Circumscribing China with Insects: Rendering Sinophone Natural Sciences Irrelevant in James G. Needham’s Dragonflies of China (1930)

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Daniel Burton-Rose, North Carolina State University
Cornell University entomologist James G. Needham resided in the Republic of China from 1927-28, propagating the instruction of biological inquiry in universities up and down the eastern seaboard. An expert on Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Needham chose dragonflies as the focus of an English-language manual that would model American academic standards of morphology and taxonomy to Chinese students. Needham collaborated with Chinese colleagues in Beijing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou who guided him to collecting spots and continued to provide him with samples during the following disruptive decades in Chinese society. Chinese colleagues published Needham’s monograph in Beijing in 1930.

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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