This article analyzes the role of the 1940s discovery of dawn redwood in the construction of a modern Chinese national identity, as manifested in Chinese intellectual and popular discourse from the second half of the twentieth century to the present day. Not every plant has the honour to be called a ‘national treasure’. Like the panda, the shuishan tree or Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a species endemic to China, was dynamically transformed from a distinct biological species to an iconic species of the nation. In the process, modern China as an ‘imagined community’ was forged. This transformation occurred in three dimensions, spatial, temporal and psycho-emotional. Firstly, the emerging national space was anchored in the world of nations. Secondly, the temporal scale was redefined, and Chinese history projected into deep time. Thirdly, through the attribution of moral qualities to the shuishan tree, the ressentiment arising from the late development of nationalism was reaffirmed but also countered. These dimensions will serve as the coordinates of my analysis of national identity formation.

National identity is a rather tangled issue, partly due to the complexity of the concepts of nation and nationalism. While there are many different and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the nation and its ethnic roots, most theorists agree that the emergence of nations was fundamental to shaping the modern world. In his landmark study on national identity, Anthony Smith claimed that nationalist strategies were ‘rooted in popular attitudes to space and time and to popular attachments to home and fathers’, and that ‘the new concept of the nation was made to serve as a time-space framework to order chaos and render the universe meaningful by harnessing pre-modern mass aspirations and sentiments for local and familial attachments; herein lay a vital part of the wide appeal of an otherwise abstruse ideology and language’.2 Time and space are elementary aspects of human life; they make the world meaningful but normally are not consciously contemplated. A national identity is in essence constructed by reconfiguring space and time. During such reconfigurations, as we will show in our research, a strong psycho-emotional attachment to the nation is evoked which, in turn, is itself involved in the process.3

‘National identity’, according to Smith, ‘involves some sense of political community, history, territory, patria, citizenship, common values and traditions’.4 It can evoke a sense of belonging, of shared memory of a common past among people who may never have contact with each other.5 In her critical reading of Smith’s theory, Guibernau argues that ‘national identity is a modern phenomenon of a fluid and dynamic nature, one by means of which a community sharing a particular set of characteristics is led to the subjective belief that its members are ancestrally related’.6 A key aspect of national identity is authenticity,7 which involves two processes: the construction of an ethno-historical past and the creation of a sense of naturalness.8 We commonly refer to the former process as historicism, as the creation of a sense of continuity, shared memories and collective destiny.9 Many scholars, including Guibernau, stress the importance of ‘antiquity’, which is important to preserving the collective self by attaching individuals to a shared past.10

In what follows I argue that the prehistory or history of a natural species can be mobilized to construct a national past. We can call this ‘the nationalization of nature’; and we can refer to the embedding of the nation in a landscape or a species as the ‘naturalization of the nation’. As Kaufmann and Zimmer have persuasively argued in their study of the role of the Alps in the construction of national identity in Switzerland, and of the North in the creation of national identity in Canada, nature in general, and specific landscapes in particular, take on the role of ‘forces of moral and spiritual regeneration capable of determining the nation and giving it a compact, homogeneous, unified form.’ The authors attribute the underlying dynamic to the rise of Romantic ideas about nature in ethnically and linguistically diverse nation states.11

Studies on invasive alien plants likewise provide important insights into mechanisms of interaction between nature and national identity. In their study on alien plants, catastrophe and the politics of postcolonial nation states, Comaroff and Comaroff identified two faces of naturalization in the politics of the postcolony. One is to incorporate alien elements, such as persons, signs and practices, in the established systems; the other is to treat nature as an alibi, ‘as a fertile allegory for making people and objects strange, thus to forge critical new social and political distinctions’.12 Bennett examined the changing attitude towards Australian trees in South Africa and revealed how iconic plants were used to forge at first a white nationalism and subsequently, in the post-Apartheid era, an African nationalism.13 Similarly, Beinhart and Wotshela investigated the social and colonial history of the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, originally from Mexico) in the Eastern Cape,14 while Coates examined the impact of invasive species in America.15 These studies deal with the ‘otherness’ of foreign plants and their role in constructing the sense of exclusion and belonging of local people which is an important aspect of nationhood. On the other hand, the role of special and precious native plants in national identity construction is rarely discussed. Yet iconic species represent indigenousness, the opposite of alienness, as they accommodate the fetish of origin and the passionate discourse of national characteristics.16

