Overview the Network of European Botany in the Imperial Palace of Qing Dynasty via Giuseppe Castiglione’s “Time-telling Plant from the West” Top


No. 06
Time-telling Plant from the West

Overview the Network of European Botany in the Imperial Palace of Qing Dynasty via Giuseppe Castiglione’s “Time-telling Plant from the West”

Academia Sinica Institute of Modern History/Yu-chih Lai


In Taipei’s National Palace Museum a painting of Giuseppe Castiglione Time-telling Plant from the West  海西知時草軸 is archived‚ in which a square potting blue-and-white is laid on a red wooden platform. While taking a close look into the plant‚ planted slightly to the left of the pot‚ its main stem can be observed to not only extend upright but also stretch numerous seemingly soft branches to the right. On the branches grow pinnate compound leaves and pompon-like pinkish flowers. This plant was found to be the Mimosa sensitiva or Mimosa pudica from Central and South America. By means of his expertise in the western eclectic style and the perspective method‚ Giuseppe Castiglione depicted the western flora of backlight and three-dimensional effect. It is signed “Humbly painted by courtier Lang Shih-ning (Giuseppe Castiglione)” (臣郎世寧恭繪) in the bottom left‚ along with Qianlong Emperor’s original poem of his own handwriting inscribed in 1753 in the upper right of the painting. It follows that the painting was produced by the palace painter Giuseppe Castiglione under Qianlong’s command. How could the plants from Central and South America be so appealing to Qianlong? Not only did Qianlong order the most prestigious missionary Giuseppe Castiglione to produce this painting‚ but he also created a poem on his own with his autograph on. In order to solve this puzzle‚ the most direct clue should be the imperial poem in the painting.
Giuseppe Castiglione.
Time-telling Plant from the West 海西知時草軸. Qing Dynasty.
The body copy is as below:
There is a western plant named "Sensitivo" translated as "zhi-shi 知時 (time-telling)" in Mandarin. It was once brought in form of seed as tribute and went lush after summer and autumn. Then the western courtiers resident in Beijing thereby import. Either its flower or leaves are caressed to rest and rise again after a while. It rises and rests at an interval of five minutes before noon and ten minutes in the afternoon. I hereby inspire a poem for it in completion of flora of all kinds.
How glamorous the green green grass‚
As a tribute from the far far west.
Telling time from its rest‚
As rise or rest in reaction with hand.
Magnificent as the chrysanthemum‚
As luxuriant as the green palm tree.
That of catering may it seem‚
Yet there's no clue to be seen.
Ginger and cattail at the first sight‚
Yet spiritual the amber it is alike.
Though not that rare the treasure coming far‚
Yet still worthy of note being an exotic flora.
My inscription is thus laid over the six flavors of Time-telling Plant in the autumn‚ August of the year of Qianlong Kui-You (1753)‚ with its painting under my command. It is the imperial holograph that goes right on top.
This plant‚ on record‚ was brought by tribute envoys from the West and cultivated and bred successfully after summer and fall by the western courtiers resident in Beijing. Qianlong appeared to find the phenomenon “caressed to rest and rise again after a while” in this plant full of interest‚ and took a precise observation‚ which indicated the interval between rise and rest would vary between morning and afternoon. Even if Qianlong concluded it as “Though not that rare the treasure coming far‚ yet still worthy of note being an exotic flora”‚ this plant’s “virtue” was recognized particularly throughout the poem. It was of the opinion that the plant was not simply a tribute far from the West‚ it also learned to “rise or rest in reaction with hand”‚ reacting to the movement of the hand. Herein lay the purpose of educating the strangers coming from far away via China’s traditional political culture of tribute paying. Who were the tribute envoys and western courtiers mentioned in Qianlong’s poem? What made them pay the seeds of Mimosa pudica as the tribute?
Worth noting is that‚ citing from the archives from The British Library‚ British scholar Jane Kilpatrick pointed out in his book Gifts from the Gardens of China that‚ French missionary Pierre d’Incarville (1706-1757) had dedicated two pieces of Mimosa pudica to the emperor in 1753‚ and was thereby granted permission to collect specimens in the imperial garden in 1754.1 The time and contents in record coincide with the painting of Time-telling Plant from the West and the contents of the imperial poem mentioned above. Therefore‚ Pierre d’Incarville should be either the “Western tribute envoy” or the “Western courtier” who bred the seeds indicated in Qianlong’s poem. Who did he belong to exactly? Examining Pierre d’Incarville’s entire life‚ we perceive that he was born in 1706‚ and became a member of the church when he turned twenty. He was then assigned to Canada afterwards. After nine years (1730-1739)‚ he returned to France and then asked for approval to go to China.2 Pierre d’Incarville had very close contact with Bernard de Jussieu‚ the director of the Trianon Garden and the Gardens of Versailles of the time‚ and his brother‚ same as a botanist‚ Antonie de Jussieu. Pierre d’Incarville not only came to do missionary work in China‚ but also served as a correspondence academician at the France Academy of Sciences. He often collected botanical specimens and seeds endemic to China at the request of de Jussieu brothers. Although Pierre d’Incarville‚ who arrived at the palace in Bejing in 1740‚ had collected the first batch of specimens and seeds for de Jussieu in October‚ 1742‚ it was quite restricted in action in the palace‚ which made it an arduous task to collect specimens. Pierre d’Incarville learned it might make easier work if he could arouse Qianlong Emperor’s interest in the western plants. To this end‚ he not only wrote to de Jussieu‚ asking him to send some precious seeds over from Europe‚ but also sent a copy of requirements list of plants‚ which was sent to de Jussieu at the same time‚ to Dr. Cromwell Mortimer‚ an academician of the Royal Society‚ when Cromwell Mortimer wrote to the missionaries in Beijing in 1746‚ hoping they could send him some China’s species‚ which Pierre d’Incarville considered to be a god-given opportunity.3

