China and the Royal Society: Give and take

Ming dnyasty bank note Ming dynasty banknote, possibly dating from as early as 1400.

Reports gleaned from those travelling to the East, particularly employees of the English and Dutch East India Companies, were read regularly at Royal Society meetings throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although none of the Fellows seem to have visited China themselves, there was animated discussion of distinctive Chinese practices like moxibustion and acupuncture at meetings. There is a long-running debate in the Society's records, supported by documentation sent from China, of the apparently remarkable medicinal properties of ginseng.

As well as information, missionaries and merchants were encouraged to send other things to their colleagues at home: plant specimens and seeds, medicinal products, animal skins, books, manuscripts, and cultural artefacts, which again prompted discussion and debate. One early gift was a Chinese cabinet containing surgical equipment. The Fellows were particularly intrigued by the tools used to clean inside the ears.

In 1749 Cromwell Mortimer presented a specimen of ancient Chinese paper money to the Society. The money had been sent to him by another of the French Jesuit missionaries in Peking, Father Anthony Gaubil.

The note lay unnoticed in a volume of assorted papers at the Royal Society for more than 250 years, until brought to the attention of the Society's Librarian by a Chinese visitor from the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge in 2008. It has been identified by the British Museum as a Ming dynasty banknote, possibly dating from as early as 1400.


Sweet pea

Hand-printed images of flowers from a collection illustrating poems and text by Dr Kuo Mo-Jo, President of the Academia Sinica in Peking. The two-volume set of prints was presented to the Royal Society in 1967.

Letter from Sir Joseph Banks to Puan Khe Qua (c. 1806)

Puan Khe Qua was chief of the Cohong, or guild of merchants authorised by the Chinese government to trade with the West. Banks wrote to thank him for his assistance in gathering plant specimens for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In return, Banks sent gifts including 'useful' plants and 'a set of views of London'.

Chopsticks and other gifts

Robert Hooke FRS was given 'a pair of china eating sticks' by a merchant in 1679. The Research Councils UK office in Beijing now presents chopsticks to visitors as official gifts. The cap is an example of merchandise created for the Beijing Olympic games in 2008.