Looking backwards from Needham’s path breaking monograph, this paper examines the way in which the indigenous Chinese language knowledge of dragonfly behavior, habitat, and morphology was stripped away and reconstituted in the process of Anglo-American imposition of Linnaean taxonomy from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth. How, I ask, did the vast array of highly accurate visual depictions in paintings and extensive ethno-entomological observations in pharmacopeia from throughout East Asia become irrelevant to Chinese and Western scientists in such a short time? Simultaneously, I explore the difficulty experienced by early modern natural scientists operating in Europe and East Asia as they attempted to conflate insect species with the politico-cultural units of emerging nation states.
Interrogating Western European and Chinese language early modern natural sciences literature in tandem, this paper takes as its starting point Edward Donovan’s lavishly illustrated Natural History of the Insects of China (1798). The first Western language monograph conflating an ill-defined “China” with the habitats of particular insects, Donovan’s treatise acknowledged the value of Chinese indigenous entomology, as in sericulture. Little over a century later, Needham treated China as a tabula rasa in biological knowledge and, more importantly, had that view validated by Chinese colleagues.
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