In the following, I suggest, firstly, that iconic species can function in the same manner as landscape in reflecting cultural authenticity; and secondly, I propose that not only romanticism in literature and art, but also scientism and scientific nationalism are deeply involved in naturalizing the nation. The discussion in this article proceeds from these two perspectives, and by examining the case of the shuishan discovery, I shall endeavour to reveal how the construction of national identity was entangled with the reconfiguration of spatiality, temporality and psycho-emotional attachments.

As a newly emerged nation state, China is an interesting case for several reasons. Firstly, when modern nationalism took hold in China in the twentieth century, a new narrative of history, together with the associated new vocabularies, also entered the Chinese language.17 Some new terms were political, like ‘nation’, ‘people’ and ‘society’, while others were scientific or semi-scientific, such as ‘nature’, ‘science’ and ‘quaternary’. At the same time, a new understanding and interpretation of time and space emerged. Secondly, nationalism and modern science in China have a secondary feature in common, as both developed largely as a reaction to the imperial world order. As Mizuno claims, the growth of nationalism and modern science are two major traits of modernity. It is worth examining how these two are interrelated. ‘For non-western nations, whose national identities were constructed around local cultural logics and mythologies, incorporating modern science into this logics and mythologies posed a problem, even a threat’.18 How China absorbed the discourse of science and used it in turn in the nation-building process is of special interest.

Thirdly, in the process of nation building, at a global level, China exchanged human resources and ideas on politics, science and culture with the USA and other western countries. Almost all the main figures involved in the discovery of the shuishan had been trained professionally abroad, and the discourses of nationalizing and preservation had a close relation with the case of the redwood in America. And later, after the Communist Party took over in 1949, the treatment of the shuishan again was influenced by the practices of the Soviet Union. Through these interactions, we can examine the entanglement of nationhood, modernity and science from a global perspective – not in a comparative sense, but more in terms of dynamic connections among different nations. In this context, the discovery of the shuishan goes beyond a simple incident in botany and casts new light on issues of national identity. Apparently, incidental discoveries like the shuishan and other iconic species are easily integrated into the processes of national identity construction. The ‘iconization’ of the giant panda, to which we will come back later, similarly took place along with the surge of nationalism and thus can be taken for comparison.

A Brief Background

According to Elman, science has a contested nature in modern China. At the early stage of its development, there was a struggle between the local literati and Protestant missionaries concerning the legitimate knowledge of nature. Later, facing the imperial power and a weakened Qing court, Han and Manchu elites turned to western models of science, medicine and technology, which were then disguised by them under the traditional Chinese term for natural studies: gezhi.19 Meng Yue has also observed that, before the New Culture Movement, the term ‘science’ or gezhi stood for a hybrid knowledge system which included a body of knowledge and practice of science and technology from the industrial age. Only after 1900 did the newly-invented universal and progressive concept of science, kexue, replace the former notion of gezhi. It came to mean ‘science’ and was created to denote ‘wholly Western learning’. Meng argues that this process also reflects the circumstance that the political factions of the time needed ‘to establish “China” as an organic whole out of a rather loosely knit political and cultural system’.20

