337 Claudia Cohen Hall
He Bian, Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Studies, Princeton University
Popular Science before Missionary Science: the casr of Wu Qijun (1789-1847)'s (Re)invention of Botany
The study of plants in pre-modern China constituted, for a long time, the most prominent part of the pharmacopeia (bencao), an encyclopedic genre that also examines drugs of non-botanical origin. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, new intellectual, political and economic trends in Qing China have led to a widespread recognition of botanical facts gleaned through experience, as well as a renewed interest in nomenclature that paid attention to vernacular dialects and foreign languages spoken throughout the empire. Starting with China's early modern conditions as a key context, this paper calls for a fresh interpretation of a well-known, yet little-understood masterwork, the Qing career bureaucrat Wu Qijun (1789-1847)'s An Illustrated Study of the Names and Facts of Plants (Zhiwu mingshi tukao, first published in 1848).
I will argue that Wu Qijun's bold move to separate the study of plants (zhiwu) from the eclectic bencaco tradition constituted nothing less than the culmination of historicist and empirical scholarship of the previous century. Wu's reinvention of botany illustrates the confluence of different sectors of China's early modern intellectual life that, by the early nineteenth century, already generated a popular discourse of science that narrowly predated the famous translation of John Lindley's Elements of Botany by Li Shanlan (1811-1882) and the Scottish missionary Alexander Williamson in 1858. I will end by offering some preliminary thoughts on the difference between Wu Qijun and Lindley's visions of science.