Chen Yuxian. Mimosa pudica.   

Mortimer referred this list to botanical gardens like Oxford Botanic Garden and Chelsea Physic Garden‚ by which Pierre d’Incarville had contact with many British scholars of natural history. According to Kilpatrick‚ Pierre d’Incarville might exchange the seeds of Mimosa pudica‚ grown in South America‚ with Peter Collinson (1694-1768).4 Collinson was a member of the Royal Society‚ but he was in reality a mercer who had a global trade network which focused mostly on the market of North America. He often collected seeds from all over by means of business. The seeds of Mimosa pudica could thusly be inferred to travel to China through this business network alongside the Society of Jesus. In brief‚ the Mimosa pudica Giuseppe Castiglione traced out under Qianlong’s command should come from the seeds‚ acquired by Pierre d’Incarville through the British horticulture circles‚ and were bred successfully in the palace. If Pierre d’Incarville dedicated the Mimosa pudica in lunar August‚ 1753‚ based on the calendar in the imperial poem‚ then could Mimosa pudica‚ which grew originally in the warm South America‚ survive the severe winter in Bejing? Lin  Lina noticed that in Archives of the workshop of the Imperial Household Department  造辦處各作成作活計清檔‚ it was recorded in February‚ 1754 when Giuseppe Castiglione reported to Qianlong in person‚ saying “A glass cover is mandatory for the Mimosa pudica.” In order to have the Mimosa pudica‚ which came from South America‚ survive the winter safely‚ the imperial workshop had apparently made it a glass cover for the sake of keeping the plant warm.
Pierre d’Incarville’s strategy to arouse Qianlong’s interest with western plants seemed to be very successful. Not only did Qianlong grant Pierre d’Incarville permission to collect specimens in the imperial garden of palace‚6 but he also showed interest and knowledge in imported plants‚ other than Mimosa pudica‚ from Europe. Most notable‚ however‚ was the Collection of Western Plants 海西集卉冊 Yu Sheng余省 drew at Emperor’s command after four years in lunar August‚ 1757. Eight categories of western plants were depicted in this octavo album‚ laid out as the illustrations on the right and the descriptions on the left. What are these eight categories of plants? Where did they originate from? We need another paper to discuss these questions in detail. But worth noting is that‚ Pierre d’Incarville passed away in Beijing in June‚ 1757‚ around three months before the album was wrapped up. What was recorded in Father Louis du Gad’s letter:
“The Most Reverent Bishop in Beijing just passed away in May of this year. Moreover‚ we lost Father d’Incarville‚ aged 51‚ in June of the same year. It was a dangerous fever that took Father d’Incarville off our hands. The emperor took care of Father’s funeral expenses. This Father entered the palace by means of the seeds of plants and vegetables. Back then‚ expansion of Imperial Garden was under construction at the emperor’s command. Father d’Incarville had the Imperial Garden decorated even prettier with fountains and waterfalls. Yet this construction is still going on with Father Michael Benoist in charge. Besides‚ the monarch also built a European style of palace‚ scaled larger than the one he had seven years ago. . .”7

Louis du Gad mentioned not only Pierre d’Incarville’s death of fever‚ but also how Pierre d’Incarville entered the palace by dedication of plants and seeds three years ago‚ which was around year 1754. It should be the matter when Mimosa pudica was painted since the time mentioned was close. It was also noted that Pierre d’Incarville had made contribution to the decoration of the Imperial Garden‚ which was deduced to be the construction of the district of western mansions of the Old Summer Palace‚ according to the words “European style of palace” he mentioned in the latter half of the letter.

