Ernest “Chinese” Wilson's Re-imagined Legacy in Sichuan
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From 1899 to 1911, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) embarked on four plant-collecting trips throughout Southwest China with “vacations home” of often less than a year at a time. While Wilson sent home thousands of plants, many of which are now commonly grown in gardens throughout England and the United States, he also sent home thousands of photographs. In this essay, we consider Ernest Henry Wilson’s photographic legacy, beginning with the conditions under which his photographs of China were produced, before examining how Wilson’s photography has circulated back to China in a new form and a new social context.
Drawing on Wilson’s photographic and personal archives, we will argue that contemporary Chinese uses of Wilson and his photographic work act as a re-imagining of his legacy on behalf of the Chinese people. Eco-tourism, cultural heritage, and the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge are all being promoted through Wilson’s work and his Chinese legacy. Wilson’s trips to Sichuan and his photographic archive constitute a “usable past” that holds the possibility to reveal more about contemporary China than about Wilson’s history in China.
Inventing “Chinese Wilson”
Ernest Henry Wilson was born in Chipping Camden, England in 1876. He apprenticed as a gardener at 16, and in five years had worked his way up to a position at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1898, upon a recommendation from Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, the director at Kew, James Veitch and Sons hired Wilson to collect plants in China for propagation and sale at their nurseries. Wilson’s first two trips to China were undertaken with specific instructions from the Veitch company: first, to bring back the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata, and then to bring back the yellow Chinese poppy, Meconopsis integrifolia. Due to competition with other nursery companies for marketable plants from China, Veitch discouraged Wilson from publishing writings about his travels and instead encouraged him to focus on the task at hand and return to England with his findings. Nevertheless, Wilson’s success became well known among horticulturalists, and Charles Sprague Sargent, Director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, coaxed Wilson into a third trip to China.
Wilson’s 1907 expedition would be very different from his earlier excursions. Sargent wanted a wide-ranging plant-collecting trip that would significantly expand their horticultural knowledge of China. Most importantly, Sargent wanted Wilson to make photographs. As he put it to Wilson, “A good set of photographs are really about as important as anything you can bring back with you. I hope therefore you will not fail to provide yourself with the very best possible instrument you can, irrespective of cost, and it ought to be large enough to take pictures 8 1/2 x 6 1/2, and you ought to get a stout leather case in which to have it carried.” Sargent asked for photographs of flowers and other botanical subjects, but he especially wanted photographs of trees that revealed “the character of the country inhabited by different trees.” Close photographs of tree bark were also considered “very valuable.” If there was time, Sargent suggested that Wilson would do well to “take views of villages and other striking and interesting objects as the world knows little of the appearance of western and central China.” Wilson did not disappoint. In addition to the thousands of plants and seeds that Wilson sent to the United States, he would make almost 4000 glass plate negatives, forming a vast photographic archive. A small selection of Wilson’s images of China are included here. (Fig. 2 - 8)
Wilson would continue to use the large format glass plate Sanderson field camera for the majority of his known image making. At the time of his first trip for the Arnold Arboretum, the Sanderson camera along with gelatin dry plate negatives was one of the most technically advanced camera systems commercially available. Gelatin dry plates were a step forward in ease of use compared to the cumbersome and technically demanding wet plate collodion process that preceded it. As one contemporary assessment puts it, “Photography became faster, easier and the need for a portable darkroom was eliminated.” Whereas many late 19th century scientific expeditions would bring along a photographer, the dry plate process allowed Wilson to work directly with the camera and not be burdened with preparation and development of his plates in the field. This turned the act of photographing into a process that was similar to that of collecting plants, with which Wilson was quite familiar. The results of his efforts represent a lifetime of photographic documentation while in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. The Arnold Arboretum offered highly stable and long-lasting carbon prints of Wilson’s photographs to subscribers as early as 1909, while many images would also be reproduced in Wilson’s illustrated popular articles, lanternslide lectures, and books. A listing of publications offered by the Arnold Arboretum in January of 1933 shows many of Wilson’s photographs available as sets grouped by the location and date of his travels for the Arboretum.
