- British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter
China was a mysterious garden to the West. Via travelers' tales and trade relations, rumors and images of China's garden culture swept through Europe, and the origin of fancy products such as lacquerware or black and green tea remained obscure. When, from the seventeenth century onward, European and British naturalists began systematically to expand their cognitive territory in every direction, China was no jungle to be explored by machete. The flowers the British were after could be bought in commercial nurseries, and they could hike in the wild in the tracks of professional collectors for Chinese apothecaries.
Fa-ti Fan's (first) book tells a lively story of different kinds of British naturalists active in China from the mid-eighteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth. Their activities provide Fan with a framework to discuss the making of natural history knowledge in an alien environment and the role this played in the self-image of the British Empire. Five chapters provide different backdrops to these issues: networks of trade and science; cultural encoding of the visual; the building up of nodal institutions for British scientific and "informal empires" (61f.); the relation of early Sinology to Western interests in natural history; field work, hiking, mountaineering, and British "muscular imperialism" (141). The book offers in condensed form a wealth of detail and stimulating new thoughts, which combine to make an inspiring, well-written introduction to the subject for a variety of audiences.
British Naturalists in Qing China divides into two time periods distinguished by access to information and specimens, shifts of interest, and changing research clientele. The first part covers the 100-year period of "Old Canton," when British traders, together with many other foreigners, were confined to the Canton factories. This period lasted from 1757 until the end of the first Opium War in [End Page 673] 1842. "Trader-naturalists" and "transient visitors" sent by scientific institutions at home (23) dominated this first period, and their hunting grounds were mainly limited to the market places and private gardens of Canton. Relics of this period still survive today. Descendants of the chrysanthemums and peonies once distributed by commercial British plant sellers among aficionado gardeners still bloom in Britain, and John Reeve's fish paintings are now stored at the London Natural History Museum. The second part is dedicated to the subsequent decades until the beginning of the twentieth century, during which the expansion of the British naturalists in China accelerated. They began to comb the length and breadth of the vast country on field trips with the support of Chinese branches of their scientific institutions. The British established a botanical garden in Hong Kong and a Natural History Museum in Shanghai. Chinese flora and fauna were systematically scoured for unknown species so as to give them Western names and integrate them into the Western system.
Throughout his book Fan draws attention to "the diversity and range of the Chinese who took part in the naturalists' research" (3–4). We learn that the British "trader-naturalists" gained their specimens from Chinese food markets, commercial flower nurseries, and the Chinese garden culture of the rich, or they would send out Chinese helping hands into the countryside. In the later periods of professional institutions and fieldwork, the research focus of the professional naturalists moved on to wild specimens. And it was Chinese "associates" who were hired as collectors, hunters, and guides in fieldwork tours. Some were even trained by the British to perform taxidermy, the most advanced Western art of preserving specimens at the time. Fan also points out the popular watercolor paintings of specimens, which constituted another or supplementary means of transporting the new knowledge from one end of the world to the other. These paintings were commissioned and advised on by foreigners, but again it was the Chinese who, using their traditional painting techniques, produced them. And last but not least the "naturalist-sinologists" had...