Ordering the Myriad Things
From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China
- PUBLISHED: November 2021
- SUBJECT LISTING: Asian Studies / China, History
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 312 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 23 b&w illus., 1 table
- SERIES: Culture, Place, and Nature
- ISBN: 9780295749457
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
China’s vast and ancient body of documented knowledge about plants includes horticultural manuals and monographs, comprehensive encyclopedias, geographies, and specialized anthologies of verse and prose written by keen observers of nature. Until the late nineteenth century, however, standard practice did not include deploying a set of diagnostic tools using a common terminology and methodology to identify and describe new and unknown species or properties.
Ordering the Myriad Things relates how traditional knowledge of plants in China gave way to scientific botany between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, when plants came to be understood in a hierarchy of taxonomic relationships to other plants and within a broader ecological context. This shift not only expanded the universe of plants beyond the familiar to encompass unknown species and geographies but fueled a new knowledge of China itself. Nicholas K. Menzies highlights the importance of botanical illustration as a tool for recording nature—contrasting how images of plants were used in the past to the conventions of scientific drawing and investigating the transition of “traditional” systems of organization, classification, observation, and description to “modern” ones.
Authors & Contributors
Nicholas K. Menzies is Research Fellow in Chinese Botanical Science at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. He is author of Our Forest, Your Ecosystem, Their Timber: Communities, Conservation, and the State in Community-Based Forest Management.
A useful glossary of names, places, and botanical terms in Chinese and English, along with the detailed index, make this work valuable for researchers but the story is accessible to general readers. This book will fascinate anyone interested in botany and the geopolitical dimensions of modern science.- Choice
This is a well-researched and well-written study of an important part of the history of botany, and of the resourcefulness and determination of Chinese botanists. It belongs in botanical and horticultural libraries everywhere, and as a story, it is recommended to anyone with an interest in plants and how they are studied.- The Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries
An indispensable addition to our still rather limited knowledge of scientific development in late Imperial and Republican China. Books such as this one are instrumental in putting together the complicated and at times complexing puzzle of the emergence and development of modern scientific practice in China, a process, which has consequences up to the present day.- Social History of Medicine
Ordering the Myriad Things sets out to show how two knowledge systems—one that preoccupied itself by trying to understand how processes of change generated and manifested themselves through things such grasses, trees, and grains and another that sought understanding by making encountered objects the object of study themselves—interacted and ultimately became intertwined.- Journal of Chinese History
Menzies presents a process-focused chronicle of how one newly emergent scientific discipline—botany—was introduced to China and developed by successive generations of Chinese botanists...Excellent, engaging, and well-written.- H-Net Reviews
There is no comparable study in English. Menzies makes a real contribution to the growing field of history of science in modern China.- Fa-ti Fan, SUNY Binghamton
An amazing and unique work. This story of botany is the story of the development of modern China writ large.- Michael Dove, Yale University
A pioneering work whose audience includes historians of science, technology, and medicine, and environmental historians and anthropologists.- Minghui Hu, University of California, Santa Cruz
Traditional Latin binomials of global applicability have been applied to plants over less than three centuries. Here Nick Menzies describes in detail their relationship to traditional Chinese names and their application to Chinese plants. This is a fascinating study from biological, linguistic, and philosophical points of view, and in relation to human views of the natural world.- Peter H. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis