Sunday, December 16, 2007

Flora Sinensis

Despite the inaccuracy of the title and the rather unsophisticated (yet charming) illustrations within, 'Flora Sinensis' is in fact one of the rarest and most important botanical works ever produced. It was published in 1656 in Vienna by the Polish Jesuit missionary, Michael Boym (Michał Piotr Boym) and is the first western book to report on the indigenous sub-tropical plants of China.

Boym spent about ten years in China, converting the family of the last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty to Christianity and acting as the Emperor's (unsuccessful) envoy when he returned to Europe in the early 1650s seeking western help to repel the (successful) Manchu uprising.

Boym was an astute scholar and made significant contributions to the foundation of Sinology in terms of language, medicine/pharmacy, cartography and, of course, botany. His correspondence, verbal reports and various publications were plundered became the factual backbone to the popular and widely read 'China Illustrata', by the 17th century's great polyhistor and BibliOdyssey favourite, Athanasius Kircher.

I'm unsure how a hippopotamus came to be included in a work on China and I wouldn't be surprised to learn of some other visual incongruities. The text itself was more illuminating, particularly in advising of the pharmaceutical and health benefits of Chinese plants. The final illustration was among the first depictions of the Nestorian stele, which had been discovered earlier in the 17th century and provided evidence of Assyrian Christians having settled in China as early as the 8th century [see last month's post featuring some illustrations and a little more information about Nestorians - and hats off to Dr Hypercube for mentioning the stele in the comments].

Flora Sinensis

banana tree

Cieu Ko

Custard Apple

Jackfruit Tree


Pepper Vine



Su Pim


Tusked Quadruped and Snake


Sum Xu and Turtle


Tiger (detail)

Nestorian Stele