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East & West

Centres of civilization

There is still much to be learned about the ancient migrations of modern humans and the degree of isolation that occurred between major centres of civilization as they evolved in different regions and continents of the world.

Anthropologists describe the migration of nomadic modern humans out of Africa, and beyond the Arabian peninsula, about 70-80,000 years ago. Ice Ages restricted migration but opened up land bridges. Current evidence suggests India & Australia were colonized c. 65,000-55,000 BP, Europe c. 45,000 BP, SE Asia c. 30,000 BP, the Americas c. 15,000 BP. Reoccupation of northern Europe i.e. British Isles occurred c. 11,000 BP after the last Ice Age.

Though we may divide the world and its peoples in many ways – by religion, ethnicity, language etc. – there is an underlying geographic basis to a long-term distinction between occidental and oriental cultural traditions. These two clearly discernible cores of civilization developed from about 10,000 years ago.

The first centre of civilization extended from Mesopotamia across what has been called the Fertile Crescent to Egypt. It included communities that traded along the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers in a geographic region that extended to the Indus river valley in the east and to the eastern Mediterranean in the west. This centre of civilization has been referred to as the ‘Mesopotamian Core’.

In the East there were also interconnected river valley communities in China, one based around the Yellow River and the other along the Yangtze River. These communities are the centre of what might be termed the ‘Asian Core’.

The steppes of Central Asia were a formidable geographic barrier within Afro-Eurasia.  We can only speculate about the kind of exchange that occurred between these two regions and the degree of independence in ideas and social traditions.

Urban communities

The nomadic lifestyle underwent a dramatic transformation as humans entered a phase of cultural differentiation with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution just after the last Ice Age when, in the ‘lucky latitudes’ between 20o-35o N in Eurasia and 15o S to 20o N in the New World there arose the fortunate conjunction of suitable climate, environmental conditions, and availability of domesticable organisms that made agriculture possible as the cultivation of cereals and raising of livestock. This was followed by the establishment of civilizations governed from urban centres or cities. Nomads had little chance of resisting the armies and technology that were established in these urban societies.

Though agriculture had emerged independently in at least five regions, the history of urban development is more complicated. Cities in China appeared about 1000 years after those in the West and although there was independent origin of agriculture and writing Chinese urban development was probably influenced by cultural diffusion of, for example, bronze, horses and chariots, and funeral rites (Anderson). In the West there were the civilizations of the Fertile crescent in Mesopotamia, the Middle East, and Egypt whose influence quickly spread to the Indus Valley and Ganges delta. In Asia agriculture had developed along the river valley communities that emerged along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers before spreading to the north, then south. In the Americas there were the civilizations of Mesoamerica.

East & West

By about 7000 BCE there is some differentiation between the West and the rest of the world (Morris 2011) although agriculture probably developed independently in six or seven sites across the world (in the Americas Oaxaca in Mesoamerica and the Andes of Peru – in Europe in the eastern Sahara, Fertile Crescent, and possibly Indus Valley – in East Asia in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys – and in the Pacific in New Guinea).

The significance of the geographic separation between East and West lies in the depth of historical influence on each other’s cultural traditions. There is also the question of willingness to adopt new customs and traditions out of either interest, or invasion/occupation. 

The Mesopotamian core

In the West there was the Mesopotamian core – founded on wheat, barley, and rye around 9000-8000 BCE (radiating into Greece c.7000 BCE, Egypt c. 5000 BCE, Italy 6000 BCE, Central Europe c. 5000 BCE, Portugal about 5000 BCE, NW Europe and Britain c. 4000 BCE) the movement from its origin in the Near East to NW Europe taking about 5000 years (see Morris p. 107). This Mesopotamian core also probably influenced the agriculture of the Indus Valley in Pakistan.

The Eastern core developing out of China

Until recently evidence suggests that modern humans reached southern East Asia via the Indian subcontinent about 60,000 years ago, spreading rapidly northward.[1] Though Japan was occupied as early as 30,000 BCE its cultural influences derive from China and Korea. However, from Fuyan Cave in Daoxian (southern China) have recently been excavataed 47 human teeth unequivocally assigned to H. sapiens and dated at more than 80,000 years old and an inferred maximum age of 120,000 years. The study indicates fully modern humans present in southern China 30,000–70,000 years earlier than those in the Levant and Europe indicating southern China was inhabited earlier than central and northern China on the dispersal route of modern humans.