Around the 1920s, so-called ‘scientism’ surged in China, so that society as a whole paid unparalleled attention to science and had great faith in its authority. It was only during the Nanjing period (1927–37) that science began to develop rapidly. Two main factors contributing to the development were the establishment of a central authority, and the return of scholars from their training abroad. This gave rise to some conflict, as the government was interested in the practical application of science, while the scientists were in quest of knowledge ‘as members of an autonomous profession’.21 Nonetheless, a trend combining scientism and nationalism began to take shape, as many scientists became enthusiastically involved in the nation-building process. This phenomenon was later labelled by some scholars as ‘scientific nationalism’. According to Mizuno, for scientific nationalism to occur there has to be a strong nation state that centralizes knowledge making.22 In his research on Chinese ‘scientific nationalism’, Wang likewise emphasizes the relationship between scientists and the state, and how scientists have seen their contribution to nation-building in the utilization of science and technology, which was true especially during the Nanjing decade.23 All in all, as Reardon-Anderson has pointed out, science raised questions in a society that was trying to modernize while at the same time retaining its Chinese cultural identity.24

After 1937, the development of science in China was disrupted by the Sino-Japanese war and subsequently by the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party (KMT). After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, scientific praxis as well as the scientific community underwent profound changes. Significant influence, both knowledge-wise and political, came from the Soviet Union. Research emphasis was placed unevenly on some ‘key areas’, such as heavy industry and nuclear physics. Politics sometimes overrode science, as happened in the Lysenko controversy, in which Hu Xiansu, one of the key figures of the shuishan discovery, was involved. In general, the CCP criticized the development of Chinese science in its earlier period, as it had been promoted by Americans, Europeans and the KMT, as a selfish and crass way of avoiding social revolution.25 It was not until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and the beginning of the reform era with the consequent opening of the Chinese economy and market, that the former strategy of the ‘Four Modernizations’ (in agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology) regained prominence, and science was again supported by government policy and granted more resources. At the same time, communication with western academic circles was also revived.

Against this background, we take a look at the history of botany in China. Plant knowledge has always been an important part of traditional literati self-cultivation. A body of poetic, lexicographic, encyclopaedic, agricultural and horticultural texts constitutes the Bowu (lit. broad learning of things) and Bencao (materia medica) traditions. However, modern botany did not grow out of this epistemological system, but was a transplant to China. The first book entitled ‘Botany’ (Zhiwuxue) was published in 1858 by English Protestant missionaries together with a Chinese scholar.26 Also around this period, foreign naturalists and various plant hunters with diverse aims and financial backing collected specimens intensively all over China.

It was only after the first group of botanists to have trained abroad came back to China in the 1920s that modern teaching and research institutes and laboratories were established. Amid the surge of nationalism, large-scale plant collections were set up in different regions. Their funding came from a mixture of public, private and foreign resources. Although the declared aim was scientific research, there were obviously nationalistic overtones, as in the case of the nationwide geological survey which took place roughly in the same period. The central and local governments also organized other resource surveys on different scales. The very first time the shuishan was spotted was in one of these surveys, which aimed at exploring natural resources in the remote mountains of Hubei province.

The Discovery

In 1941, the Japanese palaeobotanist Shigeru Miki reported a new species of fossil plants: Metasequoia. He believed it was closely related to the American redwood, and considered it as already extinct.27 In 1943, during the Sino-Japanese war, Wang Zhan, a Chinese forest engineer from the Central Institute of Forestry of the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, set out to work on a survey project of a primeval forest in Hubei province. Before reaching the place, he heard of a ‘sacred tree’ from a local in Wanxian, Sichuan province, and made a detour to examine and collect samples. These samples were later identified by Zheng Wanjun and Hu Xiansu as a living species of the genus Metasequoia, which is why the tree has acquired the name of ‘living fossil’ (huo huashi).28 This discovery immediately attracted international attention and initiated a wave of scholarly interaction between Chinese and American scientists (among others, two famous botanists, Dr Merrill and Professor Chaney), who discussed the phylogeny of the new species, focusing especially on its relationship with the genus Sequoia that includes the American redwood.29

Figure 1 

The type specimen of shuishan, which is still alive today (Ma Xintang 2016, Plant Photo Bank of China).