While Wilson was an accomplished collector and photographer, he did not have a passion for the meticulous and scholarly business of plant taxonomy and description involved in processing the many specimens he brought back to the Arboretum. To his credit, Sargent realized that Wilson was especially good at engaging the public through his writing and lectures and put Wilson forward as a public liaison for the Arboretum. As a writer for horticultural magazines and lecturer Wilson quickly became known as “Chinese Wilson.” This title was reinforced through articles in popular journals that celebrated Wilson’s travels and spread his legacy and the reputation of the Arboretum to a broad audience. Word of his travels spread so far into popular culture as to be featured in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” where they recounted his story of being passed over by a mule train on a narrow mountain trail after breaking his leg in a rockslide which cut short his 1910 expedition. (Fig. 9) With stories like these in circulation, Wilson would become legendary as a plant collector and explorer. His travels and accomplishments have captured the popular imagination in the United States since the early 20th century. 
Rediscovering Wilson in China
Institutions such as Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, where Wilson was employed for the majority of his career and where he was named Keeper in 1927, have a direct interest in managing Wilson’s legacy. They have actively digitized the majority of Wilson’s photographs, as well as much of the written material in his personal papers, which are held at the Arboretum Archive. Wilson’s photographs are widely featured on the Arboretum website and in special digital exhibitions, where they highlight Wilson’s contributions to the Arboretum.
In the last thirty years, however, Chinese ecologists and scientists, as well as officials in the departments of tourism and heritage conservation, are creating a new context for the legacy of E.H. Wilson within Chinese cultural history. Wilson was re-introduced to southwest China and Sichuan province in 1989, when the Royal Horticultural Society in England began sending plant collectors and researchers back to the mountains of Sichuan for joint expeditions with Chinese biologists.
Professor Yin Kaipu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Chengdu had been studying the flora of these mountains since 1960, and had read the 1913 Arnold Arboretum publication Plantae Wilsonianae that was kept at the Chengdu Institute of Biology. Yin also took part in numerous joint expeditions sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society of the UK which included scientists, explorers, and botanists from more then 10 countries. Yin credits these expeditions with the chance to learn more about E.H. Wilson’s plant collecting and travels to Southwest China. In 1997 one of the western biologists associated with the joint expeditions brought expedition member and translator, Professor Zhong Shengxian, a copy of Roy Brigg’s biography of Wilson, "Chinese" Wilson: a life of Ernest H. Wilson, 1876-1930. Brigg’s book found its way into Professor Yin’s hands during the expedition, and he was especially struck by Wilson’s photographs of Sichuan included in the book. He began making a point of seeking out the location of Wilson’s images of the landscape that they both knew well. In 2004, Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham from Kew Gardens in England, who had both been part of previous joint expeditions, returned to China to retrace and re-photograph Wilson’s expeditions.  Professor Yin saw scientific value in this kind of re-photography and with colleagues at the Chengdu Institute of Biology began a six-year process of systematically re-photographing Wilson’s trips in the mountains of Sichuan. Of the 1,076 images made by Wilson in this area, they were able to find and re-photograph 250 locations. The result was Professor Yin’s 2010 book, Tracing One Hundred Years of Change: Illustrating the Environmental Changes in Western China, and a 2011 scientific article in PLoS One.
Professor Yin’s interest in Wilson’s photographs was not solely based on their aesthetic merit, but on their value as a scientific and cultural record of the region. This echoed the reasoning of Charles Sargent 100 years before when he stressed to Wilson the importance of obtaining a “good set of photographs.” For Yin, reflecting on his 50 years of botanic study, Wilson’s photos carry the evidence of environmental change and serve as a call to action. In his words,
Through the comparison of those old and new photos, we find that during the past 100 years there still remains something unreasonable in people’ behavior. In some places, people and governments tried to achieve short-term benefits by sacrificing the environment. This only caused problems and should now force us to examine our actions and how these affect the environment. The publication of this book aims to let readers consider and understand our future responsibilities: that is, how we should cherish and protect this part of the earth we share.
By juxtaposing his new images with Wilson’s from 100 years earlier, Yin effectively puts Wilson’s images back into circulation, but in a different context. Yin used Wilson images as a guide, but not for collecting plants. Yin knew the landscape well and had collected plants in these areas for decades. He would use the images as a catalyst to tell the cultural and ecological history of the region. During Yin’s re-photographic work he not only found the location of trees, landscapes and monuments that Wilson photographed, he also inquired about the people and significant cultural landmarks that appear in Wilson’s photographs. Yin found the descendants of the people that Wilson encountered and by including them in his book he has broken the silence of the photographic image. He has allowed the people whose descendants inhabited Wilson’s landscapes to tell their stories and make Wilson’s work relevant to a new generation. Three exemplary page spreads (Fig. 10-12) follow, indicating Yin’s approach to the natural and cultural landscape.
What sets Yin’s rephotographic work apart from Flanagan and Kirkham’s, and even that of Wilson’s photography, is his intimate knowledge of the place that he is exploring. He is not approaching the landscape as a foreign traveler. He is documenting the landscape from within his own cultural history and sharing narratives that Flanagan and Kirkham, and Wilson may not have had the knowledge, time, or experience to fully understand. Flanagan and Kirkham eagerly take on the role of explorers and tourists retracing Wilson’s route. Their writing and photography reflects the classic form of a travel journal; first person narrative and descriptive observations abound. Yin’s audience and goals are larger than this and more complex. Yin sends a clear ecological message grounded in science and observation. He then ties this message to the social and cultural heritage that is an integral part of the landscape. It is very likely that his decision to publish in English was influenced by his joint expeditions with English speaking colleagues and a desire to reach the Western audience that Wilson tapped 100 years ago. Yin’s work has a clear connection to Wilson via methodology, ecological and social concerns, and the resulting body of photographic data. It is a body of data that, according to a recent agreement with the Arnold Arboretum, will soon be housed side by side with the Wilson archive.
Independently of Professor Yin, in 2003, Hong Yin travelled from her home of Maerkang in the Aba prefecture of Sichuan province, a region Wilson had visited during his travels, to study at Columbia University in New York City. As she studied for her Masters degree at the School for International and Public Affairs, she often browsed through old books about Aba and the Sichuan region in the East Asian Library and thought about translating them into Chinese. When she returned to China and began work as the Deputy Director of the Huanglong Nature Reserve in Western Sichuan, she was given one of Wilson’s book by Dr. Holger Perner, a German ecologist living in Chengdu. She worked with Gan Wenqing , and translated five chapters from China “Mother of Gardens” describing Wilson’s travels in Western Sichuan under the title Wilson in Aba (2010). On the cover of her translation, she put Wilson’s words, “Did the fates ordain that I should live in western China, I would ask for nothing better than to be domiciled in Sungpan.” In 2014, her book came to the attention of Mr. Mi, the official in charge of developing a plan for renewing the historic areas of Songpan’s ancient city.
According to her, “when he saw the old photos taken by Wilson he decided to let Wilson and his photos introduce Songpan.” The result is a montage of Wilson’s photographs of Songpan 15ft tall and over 50 feet wide, etched on metal panels and framed in rough cut stone. A translation of Wilson’s praise for “Sungpan,” is emblazoned along the top of the image. Plaques to the right of the photograph explain the image and Wilson, but most strikingly, on the plaza in front of the huge photographic reproduction is a statue depicting Wilson himself with his tripod and Sanderson field camera.
An article in the China Daily describes Wilson’s commemoration in Songpan, “The local government has installed a statue of Wilson to honor his contributions in making Songpan known to the world by way of photos and writings. They have also served as ready references for the authorities while rebuilding parts of the ancient structures other than the city's well-preserved wall.” Wilson’s photography then has historic value as a record of Songpan, but more importantly Wilson and his photographs are being utilized to promote the history of Songpan to a new generation of Chinese and international tourists. (Fig. 13, 14 & 15)
Wilson’s images of Songpan were taken in the span of just one day, August 25th 1910. The five images that constitute his documentation of the city are broad views that do not highlight a singular significant feature such as a gate or temple but instead show the city as it rests on the banks of the Min river. It is almost as if Wilson, knowing he would most likely not return, was attempting to create a memory of Songpan in its entirety. Wilson climbed the hillsides that ring the valley as he photographed, taking in sweeping views of the city and landscape. He did not dedicate this many plates to a single location or photograph other cities or localities in this manner. It may be this level of attention to the entirety of the city and its place in landscape that truly reflects Wilson’s admiration for Songpan.
The images themselves show that conditions changed during the day as Wilson photographed. In the images made from the northern edge of the city (Fig. 16 & 17) clouds hang low on the mountains and a soft light is cast on the landscape. There is little evidence of the brilliant sky and crisp air that is often associated with the city. The images made from the south and east of the city (fig. 18, 19 & 20) show the bright midday sun casting hard shadows around the buildings and on the surrounding hillsides. Neither set of images show a dramatic use of light and shadow and they do not tap into the emotive and dramatic moods often seen in Wilson’s images of the landscape (Fig. 2-8). In addition, varying amounts and types of image degradation can be seen in the negatives. Improper exposure, processing errors, and possible heat or light contamination, most likely caused during the long journey home before processing, all add to the overall grey tonality present in the original negatives. However, when the glass plate negative is digitized and the images closely inspected they reveal rich details and a clear document of the city as it stood in 1910.
The images that tourists encounter today on the front and back of the E.H. Wilson monument in Songpan were created using photomontage, which was likely not Wilson’s intent when he made the images. The ability to create photographic montage and to then use those newly created images in a social or political context was a well-established practice by 1910 but not one commonly associated with scientific or documentary photography. The manipulation of Wilson’s images takes two slightly different forms on the front and the back of the monument. The front of the monument can be considered a panoramic image that is made up of two distinct photographs. (fig. 19 & 20) When attempts are made to join the two photographs into a seamless panoramic image as seen on the front of the monument (fig. 21) it is quickly discovered that a portion of the image is missing and will need to be created using digital imaging software. Even though the panorama of Songpan that is seen on the monument never existed in Wilson’s lifetime the photographic information in the image is largely intact and functions more or less as the original images have for decades. This is in contrast to the image on the back of the monument.
The back of the monument (fig. 22, detail) displays an image of porters carrying loads of various materials through a vast mountain landscape. The panoramic format combined with the monochromatic rendering borrow from the traditions of documentary photography and Chinese landscape painting offering an aesthetic point of reference for Chinese viewers. The montage is comprised of eleven photographic portraits of individual figures that have been digitally extracted from the original photographs. The figures are standing on what appears to be a digitally rendered drawing of a mountain road. The mark making around their feet looks to be simulating those of an ink or charcoal drawing while the background is clearly photographic in its origin. Seven of the figures were appropriated from Wilson’s original photographs (fig. 23-26) but not all can be traced back to Wilson or even the Arboretum archive. The authors could not, at this time, identify the origin of the remaining four figures appearing in the montage or for that matter the origin of the landscape image(s) that makeup the background.
The porters occupy this newly created landscape as if they were one large caravan walking the ancient tea roads carrying their immense burdens to market. The figures represent numerous discrete moments in front of a camera and were made at various locations in western China. Of Wilson’s images we know that the porters in figures 23 and 24 were photographed in the region surrounding Songpan on August 31, 1910. However, the photograph of the porter in figure 25 was photographed near Yichang on June 6, 1906 and the porter in figure 26 was photographed in Sichuan Sheng on July 30,1908. It is curious that Wilson’s portraits would be recontextualized as part of a typology of the working porter in China circa 1910. Wilson tended to shy away from the sort of ethnographic and typological portrait of the local peoples that was popular amongst many of his fellow explorers at the time. In fact, his images of porters are more concerned with the products they are carrying and what they might be used for than an ethnographic cataloging of the people. This can be seen in the captions that accompany many of the images: fig. 24 'Indispensables.' Men laden with sandals made from Bamboo fibre and bamboo sheaths used in making soles for women's shoes. Min Valley. Altitude 5800 ft.” and fig. 26, “Men laden with ‘Brick Tea’ for Thibet.” All of the products mentioned in the captions are derived from the natural resources that Wilson was tasked with collecting for their scientific and commercial value to the west.
The newly created panoramic vista and montage of porters highlight Songpan, which is part of the Ngawa Tibetian and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and includes not only Tibetian and Qiang people but a number of smaller ethnic groups as well, as an historic multi-ethnic destination for trade and tourism. The ease with which these images can be re-contextualized and the digital archives utilized to create new narratives like the one seen on the Wilson monument is a phenomenon that has lasting implications. The re-contextualization that occurs with the Wilson monument hints at the larger cultural and political agenda of the regional authorities that began in the 1990s with the drive for tourism and economic development. Pal Nyíri writes that “contemporary Chinese tourism grew out of a tradition of premodern literati travel—visiting places that had been enshrined by past cultural heroes and properly recognizing their canonical meanings.” This strategy is widely used in designated tourist areas in China including Songpan. While the region surrounding Songpan is largely seen as scenic spot worthy of tourists, the town of Songpan itself fits the touristic genre of an ‘old town’. The walls and three temples of the city were designated as heritage sites in the 1980s but it was not until 2000 that the Chinese government approved the massive reconstruction of the downtown and North Gate. This kind of reconstruction deliberately communicated Hanzang heqin, “Han and Tibetan Harmony and Amity.” Wilson’s monument juxtaposed with the historic city walls can be read as an extension of these earlier efforts to promote national and ethnic identity through modern tourism.
