A Naturalist in Western China, part two

August 31, 2015

A Naturalist in Western China, part two

I was fortunate to intern with the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library from January to February of this year, during which time I promised to write a two-part series on Ernest Henry Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China. After a (very) long break due to other academic work, I’m finally back to finish the series with the second installation, covering Volume II of A Naturalist in Western China.

A quick recap: Ernest Henry Wilson, born 1876, was a British naturalist and botanist who was highly regarded for his expertise in, and zeal for, the natural world. Wilson was regularly commissioned by the Arnold Arboretum to collect plants around the globe. He served as Assistant Director to the Arboretum from 1919-1927, and assumed the role of “Keeper” in 1927 until his premature death in a car crash three years later. In Volume I, Wilson covers the geography of the locales he visited, with extensive description, on two separate trips to China from 1907 to 1911. The chapters of Volume I are generally framed as separate legs of Wilson’s journey, such as “Forest and Crag: Across the Hupeh-Szechuan Frontier.” He also makes many anthropological observations about Chinese people and culture, details some of the fascinating and new (at the time) flora he encountered and includes photographs from his travels.

Volume II is split into two fairly distinct sections and is illustrated with numerous black-and-white photographs. It is generally less narrative in style than Volume I, although Wilson does recount many stories, most of which are edifying and entertaining, some of which are riveting. The first section (chapters I-X) is primarily analytical and gives a picture of Chinese exports and economic practice, natural resources of value, and favorite fruits and flowers. It is a wonderful piece of economic and cultural history which recounts first-hand such Chinese conventions around the turn of the 20th century as traditional medicines, timbers and their various uses, the tea industry, and agricultural methods. Though China had begun to feel pressure from Western influence around one-hundred years earlier, such pressures were only beginning to have a pronounced effect on the country’s political and economic structures at the time of Wilson’s visits. It is fascinating to read about a Westerner comparing Chinese practices with those of Europe and the Americas, in a period directly before major turbulence caused, in part, by the clash of China’s traditional practices with those of the West: the Chinese Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty and made way for the emergence of the Republic of China in 1912.

It is significant that Wilson covers Chinese traditional medicine, “Chinese Materia Medica,” because Professor Shiu-Ying Hu, a Senior Arnold Arboretum Research Fellow, later wrote An Enumeration of Chinese Materia Medica, which first appeared in 1980. Also interesting is the account of commonly used trees in Western China. Bamboo is, of course, extensively covered, but the many distinct species and how the Chinese utilize their unique properties is perhaps the most important uniquely Asian resource that is covered in A Naturalist in Western China. “The bamboo flourishes everywhere in the Far East, and is just as beautiful when sheltering the peasant’s cottage or beggar’s hut as when ornamenting the courtyards of temples and the mansions of the wealthy.”

A devout naturalist, Wilson was inclined to include every corner of the Western Chinese natural world, and thus the second section of Volume II mostly highlights of fauna with minimal regard to flora. For part of his 1907-1909 trip, Wilson traveled with zoologist Walter Zappey. Zappey was commissioned by the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, to whom he sent back thousands of specimens of birds, reptiles, mammals and fish; this seems to have given Wilson an excuse to give significant attention to hunting, a clear passion of his. Beginning with birds and fowl, this second section moves on to ruminants and finishes with various carnivores. Much of the narrative here is taken up with various hunting techniques, detailed animal descriptions and economic values of animal byproducts. At times it can be dry, especially the lengthy descriptions of various animals’ coloring, but one gets a knack for visualizing these complex details and it becomes easier to enjoy. A unexpected item one notices when reading this section is Wilson’s commentary on the flavor of meats, something of which he apparently considered himself to be a connoisseur: he consistently remarks on the “superior” or “inferior” flavor of game animals. Also of particular curiosity is the section on the giant panda. “No foreigner has so far seen a living example,” Wilson claims!

Tagging along after Sport in Western China is a solitary chapter: “Western China: Minerals and Mineral Wealth.” It is minimal in its coverage, and even Wilson admits that such a topic should be left to an expert, though it still contains some information about Chinese mining operations, and some of Wilson’s suggestions for advancing that sector’s economic impact.

True to his character and habit of well-rounded erudition, Wilson ends A Naturalist in Western China with some political speculation in “Conclusion: Some General Remarks on the Rebellion—The Causes Which Have Produced It; the People and Future Possibilities.” He postulates that the Qing Dynasty, the ruling party in China from 1644-1912, had become obsolete, as many governments had before it. It needed, he states, “to disappear and make way for another more in accord with the times.” While many of Wilson’s Western intellectual contemporaries advocated a Western-style government for China, Wilson was aware of the cultural differences which made this unfeasible: “Parliaments are of the West, and the Western model will have to be very considerably altered and modified before it can be successfully employed in the East.” There is much more content to this chapter than I can summarize here, but this capstone chapter of A Naturalist in Western China shows in brief what distinguished Wilson as a great thinker: aside from his natural intellect, he had an understanding of people, a love of nature, and a passion for exploration. But perhaps most important of all, he had an insatiable curiosity and a drive to understand and solve complex problems.

Lucas Galante, Bennington College ‘18

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