In May 1948, the KMT government set up the ‘Chinese shuishan preservation committee’. It was co-founded by Academica Sinica, the Ministries of Civil Affairs, Education and Agriculture, the National Central Museum and the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology, in close cooperation with American scholars (Professor Chaney was a committee member). John Leighton Stuart (the first President of Yenching University and later United States ambassador to China) and Hu Shi (one of the key political and cultural figures of the time, leader of China’s New Culture Movement and former Chinese ambassador to the United States) were named honourable presidents. One of the first initiatives of the committee was to establish the Metasequoia National Park, which however, according to Local Chronicles of Jiangsu Province (forest part), was not realized due to the civil war.30

During the civil war and the disturbing years of the newly founded PRC, the shuishan did not attract much attention. Later, in the 1960s, its preservation and distribution regained prominence in socialist China. In 1962, Hu Xiansu, one of the main advocates of this discovery, published his Song of Shuishan in the Peoples Daily. Even during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), several ke pu articles (literally ‘popularization of science’) as well as survey reports were published, and at least two interdisciplinary conferences about the shuishan combined with two other trees were organized on the national level. The official protection management station was founded in 1974.31 After the start of the economic reform and opening-up process in 1978, numerous introduction and research papers on the shuishan were published, and the tree also frequently appeared in the titles of literary works. It gradually got the title of ‘national treasure’ and entered the Register of Major National Protected Wild Plants in 1999. In 2003, the PRC State Council formally approved the upgrade of Xingdoushan Nature Conservation Area to the national level, thus ensuring that the central government would invest directly in the protection of seed-bearing shuishan forests.

The complex process of the cultural construction of natural space and the nationalization of nature can be clearly observed in the discourse surrounding the discovery and later preservation and distribution of the shuishan in China. In the following, I will examine in detail how these processes unfold with regard to three interrelated aspects: spatiality, temporality and psycho-emotional involvement.


Smith has emphasized that ‘nations, for nationalists, are special kinds of spatial communities, those that can trace their origins or “roots” to specific ancestral landscapes’.32 With the development of modern nation states, enforcing and securing this spatial dimension of the community has become a major concern. One notable example, among other configurations, is the creation of national maps and atlases with the aim of marking vague frontiers with clear-cut lines so as to ‘materialize’ the abstract notion of national borders. This constructed national space is entangled with the subjects and the objects of the nation: on the one hand, space is occupied by people and things, but at the same time these people and things also continuously play a part in the process of reinvention and reimagining of the spatial dimension of national communities.

National Space and National Objects. It has been widely recognized by scholars that, in the construction of modern nation states, the creation or reinvention of the nation’s subjects, the ‘people’, has played a crucial role; but, at the same time, that the ‘people’ are an active force exerting constant influence on the dynamic notion of nation. Prasenjit Duara emphasized this paradox in his studies on the rise of the modern Chinese nation: ‘the people would have to be created to serve as the people … The nation emerged in the name of the people, but the people who mandated the nation would have to be remade to serve as their own sovereign’.33 The national space is often defined as the space occupied by the nationals, while the nationals, in the case of nation states transformed from empires, such as China and Turkey, are defined as the population living within the assumed national territories.

This paradox can also be extended to national objects. It has so far been largely overlooked how the nation-building process selects and establishes the objects of nation, which are crucial to the shared national identity. These are generally elements of the material culture of the nationals or of the dominant group among them; or else elements of the natural environment associated with the territory of the nation state, such as iconic landscapes, indigenous species of plants and animals, and even natural disasters which have left a deep trace in the local collective memory. This process of the nationalization of nature and culture creates national icons. These icons are then widely promoted to be automatically associated with the nation and so to represent it, usually both on the domestic and international scenes, often becoming key elements of local or national identity.