In East Asia the domesticated cereals were rice and millet which well established in China by 6000 BCE, Korea by 4400 BCE, to Vietnam, Cambodia Laos and Thailand and NW Borneo by 2000 BCE, millet had arrived in Japan by 2600 BCE but agriculture was not seriously adopted until about 600-500 BCE when there were rice paddies in Kyushu. There were the civilizations of China diverging into Japan (Morris p. 128). These dates correspond roughly to the development of agriculture and civilizations in the New World.

China’s first settled communities emerged in prehistory along the northern Yellow (Huang-he) and southern Yangtze River valleys with divergent traditions. The harsh northern loess plains proved amenable to the cultivation of millet first recorded c. 7000 BCE while the warmer and wetter south was more suited to rice whose cultivation began c. 5000 BCE dating back to the Neolithic era and the Xia dynasty (c. 2070-1600 BCE) although evidence of hierarchical society, bronze work, and writing on durable media did not develop until the Shang dynasty and culture of the Huanghe valley (c. 1600-1046 BCE) with its many similar but smaller and semi-independent centres. These societies were concerned with order, harmony, and tradition in am anner reminiscent of Egypt in the West.

We can learn much about ancient civilizations from archaeology, genetics, and linguistic analysis. But the power of the written word cannot be disputed, even when it lacks credibility. Writing, the hieroglyphics of Egypt and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia, developed about 1000 years before writing in China.

The history of Imperial China spans a period of 2200 years from the beginning of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE to the end of the Qing dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China in 1912 CE during which the population increased from 40 million to 400 million people (Anderson).

For a year-by-year visualization of Asian empires see The History of Asia: Every Year

ZhouDynasty – ca. 1050–256 BCE
Qin Dynasty –      221–206 BCE

Han Dynasty –     206 BCE–220 CE
Six Dynasties –    220–589
Sui Dynasty –       581–618
Tang Dynasty –    618–906
Five Dynasties –   907–960
Song Dynasty –    960–1279
Yuan Dynasty –   1271–1368
Ming Dynasty –    1368–1644

Contact between Occident and Orient

In the centuries preceding and following 0 CE the great Eurasian civilizations – Roman, Indian, and Chinese – engaged in commercial and diplomatic exchanges. These contacts declined in the third century CE to dwindle away although civilizations were aware of one-another’s existence despite separation by seas, mountains, or deserts. Occasional adventurers would risk exploratory journeys to experience these other worlds. Scholars are still uncertain of the degree of Chinese isolation and the extent to which similarities in civilizations of West and East were a consequence of parallel development or cultural exchange.

From West to East

In the Roman era there was overland trade between East and West but mediated by Parthian and Arab middlemen. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, broke this hold on Eastern trade by establishing a direct maritime link with India. By 1 BCE, he had reopened the Red Sea by forcing the Sabaeans out of Aden and converted it into a Roman port. Ships were soon sailing from Aden directly to India across the Arabian Sea, blown by the monsoon winds recently discovered by a Greek mariner named Hippalus. From May to October the monsoon blows from the southwest across the Arabian Sea, while the countermonsoon blows from the northeast between November and March. Thus, direct round-trip voyages, eliminating middlemen and the tedious journey along the coasts, could be made in eight months. Strabo, a Greek geographer during the time of Augustus, stated that 120 ships sailed to India every year from Egyptian ports. Augustus claimed that “to me were sent embassies of kings from India,” probably to specify the towns within the Roman empire and in India where foreign merchants might freely conduct their business and practice their own customs and religions.

Modern era

As the modern era approached new connections with th eeast were opened up by Marco Polo (1254-1324) and Venician merchant, explorer, and writer who described his travels to the East in Livres des merveilles du monde (The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300) which excited European intelligentsia as the first detailed chronicle of China, describing a civilization well in advance of Europe of his day with great wealth and thriving commerce. On his 24-year travels to Asia he met Kublai Khan, returning in 1269 to find Venice at war with Genoa. He was imprisoned, and here he dictated his travels to a cellmate, his account inspiring many subsequent adventurers including Christopher Columbus.

