Nicholas K. Menzies. Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China. Culture, Place, and Nature Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. xx + 288 pp. $32.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74946-4.
Reviewed by SJ Zanolini (Johns Hopkins University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (February, 2023)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
How are new ways of understanding grafted onto older frameworks of knowing? How do those working across epistemological frameworks recompose older texts, terminology, and ideas, ultimately reforming them into something new? In Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China, Nicholas K. Menzies offers much food for thought about such questions, without drawing any needless legs onto the snake by belaboring the historiography behind them or abusing history of science, technology, and medicine (HSTM) jargon. Instead, 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.
Ordering the Myriad Things primarily engages the first century after the introduction of botanical methods into China. Using actors’ categories, this is roughly the century between the publication of Wu Qijun’s Research on the Illustrations, Realities, and Names of Plants (Zhiwu mingshi tukao 植物名實圖考) in 1848 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, after the communists’ victory in the Chinese Civil War. The narrative unfolds over ten chapters organized thematically as well as roughly chronologically.
After a brief introduction situating the monograph relative to contemporary historiographical trends, the first chapter acts as an introductory hook, making plain the themes and intellectual stakes in the monograph as a whole through a case study of the southern mountain tea flower (Camellia reticulata). The slippage between the wide-ranging knowledge of diversity within flower types and their growing conditions that can be read from a broad range of older Chinese-language sources is then nicely contrasted with the paucity of knowledge European botanists had about a plant they (erroneously) assumed had only a handful of cultivars. This contrast helps Menzies establish a meaningful intervention that forms an arc spanning his book: that it would be as foolhardy to study the history of botany in China without paying attention to local/Chinese sources, as European botanists continued to do with regard to the camellia, a popular export, up through at least the 1940s. This chapter underscores the social conditions surrounding the circulation of scientific knowledge, clearly demonstrating with a light but effective touch how racism affected scientific objectivity.
Chapters 2 and 3 are shorter and more expository, outlining the sociopolitical context and intellectual history of Chinese engagement with nature and natural history, respectively. Chapter 4 complements a growing body of literature examining scientific ideas in translation by exploring how key terms, including shu (genus), ke (family), and zhong (species), came to be repurposed and standardized as botanical terms not ony through the work of missionary societies and men like John Fryer working with the Translation Department at the Jiangnan Arsenal but also through the efforts of early science societies working through issues of translation and clarity, across Chinese and foreign languages and within formal (literary, wenyan) and vernacular (baihua) registers of Chinese itself. I personally deeply appreciate Menzies’s connection of these debates to a far longer-standing Chinese philosophical discussion about the “rectification of names” (zhengming), which again becomes salient in his exploration of the problems in classifying plants in chapter 6—problems by no means exclusive to Chinese botany but prevalent in the discipline as a whole at that time. Chapter 5 explores the centrality of fieldwork to botanical understanding, connecting it to older practices of touring and travel writing. Longer chapters follow that engage differing aspects of Chinese botany: illustration, public science writing, and museums and gardens as spaces for education and botanical experiment. The tenth and final chapter engages another plant as a case study, the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), the first globally significant botanical discovery made on Chinese soil by Chinese botanists. Since it is not followed by a conclusion, this chapter is meant to be read as a symbol of Chinese botany as a whole; slightly more expansion here would have sharpened this parallelism. Nevertheless, it functions effectively as a coda unpacking racialization in the history of scientific discovery and publication through clear explorations of how white scientists have historically received unfair credit in retrospective memory.
Refreshingly, even while the diffuse (slow) uptake of a “Western science” in China is the core focus of this study, Menzies entirely avoids the pitfalls of replicating the “impact-response” mode prevalent in mid-twentieth-century English-language historiography of nineteenth-century China simply by not conflating Western science with Western historical actors. Instead, he centers the intellectual contributions of Chinese botanists in producing and popularizing specifically botanical knowledge. In so doing, he paints a vivid portrait of the complex difficulties Chinese botanists encountered in their work, including terminological confusion and contestation within scientific communities, the peril of conducting fieldwork in uncertain political times, and shifting ideas of the relationship between nationalism and participation in the global scientific community among Han Chinese. I enjoyed the ease with which Menzies carried off this social situation of scientific knowledge just as much as I appreciated his choice to sidestep any zombified traces of the Needham Question. Menzies carries this off by foregrounding the many genres through which premodern Chinese writers did approximate botanical understanding of plants: materia medica, books on painting, travel logs, and collections of famous literature, as well as horticultural guides and monographs on prized species, like camellias. This choice manages the subtle but difficult trick of honoring the richness of indigenous knowledge of plants in China, while also honing our understanding of what it was, specifically, that differentiated newly imported botanical understanding of plants from these older antecedents. In sum, continuity is appropriately stressed even within a broader narrative arc arguing that the novelty of new methods like careful visual study of living plants, particularly via fieldwork, constituted an epistemic shift.
It would be easy, but I think a bit cheap, to criticize this book for its lack of a more robust framing apparatus. The introduction is the only portion of the book that wades into the murky waters of academic theory; the author surfs around some potentially treacherous swells—the Orientalism of impact-response history, the cultural chauvinism of the Needham Question—in a satisfyingly non-cumbersome way. There is no formal conclusion, but savvy readers will easily follow Menzies’s drift.
Other material points of note: the publisher includes an adequate Chinese glossary, meticulous notes, and an enviably thick reference list (fifty-three pages?!) for a trade paperback monograph. The quality of these paratextual elements, together with the excellent content, are both to the credit of University of Washington Press. An actually functional index closes the book, although book titles and key terms are all offered in translation rather than pinyin. Between the historiographic positioning of this book and the inclusion of a very short chapter sketching the basic outlines of China’s “century of humiliation,” I think the envisioned audience leans more toward historians of science, technology, and medicine than historians of China. An HSTM audience will likewise be grateful that historiographic discussions well known to the field are herein swiftly dispatched by a sentence in summary and a thick footnote of references. Other readers who may be less than familiar with the basic narrative of botany’s growth as a discipline globally over the nineteenth century, including contestation around various systems of classification and the broader historiography of science since the cultural turn, will find outward facing references to these topics here, but they will find the landscape more engaging if they can fill in the impact of these matters themselves.
It is no longer enough for us to think of “the history of botany” as limited to one place or intellectual lineage. To do so forever replicates an older imperialist paradigm. To truly work our way out of this requires that, much like historians of science in any place outside of Euro-America have for years been expected to know and be fluent in the dominant historiography of science writ large (the unspecified or uncategorized being taken as default but always seemingly referring back to Euro-America), Euro-Americanists must likewise become familiar with the histories of science in places deemed peripheral or marginal to the dominant intellectual current. Consider this book an excellent, engaging, and well-written place to start that study.
. That is, why China did not develop modern science and technology as in the West. Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
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SJ Zanolini. Review of Menzies, Nicholas K., Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China.
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