The construction of the western mansions of the Old Summer Palace had begun in 1747‚ followed by its completion in 1759. Although the reason why Collection of Western Plants was produced could not be found from any imperial poetry or autographs and also Pierre d’Incarville just passed away a few months before its publication‚ the origin and descriptions of the plants in Collection of Western Plants might be related to Pierre d’Incarville and the Old Summer Palace‚ while taking the drawing time‚ which coincided with the period of construction of the western mansions of the Old Summer Palace‚ into consideration and apprehending the role Pierre d’Incarville had been playing in the garden planning. The implement‚ dedicating western plants and seeds to win the favor of Qianlong‚ Pierre d’Incarville put into practice actively might be inspired by this construction in progress.


Engraving of Haiyantang of the Old Summer Palace   

Overall‚ the painting style of European origin Giuseppe Castiglione used in Time-telling Plant from the West‚ native to Central and South America‚ its journey to China‚ through the global network of British and French botany circles with the system of the Society of Jesus‚ demonstrated how the global botany network in Europe closely connected with the material and visual culture of the imperial palace of the Qing dynasty. Reviewing Europe’s developments in the history of science in recent years from this small case‚ it can be seen in more and more studies that botany in the eighteenth century was not merely science per se; collecting and trading of pertinent plant species and seeds‚ and the royal gardens to build up as keen competition between nations‚ were not only the extension of an empire’s sphere of influence and power‚ novelty seeking and establishment of royal recreation places‚ but also triggered the amazing-profit global trade and emerging industries through the introduce and breeding of new plants. From this point of view‚ other than the perception of the global network of European botany that could be observed through the fact that there were so many western plants sprung up during the reign of Qianlong‚ from this‚ could we possibly reconsider whether the planning and construction of the western mansions simply revealed the emperor’s will of novelty seeking? This is the very first step of one direction of thinking that is worthy of further consideration.
*This article translated from: 賴毓芝,由郎世寧《海西知時草軸》看歐洲植物學網絡在清宮,《數位文化電子報》,第21期(2015.3.16)。

1 Jane Kilpatrick Gifts from the Gardens of China: The Introduction of Traditional Chinese Garden Plants to Britain 1698-1862 (London: Frances Lincoln Limited 2007) pp. 64-65. It was also mentioned in Emily Byrne Curtis's article but without citation at length. See Emily Byrne Curtis translated by You-zhu Liu 劉祐竹. 耶穌會士湯執中:乾隆皇帝宮廷裡的玻璃工匠與植物學家(Jesuit Pierre d'Incarville: Glass Artisans and Botanist in Qianlong Emperor's Palace) The National Palace Museum Monthly Vol. 353 (Aug. 2012) p.39.

2 Aloys Pfister 費賴之 translated by Feng Chengjun 馮承鈞. 在華耶穌會士列傳及書目(Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les mission de l'ancienne de chine). Beijing: Zhonghua Bookstore 1986 Vol. 2 p.829.

3 Jane Kilpatrick p. 63.

4 Jane Kilpatrick p. 64.

5  Quoted from Lin Lina 林莉娜. 盆中清翫:明清盆景繪畫精選(Antiques of Qing Dynasty in Pot: Carefully Chosen Paintings of Ming and Qing Dynasties) The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art Vol. 361 (Apr. 2013) p.30.

6 Jane Kilpatrick p. 64.

7  [France] Du Halde Jean-Baptiste 杜赫德Ed.. [China] translated by Lǚ Yiming呂一民 Shen Jian沈堅 Zheng Dedi鄭德弟. 耶穌會傳教士嘉類思神父致布拉索神父的信件摘要(1757年12月13日於澳門) (Summary of Jesuit Father Louis du Gad's Letter to Father Bledsoe (Dec. 13 1757 in Macau)). In耶穌會士中國書簡集:中國回憶錄(Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères Mémoires de la Chine). Zhengzhou: Elephant Press 2005 p.66.