At the time when the European Age of Discovery began China was a technologically and intellectually more accomplished society: it had already invented the seed drill, astronomical observation, the mechanical water-clock, gunpowder, ink, paper, the printing press, suspension bridge and impressive ships ten times the size of the Santa Maria that Columbus sailed to America. But in 1424 the Chinese emperor Zhu Di died and Chinese society turned inward.[9]

From East to West

The study of plants in China

Though the ancient Chinese possessed a ‘varied and abundant knowledge about plants’ this was not of a theoretical and scientifically systematized kind and only in the late 19th century ’did even the notion of a specific domain devoted to the study of plant life, in other words ‘botany’, appear in China’. Plants in China as presented in the most accomplished plant work, the Zhi wu mingshi tu kao (1848) of Wu Qijun were approached ’from an entirely different conceptual framework and, in any case, lacked any formalization that might have made [scientific] exchanges possible’. (M. p. 534)

In China, as elsewhere in the world and in history, academic interest was focused on food and the power of plants as materia medica.

How did we arrive at today’s plant attitudes and practices? To what degree are customs and traditions culture-dependent and which have a degree of inevitability about them? It would appear, for example, that the advent of agriculture created the conditions for scaling human activity in such a way that, in the absence of natural disasters, one people could dominate another.

One way of getting at least partial answers to such questions is to compare sites of independent urban origin with little or no connection to other cultures: these centres of origin then become human experiments allowing us to compare the different paths of cultural change.

Needham (1900-1995)

By the ‘West’ is meant those civilizations emanating from the Mesopotamian core, including the Near East and India.

Western and Eastern intellectual traditions

Broad comparisons like this immediately draw attention to exceptions and contradictions. The following observations are intended to be contextual generalisations rather than accurate and universal historical observation.
Western philosophy, as it was inherited through the Greek tradition (mostly the triumvirate of Socrates (c. 470-c. 399 BCE) , Plato (428-348 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE)) can be characterised as the exploration of the distinction between science and religion. Philosophy of the Pre-Socratics was the precursor to Western science as it explored naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. Later, philosophy would serve as an interlocuter between science and religion. But it separated itself from the religion of its day – from Greek and Roman mythology to Judeo-Christian theology. In the West, then, two modes of thinking dominated – one more concerned with explaining the operations of the natural world and the other with spirituality and moral behaviour.

Eastern Philosophy was more concerned with human nature and ways that humans can find peace and harmony through integration with society and the world as expressed mostly through the thinking and ideas of an Eastern triumvirate of Confucius (551-479 BCE), Guatama Buddha (6th to 4th century BCE) producing Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and the possibly legendary Lao Tzu producing Taoism (c. 604-531 BCE)).

The point is often made that the Western approach tends to be individualistic, enjoying personal freedoms but often combined with a strong egoism, while the Eastern tradition is more collective, emphasising the public good but with a corresponding emphasis on conformity. More precisely, Westerners see objects as existing independently in empty space while Easterners believe space is filled with gi out of which objects are made and which connects them. Action at a distance was known and believed in the East about 2500 years ago (acoustics, magnetism, tides) while this only became accepted in the West in the 18th century. For objects differing in colour, shape and substance Westerners give priority to shape while Easterners give priority to substance. For the Easterner a specific object has parts that are not the same as the object itself (the whole) while a single substance can be split up into parts that are the same as the whole.

In language, Westerners hold the individuality of objects as crucial and so there is a clear distinction made between singular and plural nouns, while Easterners derive singular and plural from the context, not the words. To Westerners ‘wholeness’ is a collection of individual items while to an Easterner ‘wholeness’ denotes indistinctness, unity, or one-ness. Easterners viewing a picture perceive it as a whole, while Westerners focus on the individual objects: Western mothers emphasise nouns (objects) to their children while Eastern mothers accentuate verbs (actions). So ‘Do you want more tea?’ can emphasise either the tea or the drinking, the objects or the interaction. The West sees the world through nouns, the East through verbs. Objects in the East are a consequence of ‘arising’ or ‘becoming’ or bringing about while in the West objects are ‘being’ or ‘existing’. Is an object blue because of its surroundings or extrinsic conditions, or is it blue because of its intrinsic properties. Easterners tend to view causation as part of a complex web of interaction and external factors while Westerners see causation in a more simple linear way: the properties of the whole are a result of its parts and causation often arises internally – an object’s properties control its behaviour. In the West if a person behaves kindly then they are said to be kind, that is, they have a disposition to be kind: in the East a person’s behaviour is considered dependent on that of others – a smiling person in a group of frowning people is not considered happy as the background (jang, field, context or situation) matters. Childrens’ drawings portray situations from outside as a context while Western children are part of the scene, they take a viewer’s role. Yin and yang are sunshine and shade: every object has a partner. Shown pictures of a banana, panda and monkey, Westerners pair the monkey and panda as being in the category ‘animal’, Easterners pair monkey and banana with the relationship being the strongest point of association.
The West has accentuated a tradition of analysis, the breaking down of objects into their component parts (meaning derived from separation and interpretation), whether it be of nature, language or other factors: the world is a collection of individuals and create categories that depend on the properties of the objects. From this springs formal classifications, scientific and mathematical development as proportion. The Eastern convention is more often that of synthesis, the establishment of connections that bring objects together into greater wholes – the relationship between an object and its context.
Islam is a tradition that has a shared a history of both these traditions.

