1981, Kim Sorvig, Expedition To China

Plant collecting around China’s highest mountain

By Kim Sorvig

No-one who goes to China, I suppose, really knows what to expect. After decades of closure to foreigners (just in recent history) it hardly requires poetic license to call China “The Land of the Unexpected”.

Recently, of course, China has been opening up, and the interest this has aroused is leading to further ‘chinks in the bamboo curtain’ (to quote a lecturer who claimed the pun was accidental). Despite this, the botanical expedition which I joined for the month of September 1981 had little information to go on. The area around Mt. Konka, lying between Szechuan Province and Tibet, has hardly been seen by foreigners at all; the one botanist to traverse the region was Joseph Rock, in 1929. Other than that, there have been two or three mountain climbing ventures: when it was first discovered, Minya Konka (or Konka Shan) was thought to be higher than Everest.

Even for Roy Lancaster, the botanical guide for the group, this was new territory. He had been to China twice before, and from his broad experience knew an impressive percentage of the plants we saw; when in doubt he could rely on other members of the expedition. Five Western countries were represented; collections of seed and herbarium material were made for Kew, Edinburgh, Leiden, and the Holden and Morris arboreta in the United States; a taxonomist from Wisley, a biochemist from John Innes Institute, and people with specialist interests ranging from alpines and bulbs to forestry, from bamboo to clematis, made up an excellent group. My first ‘thank you’ goes to them all.

For me this was an unbelievable opportunity to learn a few of the bewildering array of Chinese plants (the Flora I brought back, five volumes, contains 7,000 species, and that’s the student flora!), and to meet and work with botanists in the field. As important as this aspect of botany is to Kew, one gets very little direct experience of it as a student; I had scarcely ever pressed a plant or collected a seed before, The 125 taxa I collected have involved me in quarantine, seed-sorting, listing, accessioning, and recording procedures which would otherwise have remained ‘behind-the-scenes’. I thought that finding the specimens would be the end of it!

Our itinerary, after leaving one hyper-luxurious night in Hong Kong, involved short stays in Canton and Chengdu (capital of Szechuan), during which we saw a number of gardens and met Chinese botanists in both cities. After that, we travelled into the mountains by road, staying in communes, passing through Ta-chien-Iu (now Kanding), “The Gateway of Tibet” for E. H. Wilson and Rock. A long detour cut into our time, but one does not argue with ten miles of road which have fallen several hundred feet into a river. At one point on our return even the detour had demurred, and we were told there was no way out for a month. (Tune in next week for the hair-raising escape.)

Such excitements plus cold rainy weather meant that we made a base-camp and went on daily forays, rather than attempt a full circuit of Konka; disappointing, but prudent. We seemed to be on the drier side of the pronounced rain-shadow cast by most peaks in this part of the world; the vegetation on the other side would very likely have been different. The area in which we camped was dominated by Betula utilis on the NE-facing slopes; Quercus semicarpifolia on the opposite ones; shrouded with Usnea, and mixed with larches, pines, fir, and a good variety of shrubs, e.g. loniceras, Hypophae salicifolia, many berberis and rosaceous species. Gentians-were abundant to the point of being overwhelming; primulas, 20 species of clematis, Halenia, Codanopsis. . . The paucity of rhododendron species was surprising, and there was a complete lack of any bamboo at all (I asked in English and Chinese, and drew pictures for the Tibetans- no, two valleys over, first pass on your right, nothing like that around here, mate), which was a disappointment to me. But through friends from the trip I have met several more bamboo-fanatics on my return to England: one of the lasting side-effects of such a trip.

The political scene was very interesting, much more relaxed than one is led to believe; “old hands” felt it had relaxed even within the past two years. Armed with a bit of Chinese (and pictures), I managed to talk to several ‘unofficial” Chinese along the way. But politics and cultural anthropology are matters which international plant collectors ignore at their peril. 1 felt a considerable rapport with our Chinese guides, but the lack of the obsequious ‘yes Sahib’ treatment one might find in India led to some dissatisfaction among the group as a whole. Can one really expect it in a country aspiring to egalitarian communism? At the end of our stay, pressed specimens and any rooted ones were confiscated. We have since been told that a group of “tourists” trekking not far away had been caught smuggling rare plants. Considering the millions of pounds and dollars which Chinese plants have brought the horticultural trade in the West, without any recompense to China, it is in fact quite generous that the Chinese authorities have agreed to post our collections to us after inspection. It is a sad fact that ecological conservation, paradoxically bound to plant collection by our need for specimens to study, can itself be endangered by the subtleties of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Obviously, I could go on at length: agriculture, industry, development, religion. . . but I have already taxed readers’ patience and editor’s space enough. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Kew Guild for its financial support, and likewise the Bentham-Moxon Trust, and my other sponsors, the Women’s Farm & Garden Association, many of whose members I am sure receive this journal. Thanks also to the Curator, Mr. Simmons, for his special encouragement, and to all those who supported what I myself often thought was an impossible and mad idea, this long-dreamed-of visit to China.


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