Caomu Shanchuan 草木山川: Plants and National Identity in China

Caomu Shanchuan 草木山川: Plants and National Identity in China
Yuheng Zhang


This study explores the complex entanglement of caomu (草木) in the construction of national identity in modern China. It addresses the following questions: How was the conceptual field of plant symbolism transformed and employed in nationalist discourses? In the forging of modern China as an “imagined community,” what roles did the plant-related modern scientific practice play? How did the literary and scientific writings of plants mediate different knowledge paradigms and reconstruct the national temporality and spatiality? In which ways are plants involved in the negotiation of identities in China in the current era?
Engaging in a dialogue with theories of nationalism, nonhuman/thing studies and postcolonial cultural criticism, I use Bakhtin’s concepts of hybridity and the chronotope as theoretical tools, and take the configuration of temporality and spatiality as main analytic target. I argue that, first, the hybridity of plants rendered them useful in the processes of naturalization and authentication of the nation; second, plants, in their role as non-human companions or community members, are all intrinsically chronotopic as they are involved in the configuration of space and connected to memory, the past, socio-cultural renewal, and dreams for the future.
Following a general introduction into the subject matter, the dissertation comprises four episodes, each presenting a certain type of plant chronotope with a variant type of hybridity: chapter two traces the long-lasting issue of the Chinese national flower selection from the 1910s to this day; chapter three deals with the discovery and iconization of shuishan (dawn redwood水杉); chapter four covers Zhou Zuoren (周作人) and Hu Xiansu (胡先骕)’s careers, and their writing and research on plants, especially Hu’s literary writing about trees and flowers that has been sorely neglected by most researchers; and finally chapter five investigates two contemporary tree-transplanting incidents: the Tree Protection Movement in Nanjing and the Ginkgo Mania in Chongqing.
I demonstrate that, by joining the world scientific stage through categorization and compilation of its objects, the nation has braided its own time and space into the world system, and the grasses and trees of the human world (renjian caomu 人间草木) thus became ethno-plants (minzu zhiwu 民族植物). Moreover, all these different embodiments of caomu, national flower candidates, shuishan, ethno-plants, plane trees and ginkgos, each summon certain temporal and spatial angles and features, hovering between cultural symbolism and modern horticulture. They all join the transformation in which the location of China is anchored on the world map and on the natural land, while its past and future are imagined and rewritten in the form of Chinese history and modernity.


Yuheng Zhang

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Zurich, Chinese Studies, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies






National politics
Art and Culture