Botany, plant science, science & ethnobotany

Following casual usage sinologists like Emil Bretschneider had referred to any plant-centred studies and literature as ‘botany’ as does Bray in the series volume on agriculture in China. Bray is forthright in her views ‘… agriculture is not a science but a technology … it is ‘… not … theories … but a body of wisdom‘ … ‘… theory is far removed from practice …’ (p. xxiv). Unfortunately the casual approach on the one hand or, on the other, the ‘no-nonsense, all-is-clear’ attitude to terminologies and categories can obscure some of the difficulties of cultural translation.

Métailié studied in depth the written work of Chinese scholars (which he refers to as literati). Many had adopted an encyclopaedic approach in the production of materia medica, horticultural monographs, agricultural manuals, and descriptions of exotic plants but they were without any overall systematic formalization (p. 4). Using dictionary definitions of botany (mostly referring to a specific plant discipline within the broader discipline of biology, to studies of plants within geographic regions, or the study of properties of a particular plant or plant group) he concluded that the word ‘botany’ was not appropriate to his findings. There was no specific word in Chinese of equivalent meaning, no overall named body of plant knowledge, no equivalent of a botanical manual or flora (p. xxxii) until the word zhiwuxue, denoting plant science in the Western sense, was introduced in 1858.

Métailié refers to the Confucian Classic, the Great Study or Da xue and its emphasis on ‘the investigation of things’. He mentions Confucian emphasis on zheng ming, the use of correct names, and the insightful comments in 1735 of Chen Yuanlong who recommends the study of living things as a quest for: the reality of things (shi); names (ming); and categorizations (lei).

In this spirit Métailié preferred the more relaxed ethnobotanical approach to ‘the study of plants’ that he found in the work of American botanical historian Edward Lee Greene in his Landmarks of Botanical History (1983) who suggested that botany did not begin with written history but was present in the terminology of the colloquial languages of prehistory, including the folk use of binomial nomenclature. This confirmed Métailié’s conviction that ‘’traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ ‘Chinese botany’ should be studied from an anthropological point of view rather than, a priori, as a stage in a process that led to modern botany’, that ‘My rejection of a teleological approach [the linear progression of scientific knowledge] was to make it possible for me to consider the content of all the Chinese sources, not in comparison to post-Linnaean texts but within their own context.’

At the 1977 Edinburgh International Congress on the History of Science Needham (1900-1995) had expressed the view that ‘ … there is only one unitary science of nature … built up … by groups of mankind … as an absolute continuity between the first beginnings of astronomy and medicine in ancient Babylonia or ancient Egypt, through the natural knowledge of medieval China, India, Islam and the classical Western world, to the breakthrough of late Renaissance Europe … we must not see the traditional sciences of China or India simply as ‘failed prototypes’ of modern science … but we must never deny the fundamental continuity and universality of all science …’

Needham had presented ancient Chinese botanical knowledge by comparing it systematically with modern botany that, for example, ‘Li-Shih-Chen (1518-1593) … brought classification in botany to a Magnolian or Tournefortian level’. Métailié considered this comparison inappropriate because there is not a ‘…difference of level within the same scientific domain’ but ‘… two different concepts for the study of plants’. Métailié also objects to Needham’s ‘fusion point’ when Western and Chinese approaches to plant knowledge unite ‘… so that all ethnic characteristics melted into the universality of modern science’. Needham believed that this occurred in about 1880 when Chinese botanists ‘… could talk about Linnaean families …’ to establish a ‘… correlation … between … Chinese traditional plant names and Linnaean binomials

