China and the Royal Society: First impressions

Rice mill in China

Seventeenth-century European experience of China was coloured by earlier travel literature, which described an unfamiliar landscape, rich with resources. The earliest reliable information on China itself came from Christian missionaries working there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Educated men, they eagerly learned all they could about Chinese language, culture, and science. Like many later visitors, they were particularly interested in botany and medicine, describing the cultivation of useful plants including tea and rice, and noting the use of rhubarb root and other mildly toxic substances in purgatives.

Father Pierre Nicolas d'Incarville (1706-57), a Jesuit missionary in Peking, was a trained botanist. In 1748 he sent an annotated catalogue of Chinese plants to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Cromwell Mortimer. The catalogue was accompanied by packets of seeds, each labelled with the Chinese name for the plant in question.  Mortimer distributed half of these to the botanical gardens at Oxford, Edinburgh and Chelsea, and sent the rest to d'Incarville's colleague Bernard de Jussieu in Paris.

D'Incarville's catalogue includes recommendations for European culinary and medicinal use of Chinese plants. Sometimes, though, his comments show typical European cautiousness about adopting new habits. For example, he wrote:

"I have never seen such beautiful celery roots in Europe as I have here in Peking. The Chinese throw the root away, and eat only the shoots. We do not imitate them in this, as you may imagine."

D'Incarville was highly regarded by the Chinese Emperor and introduced European plants into the Imperial gardens.


Catalogue of plants by Pierre D'Incarville (1748)
D'Incarville, a Jesuit missionary in Peking, sent the Royal Society these observations on Chinese flora. His accompanying letter explained that he was interested to learn about medicinal plants in order to help sick Christians in Peking.
Read Lisa Jardine's translation of the full text

Reports of visits to China by Royal Society Fellows
Norman Pirie, a biologist, visited Prague, Moscow and China in September 1952. His report focuses on research into plants, including Chinese attempts to find new plant fibres for paper-making, and scientific assessment of traditional herbal remedies. Ioan James's month-long visit in August 1966 occurred at the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution. His report described some of its effects on the lives of his academic colleagues. Dorothy Hodgkin reported on the important research on insulin she observed during her visit in 1972.
Listen to Ioan James describing his visit

John Lettsom, The natural history of the tea-tree (1772)
Tea was a popular drink in Europe from its introduction in the 17th century, and attempts had been made to cultivate it in England. This work describes the plant and speculates about tea's effect on the human digestive system.

Herbal infusions and dried plant specimens
Many Chinese remedies are designed to be infused like tea. Early European visitors to China were extremely interested in Chinese medicines; similar herbal preparations are still sold today. The dried plant specimens are native to China but are now cultivated in gardens throughout the world.

Herb specimens
Angelica sinensis (commonly known as female ginseng') and ginseng are among traditional Chinese remedies investigated by Europeans from the 17th century onwards. The Chinese considered both the root and the leaves to be therapeutic.