Arts and Culture
By the sixteenth century in China, there was a vast corpus of published texts on plants, which ranged from horticultural treatises of single species to manuals of elegant living to pharmacopeia to encyclopedias that compiled knowledge of all aspects of the natural world. Some of these printed texts had illustrations, but they existed within a larger economy of knowledge that included one of the three major genres of painting, “bird-and-flower” painting, which can more accurately be characterized as painting of flora and fauna. Jesuit missionaries, diplomats and botanists who visited China from the end of the Ming dynasty (early seventeenth century) through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) often took an avid interest in both the cultural and natural environments of China. Evidence suggests they were exposed to the vast libraries of the educated elite of the time and were thus informed by both their own observations and Chinese texts on every subject imaginable. This paper will examine the ways in which Chinese illustrations of plants in both paintings and printed texts informed and interacted with European botanical illustration. It will argue that botanical knowledge was formed and reformed through a process of sophisticated study of the evolving taxonomic and representational strategies of each region. Ultimately this process expanded both Chinese and European understanding of the natural world, as well as horticulture, aesthetics and food culture.