Métailié notes that in 1858, an eight-chapter book entitled Zhiwuxue (botany) was published in Shanghai by the London Missionary Society Press. It was written by Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan (1811-82) in collaboration with two missionaries, Alexander Williamson (co-author for the first seven chapters), and John Edkins (co-author for the last chapter). The book was a Chinese adaptation of English botanist John Lindley’s An Outline of the First Principles of Botany (1830). Most of the following books on botany published in China were by foreigners. The first to be written by a Chinese author, Ye Lan, was a popular rhyming text published after 1895. None of these texts, all written by non-botanists, would have enabled anyone to practise botany or identify plants. The first Chinese botanists were former students educated abroad, mostly in Japan, the United States or Europe, who began working in their own country after 1910. One of them. Professor Hu Xiansu, wrote in 1937 that ‘the development of modern botany came about after the Republic … in truth, only after 1916 did botanical research and collections progressively get under way’. (cited p. 12) Métailié also notes that the only continuity between this traditional botany and modern botany was the salvaging of terminology and nomenclature from the ancient texts, a task undertaken largely by Japanese scholars.

The contemporary Chinese view is that ‘Modern plant biology research in China started in the 1930s, when overseas plant biologists Pei-sung Tang (trained in the U.S.) and Tsung-Le Loo (trained in Japan) returned to China and set up research and training programs in plant biology.’ China’s program of reform and opening to the world in the late 1970s proved a turning point for the sciences in China following the decade of upheaval during the Cultural Revolution. After 1978 economic reforms increased economic growth and subsequent improvement in scientific funding and access to international expertise and resources. Support comes mainly from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. The number of Chinese scientists, international research collaborations, and number of publications has risen dramatically since 1990.[8]

Needham often referred to pre-Western botany as ‘traditional botany’, implying a crude and rudimentary botany on its way to a mature and unitary plant science marked by a foundation in universally applicable scientific principles. Métailié believed that his studies revealed ‘… an autonomous and original domain that may be called ‘traditional Chinese botany’ and describes his own work as ‘… an essay on ethnobotanical history’. (p. 13)

This difference of opinion raises various issues in the history and philosophy of science: whether there is indeed a unitary science of which botany is a member; whether science advances or proceeds from one paradigm, or narrative, to another;

The most sophisticated Chinese plant classification is that of Li Shizhen (pp. 77-99).

Western commentary on Chinese cultural relation to plants

Western commentary on Chinese cultural plant relations is set on the bedrock of works by Emil Bretschneider (1833-1901) who was a Baltic German sinologist and member of the Académie Française. Graduating from the University of Dorpat, Estonia, he worked within the Russian Empire, posted as a physician to Tehran (1862–65) and from 1866 to 1883 to Pekin. Bretschneider built up his own herbarium working in the mountains close to Pekin and, from 1880, sent herbarium specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Among his influential writings are: ‘On the Study and Value of Chinese Botanical Works’ (1870), ‘Early European Researches into the Flora of China’ (1881), ‘Botanicum Sinicum’ (1882), and his vast ‘History of European Botanical Studies in China’ (1898).


Plant introduction to China
In 1803 Kew Gardener William Kerr was sent and a Chinese gardener returned to Kew to learn western gardening techniques which were being adopted in Canton.(p. 113) By the early 19th century the main dealers were the Hong merchants dealing from their opulent suburban gardens. John Barrow’s Travels in China(1804) reported that in Fa Tee there were nurseries for both vegetables and ornamental plants that were being supplied to Canton.

European collectors desired both wild and cultivated plants and this contrasted with the narrow range of local supply. ‘I have tried in vain to get the gardeners at Fa Tee to collect their own wild plants, of which they have so many beautiful ones …’ (John Reeves in Gardeners Magazine 1835 p. 112).

Nineteenth century Western plant trade influenced a change in Chinese ideas about the commercial value of plants and the role of gardens perhaps most evident in the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou) as the main focus of East-West trade under the Canton trade system of 1757-1842. Chinese gardens had been private places for mental enjoyment and scholarly contemplation of shanshui (landscape) but in Canton, under the influence of foreign ideas and trade, public gardens with beds of both indigenous and foreign plants were opened for walking, shopping, and relaxation. Potted plants were displayed in a new way along the edges of the straight promenades.

Hong tea merchant Pan Youdu is said to have entertained Europeans and exchanged his plants for those sent from Banks in Kew.The first wisteria transported to the West was cut from a plant in the garden of merchant Pan Changyau (p. 114).