Identifying national iconic species using animals and plants indigenous to the areas that have become a part of the territory of the state in question is an important step in anchoring the newly emerging nation and materializing its imagined space. In the Chinese case, this explains why most biologists focused on exploration, categorization and taxonomy rather than following the global trend of developing experimental biology. According to Shen Grace Yen and Yen Hsiao-pei’s research, not only biologists but also geologists, palaeoanthropologists and anthropologists passionately investigated ‘local objects’ that could add value to ‘foreign’ western science.34 As noted by Lijing Jiang in her discussion of the links between nationalism and biological research in Republican China, ‘emphasis on the importance of indigenous species for science … added to a full-blown scientific nationalism, where biologists increasingly presented species within China as potent symbols for national sovereignty in classrooms, at customs, and for museum display’.35 Her research focuses on the 1920s and 1930s only, but this obsession with autochthonous species in Chinese scientific as well as popular discourse has continued throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

Given this background, it comes as no surprise that the utmost importance has been attached to the fact that the surviving trees of the Metasequoia genus were discovered by Chinese scientists and in China, even though it is pure chance that the area of discovery happens to be within the borders of what is now the People’s Republic of China – or, at the time of the discovery, the Republic of China. It has been repeatedly emphasized, from the time of its discovery until today, that the ancient Metasequoia has survived into modern times only in China. The most common way of referring to the new species in Chinese literature is Zhongguo Shuishan, ‘Chinese shuishan’, shuishan being the common name for Metasequoia, probably adapted from the name given by the local people in the Hubei area at the time of the discovery.36 For example, one of the committees established to protect the tree was called Zhongguo shuishan baocun weiyuan hui, ‘The committee for the preservation of Chinese shuishan.’ The adjective ‘Chinese’ does not seem necessary, as the tree exists only in China, and in the Chinese language the name shuishan is reserved for this genus alone. The closely related American counterpart is called ‘American Sequoia’ (meiguo shijieye) or ‘American Redwood’ (meiguo hongshan) and not ‘American shuishan’ (meiguo shuishan), so no confusion can arise. Consequently, ‘Chinese’ is not added as a way of distinguishing the two, but only to emphasize its perceived ‘Chineseness’ and the link to the Chinese national identity.

America as the Significant Other. By mapping the Sequoia and Metasequoia on the globe, the emerging Chinese nation also locates itself among the minzu zhi lin (literally the forest of nation states). Charles Taylor argues in The Sources of Self: ‘to know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand … it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand’.37 This theory of individual identity can also be applied to the shared national identity, which I use in Duara’s sense, as ‘a subject position produced by representations in relation to other representations’.38 A nation state also needs to imagine its place in a universe of nation states. To construct one’s own identity is to locate oneself in space, in relation to the Other. Here the Other is not a general other, but an imagined specific Other.

Under the influence of evolutionary theory, at the beginning of the twentieth century, this Other was understood as a stronger rival, an Other that elicited the urge to compete. Many Chinese scientists of the time had been trained at American universities and maintained close professional relationships with academic circles in the USA. The USA and its science thus became a natural point of reference for the newly emerging Chinese nation trying to construct its modern science and increase its significance on the global scene. However, not only scientific interaction, but also the mapping of space made the USA significant in the discourses surrounding the shuishan discovery and the emerging Chinese national identity. In particular, what made the USA the perfect Other with which China could cooperate, look up to, resent and compete, all at the same time, was the immediate parallel of the scientifically and socially appreciated Sequoia (redwood) genus which had become a symbol of the American natural environment, an iconic species that was recognized worldwide. In this case, then, the Other was embodied in the USA and represented through the American Sequoia, while the Chinese shuishan was already presented in the very first paper about its discovery, published by Hu Xiansu, as the ‘sole rival to the Sequoias in the western hemisphere’.39

