledge of the natives was critical to the naturalists' research. In mapping and tracing the spread of species, British and European naturalists who had developed skill in reading Chinese also culled through Chinese publications on plants and animals as well as historical and geographical works for information. These forays into Chinese texts for information contributed to the formation of Sinology, which constituted an integral source for the study of global history of flora and fauna. The roles of the British naturalists as amateur scientists and Sinologists were as ambivalent as the boundary between folk knowledge, Sinology, and science was porous. Fan underscores the contributions from Chinese culture in the production of modern science, furthering our understanding of the problem in Eurocentric accounts of the origins of modern science.

With this study, Fan challenges other current views in the history of science. First, he demonstrates that "textual practice and the tradition of employing humanistic scholarly apparatuses remained fundamentally important throughout the nineteenth century" (p. 93). Second, his study complicates our understanding of the relationship between science and the British Empire. The formation of natural history as a modern science took place in what he calls "institutions of [End Page 232] informal empire," involving trade and imperial expansion, which created a network of correspondence for the exchange, circulation, and examination of information on Chinese plants and animals. Unlike current studies on "scientific imperialism" that stress the mutually constitutive relation between scientific and imperialist enterprises, Fan questions...