Confucian traditions of status, rank and academic concerns had created gardens depicting rural and agrarian landscapes with water and rocks as major elements and the borrowing (jiejing) of scenery, especially mountains, rivers, and countryside. Flowers did not feature. Garden theorist Ji Cheng (b. 1582) wrote Yuan ye (Garden Craft) published in 1638.

This tradition was now challenged by a rich new mercantile class of traders and their interests who introduced mercantile scenes. Interest in Western plants had developed in the 18th century Qing court. This exchange included not only plants and expertise but images of individual plants and gardens.

In 1839 the Opium Wars began, treaty ports were opened, and Cantonese merchant dominance was broken and Western influence would become more blatant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the construction of Western-style mansion villas, botanical gardens, and parks in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Yuen Lai Winnie Chang 2015. Nineteenth Century Canton Gardens and the East-West Plant Trade. In: ten-Doesschate Chu, P. & Ning Ding (eds). Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West. Getty Research: New York

Questions to be answered

If the human-plant relationship did develop independently in East and West then we must first compare the most obvious distinctions or categories of plant use which, for the West, would be agriculture, horticulture (as food crops, garden plants and gardening), forestry, medicine, and spices.

We can then examine if there is any equivalence in plant science and the traditions of Plant literature, nomenclature, description, classification, and illustration. As in the West Chinese society was hierarchical and dynastic so the question arises as to the use of plants by different social strata.

Culturally questions also arise as to the symbolic, religious and cultural significance of plants while economically and ecologically it is useful to know the degree of commercialization of plants including the volume and variety of plants imported and exported.

Plant classification

Organisms are described and classified in many ways according to our selected purposes and interests. So, we might organize plants according to their food value (cereal, vegetable, fruit) or medicinal use. Most day-to-day plant classifications are anthropocentric: they group plants according to the various ways in which we use plants. The scientific classification of plants is based, not on the relationship of plants to people, but on their relationship to one-another. The value of this is that when similarities and differences are examined using the best available scientific techniques we can formulate an approximation of plant evolution – the way in which plants diverged from a common ancestor.

The criteria on which classifications are based.

The same today applies to societies. Complex modern cities and their people are not better in any moral sense, only different in various ways.

Plant Science

Western science is currently undergoing a re-examination of its philosophical foundations. This relates to two long-held assumptions – firstly, that there is a scientific method distinguishing science from other forms of critical thought and, secondly, that there is a single scientific truth to which all scientific explanation is ultimately leading and to which it approximates ever more closely.

The view adopted here is that there is no uncontroversial scientific method and no scientific unity … no ultimate or foundational scientific truth. These positions are discussed and defended elsewhere.

This does not mean that there is no means of comparing and assessing different explanatory systems. We can probably agree, when comparing two explanations, that the better one allows us to manage the natural world by making reliable predictions.

So far as living organisms are concerned there is an intuitive approach to this objective. We need to establish the best possible categories of the organism’s structures and functions such that the link between the two provides the best possible predictions.

In the case of plants this cashes out into a terminology for the various structures and predictive power can be added when the parts of an organism can be described at different scales as when examining plants through a microscope reveals cellular structure that can help explain nutrient and water transmission.

There are several points that need to be made when comparing Chinese ‘ethnobotany’ and Western plant science. Assuming agreement about the basic taxonomic unit, it is possible to both know and, to record for posterity, different amounts of information about its geography, ecology, properties, uses etc.

Ethnobotany was for the most part utilitarian. Much can be learned about plants and their relationships by comparing their similarities and differences and to do this requires an extensive standardised morphological (and other) terminology. The more detailed the language describing the structures the greater the precision of communication about the plant. In this sense plant knowledge is cumulative. A further depth of understanding is added when it is realized that the similarities and differences between organisms are a consequence of descent with modification (evolution).

Nelumbo nucifera (the Western Latin species epithet) is described in the earliest texts (as in the Er Ya of the 4th-2nd centuries BCE) in a generalised way with a description of its general appearance and uses.

Incas had no writing.

These agricultural communities came into existence independently but influenced to varying degrees subsequently.

There was a certain path of material development that was independent of religion, philosophy, social conventions, economics, and technology.

One consequence of the creation of systematic categories is that they give us a way to understand and explain the world through the creation of academic domains that explore a restricted range of categories. The works of Theophrastus in ancient Greece suggested such categories: essentially plant geography, morphology, classification, ecology, sexuality, and physiology as a way of comprehending both plants themselves and their relation to humans. In China all these matters were addressed in general terms – plant growth was discussed in relation to soils, climate, mode of cultivation, salinity, altitude, aspect, heat, cold, wind and more – there was no formal systematization of thought alone these lines or a community tradition of detailed experimental investigation.