The monument to Wilson is striking in this context, as it does not align with nationalist ideas about the Chinese state or patriotic tourism. Instead, it seems to take a more transnational view, celebrating Wilson as if he was the first Western tourist to visit, photograph, and fall in love with Songpan. Wilson, of course, was not the first Western traveler to visit Songpan but the monument acts as a mythmaking device upon which both Chinese and Western tourists can project their contemporary experience of Songpan thus bringing forward a new usable history. Wilson’s images have been re-imagined (along with a few other images of unknown origin) into what appear to be singular photographic moments of the cultural landscape and city of Songpan. These new photomontages of Songpan, similarly to the re-photographic projects of Prof. Yin as well as Kirkham and Flanagan, project a “possible present” by creating an image of Songpan’s past that is only accessible through contemporary images such as those seen on the monument. The extraordinary size of the images on the monument and the human scale of Wilson’s statue place the viewer alongside the photographer in an imagined moment of history. They are invited to witness the relationship between the landscape and the photographer and to take part in the photographs creation. However, these moments never existed in front of Wilson’s camera, they only exist as wholly unique objects that are part of the monument in Songpan. That these images and related sculpture can only be experienced in the present suggests that it is not enough to say that Wilson’s images have been recontextualized, recirculated, or rediscovered but that they have been created anew in order to shape the future of Songpan. Just as Wilson and the Arboretum used his photographs to build the narrative of “Chinese Wilson” and mythologize the exploration of foreign lands in American popular culture in the early 19oos, the Chinese, by freely utilizing digital archives, have built a model for tourism based on Wilson’s re-imagined legacy. The photomontage images that appear on the monument and even Wilson’s likeness work to convey the narrative of ecological and ethnic tourism that is a vital part of the current myth-making in contemporary Songpan. They provide a useful backdrop and photographic narrative for fellow travelers to connect with a newly imagined past.
The representations of E.H. Wilson, his works, and his re-imagined legacy in China are numerous and reflect the complexity of the cultural history along China’s ethnic border regions. The relationship between E.H. Wilson, the multi-ethnic people of a city such as Songpan, and the government officials who work there are an example of the ways in which cultural identity and history are constantly being re-examined and re-defined. Today, cities, cultural centers. and landscapes in China like Songpan are in the process of being repositioned on the international stage as sites of historical, cultural, and natural significance. In this process, local officials selectively revive narratives and images left behind by western explorers, scientists, scholars, and missionaries. The circulation of Wilson’s images back to Songpan has brought them to a wider public, but not as immutable artifacts or even accurate representations. They have been altered to fit their new context and tell a new story. Wilson’s fondness for China, its plants and its people, is plainly evident in his writings and photographs. Given the ease of access to Wilson’s digital archive and the history of western exploration in China, it seems only appropriate that his work has been re-discovered and his legacy re-invigorated by the people living in the very landscape that furnished the foundation for his career as a plant collector and explorer. It remains to be seen if the efforts to leverage Wilson’s legacy by heritage officials, environmentalists, and scientist will serve as a way to preserve the ecology and cultural heritage of the region in the face of mass tourism and the ever increasing pressures of economic development.
Author’s Note: We are grateful for the generous assistance provided by Ned Friedman, Lisa Pearson, and Michael S. Dosman of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum as well as Professor Yin Kaipu of the Chengdu Institute of Biology. This project was supported in part by a Sargent Award for Visiting Scholars provided by the Arnold Arboretum.
Scott Dietrich is an independent educator, scholar, and photographer currently living and working in Chicago. He has traveled and photographed extensively in China and Southeast Asia. His work is primarily concerned with cultural landscape and the built environment.
Michael R. Dietrich is a Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work primarily concerns the history of the life sciences in the twentieth century.
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