Theory of Five Phases. While the number four had special significance in the cosmology of the West (notably the elements earth, air, fire, water), it was the number five in China (water, wood, fire, earth, metal) and five body organs, five domesic animals, five favourite flowers, five seasons etc.)

The most comprehensive contemporary account of Chinese plant study is that of Georges Métailié (2016) in which he claims that there is ‘no Chinese term that might have even one of the modern meanings of the word ‘botany’’ or ‘any term that refers to any traditional knowledge specifically about plants’ … before 1858 when the word zhiwuxue (loosely equivalent to the Western word ‘botany’) was introduced. This is the date when the London Missionary Society Press published a Chinese adaptation of Englishman John Lindley’s (1799-1865) An outline of the first principles of botanywhich had been published in London in 1830. There was also no Chinese equivalent of the western Flora as an account of the plants growing within a selected geographic region and a limited quest for the systematization of plant knowledge, standardisation of terminology, or development of a theoretical framework of understanding.

Métailié therefore chose to avoid the word ‘botany’ and, instead, refer to the Chinese cultural and academic relation to plants as ‘ethnobotany’.

Métailié also chooses to make a philosophical point about science. The editor of the series in which his account appears (Joseph Needham) had early expressed the view that ‘ … there is only one unitary science of nature … (there is) … fundamental continuity and universality of all science’. Needham’s view was that western science constituted a ‘level’ of scientific development that exceeded that present in China.

The most elaborate Chinese plant classification system was that of Li Shizhen (1518-1593) which encompassed 1095 mostly cultivated medicinal plants in five major sections: grasses, grains, vegetables, fruits, and trees. This was a utilitarian classification that contrasts with the 200-year later western classifications based on mutually exclusive morphological characters. Métailié preferred to regard the Chinese plant world as different, using different concepts and procedures. Western science was not more mature, more highly developed, or of a higher level it was simply ’an autonomous and original domain that maybe called ‘traditional Chinese botany’’. It was different in the way that western botany of the early modern period was different from the medicinal study of plants that preceded it.

The fusion of Chinese ideas with western science would not occur until about 1880 when there was a recognition of ‘western’ plant families and the linking of Chinese traditional names to Linnaean Latin binomials although it was introduced mainly by students educated in Japan, USA, or Europe around 1910, and gathering momentum after 1916.

Description & illustration

Chinese writing & literature

The earliest decipherable written text occurs as inscriptions on bronze vessels and oracle (divination) bones of the Longshan culture in the late Shang period c. 2500-2000 BCE.

Often our knowledge of history is only as good as the literature that records it; Metailie lists Chinese and Japanese literature as follows:

Pre-1800 pp. 670-681
Post-1800 pp. 682-695
Western literature on Eastern plants pp. 696-711

Philosophy and literature developed during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) which was strained by both external and internal pressures in the 8th century BCE fragmenting into smaller states in the Spring and Autumn period and reaching full expression in the Warring States period. Between eras of kings and warlords, various dynasties have ruled parts or all of China extending on occasion to Xinjiang and Tibet.

In 221 BCE Qin Shi Huang united warring kingdoms calling himself ’emperor’ (huangdi) of the Qin dynasty, marking the beginning of imperial China. Successive dynasties then developed academic bureaucratic systems to administer wide-ranging territories. The last Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was supplanted by the Republic of China in 1912 and, on the mainland, by the People’s Republic of China in 1949, resulting in two de facto states claiming to be the legitimate government of all China.

From 206 BC until 1912 CE administration was by elite Scholar-gentlemen selected by stringent examination and well-versed in calligraphy and philosophy. Overall periods of unity and disunity alternated with periods dominated by steppe peoples who were eventually assimilated into the Han population.

The classics of Chinese literature date to the Han dynasty.

Chinese technology and commercial acumen was far in advance of that in the West until the early modern period. It is noted for the invention of gunpowder, the compass, printed money, large and sophisticated sailing ships, and the printing press.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantial upgrade 6 November2022

Peopling of the world by early humans during the Upper Paleolithic, following to the Southern Dispersal paradigm. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.
Peopling of the world (recent out of Africa and Upper Paleolithic). Figures are in thousands of years ago (kya). Time is color coded in a scheme of increasing “frequency”, red at 100 kya to violet at 0 kya. Dotted blueish lines are meant to indicate approximate glaciation during the LGM. Similar map: Not shown early and abortive expansions to North Africa [300 kya] and West Asia [270 kya, 130 kya] and possible expansion to China by 120 kya. Possible “Australoid” migration to North Asia [Denisovan admixture] and the Americas by 50 kya (these are speculative/controversial and would detract from the functionality as an “overview map” showing generally-accepted scenarios). Features shown: 200 kya East Africa [“200” symbolic of early H. sapiens (est. age of mt-haplogroup L ranges around 180 kya, early divergence in Africa as early as 300 kya but cut-off for “anatomically modern” vs. “archaic” is somewhat arbitrary in this case) 130-100 kya expansion within Africa and to the Levant 70 kya “recent Out of Africa” and coastal migrations 65 kya peopling of Oceania 60 kya “Indian” and “Indochina” (Laos) population centers 50 kya “Near Eastern” population center (Emiran) 40 kya “East Asian” population center 40 kya peopling of Europe (Aurignacian 42 kya) 40 kya approximate peopling of Tasmania (add more detail on dispersal in Australia and to Papua?) 35 kya peopling of the Mammoth steppe (Mal’ta–Buret’ culture 24kya) 35 kya Expansion from East Asian population center (Korea 35 kya, Japan possibly 35 kya / certainly by 14 kya, Taiwan between 30 and 20 kya, Cambodia by 20kya [Sơn Vi culture] — but possibly earlier “Austronesian” presence 70kya?) 25 kya Beringia during the LGM 16-14 kya peopling of the Americas just after the LGM (Clovis) 12 peopling of northern Eurasia after the LGM 12 peopling of the Green Sahara [Mali] 4 Paleo-Eskimo expansion to the Arctic (AST = Arctic small tool tradition) 3-1 Austronesian expansion 1 Norse expansion to Iceland The map only shows the major movements associated with the first lasting “peopling” of the world’s regions: early movements which did not result in lasting populations (such as the early Out of Africa movements before 70kya) are not shown late movements into already populated regions (such as Epipaleolithic and Neolithic migrations associated with Indo-European, Bantu, etc.) are not shown; the Austronesian (Pacific) expansion is shown even though it is much later than such Neolithic movements because it led to the “first peopling” of the Pacific islands. This might be addressed in updated versions (especially knowledge on the early OOA waves are subject to rapid revision) Made for, and based on the information in: en:Early human migrations (see also image gallery below). “Southern Dispersal” and “peopling of Eurasia” population centers: Metspalu, M.; Kivisild, T.; Metspalu, E.; Parik, J.; Hudjashov, G.; Kaldma, K.; Serk, P.; Karmin, M. et al. (2004). “Most of the extant mtDNA boundaries in south and southwest Asia were likely shaped during the initial settlement of Eurasia by anatomically modern humans”. BMC Genetics 5: 26. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-5-26. PMC 516768. PMID 15339343.



Xia dynasty 夏朝         -   2070–1600
Shang dynasty 商朝   -   1600–1046
Zhou dynasty 周朝)    -   1046–256
No title Son of Heaven - 256 to 221
Qin dynasty 秦朝        -    221–207


W'stn Han d'y 漢朝 - 202 BCE–25 CE
Xin dynasty 新朝         -    9–23
Eastern Han dynasty  -    25–220
Three Kingdoms 三國 -  220–280
Jin dynasty 晉朝           -  266–420
16 Kingdoms 十六國   -  304–439
N & S dynas's 南北朝  -  386–589
Sui dynasty 隋朝          -  581–619
Tang d'y 唐朝 - 618–690, 705–907
5 dy's & 10 kd's 五代十國 - 907–979
Liao dynasty 遼朝        -  916–1125
N'thn Song d'y 宋朝    -   960–1127
Southern Song 宋朝   -  1127-1279
Liao Dynasty               -     907-1125
Western Xia 西夏        -  1038–1227
Jin dynasty 金朝          -  1115–1234
Yuan dynasty 元朝     -  1271–1368
Ming dynasty 明朝     -  1368–1644
Qing dynasty 清朝     -   1636–1912
Empire of China 中華帝國
-   1915–1916
Taiping Rebellion      -   1850 - 1864
Republic                      -   1912-1949

Ancient human migrations
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