From the discovery in the 1940s up to the foundation of the PRC in 1949, and later on in the period after the reform and opening up of 1978, Chinese scientific articles repeatedly emphasized the involvement of American institutions and the participation of American scholars such as E. D. Merill, the Director of the Arnold Arboretum at that time and Ralph W. Chaney, Professor of palaeobotany at the University of California, Berkeley, in research on the shuishan. And, as mentioned above, even the ‘Chinese shuishan preservation committee’ boasted an American, John Leighton Stuart, as its honorary director. It is understandable that American scientists were enthusiastic about the shuishan as a key new genus in palaeobotanical research, closely related to the iconic redwood in the USA. Nonetheless, at a very early stage of the discovery, news about seeds and saplings being sent to the USA was reported repeatedly in Chinese publications. For example, the News of Science reported that ‘some saplings have reached America, they will be the very first batch of shuishan growing in America’.40 Some newspapers even went as far as to call the shuishan the East Asian Sequoia (dongya shijieye), to emphasize the parallel with the American Sequoia (meiguo shijieye).

Dynamic Remapping. Right after the initial discovery, when scientists and the press first described the place where the shuishan was first found, they denoted its location using the different levels of administrative division of the time: Wanxian (Wan County) in Sichuan Province and Lichuanxian (Lichuan County) in Hubei Province. Interestingly, after this genus had already been securely embedded in the Chinese identity, it began to be mapped using terms derived from the changing political geography. For example, in 1975, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, in a report on the fructification of the trees, the location coordinates shifted from levels of administrative division to the ‘communes’, which were the most significant geopolitical units of that time:

As to the source areas of shuishan, except for the Lengshui Commune in Shizhu County in Sichuan Province where there are two trees … the main sites are located throughout the territories of the Red Star Commune and the Youth Commune in Zhonglu area of Lichuan County and in parts of the Solidarity, Newly Built, Five Stars and Revitalization Communes.41

Here the distribution of the tree species was put into the ‘commune’ (gongshe) system, thus framing these sites in the new political geography of the Cultural Revolution period (1966–76) and reflecting the language and social and geographical conceptualization of the era.

The mapping process was not static but rather dynamic. Later, after the revival of the conservation discourse, the shuishan was again remapped in the network of national preservation areas, city landscapes and botanical gardens. Between 1974 and 1980, as part of the Landscaping the Earth Project (Dadi Yuanlinhua) inspired by its Soviet counterpart,42 three large conferences were organized on the national level by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture. They gathered together scientists and politicians to discuss seed selection, breeding and cultivation of the shuishan and two other trees in order to further develop the shuishan as a forestry product and spread it to more areas of China. By 1984 the Peoples Daily was reporting that the area of shuishan cultivation had continuously expanded and that the trees were everywhere to be seen, from the remotest provinces in the west to the great cities in the east. This shows that the mass campaigns resulted in the tree’s spread to virtually the whole of China.43

Remoteness as Authenticity. The discourse surrounding the shuishan tree often stresses the remoteness of the discovery site, mentioning how difficult it used to be to reach the place and that it was not labelled even on local maps of the time.

Moudaoxi [the area in Sichuan where the shuishan was first discovered] is located in the mountainous area 240 li [120 km] from the county town of Wanxian. To get there, you have to cross the Yangtze by boat first, and then pass several small villages. This area belongs to the famous Eastern Sichuan fold-and-thrust belt and it has many tall mountains and deep valleys. It is extremely dangerous and difficult to cross.44

Such emphasis on remoteness and isolation can be explained within the framework of the ongoing dichotomy between Western science and local tradition in this historical period. A similar process has been observed in the fieldwork of Chinese geologists of that time by Shen, and she points out that the knowledge produced by Chinese geologists ‘fit into international theories and norms, but its foreignness was amended by the unmediated contact of local scientist and native land’.45 Here the scientific value of the shuishan discovery is universal, even linking China with the USA, but in the Chinese discourse on the shuishan this is neutralized by emphasizing that the ‘original site’ is remote, in other words, the authentic feature of Chineseness is preserved, pristine and unpolluted by ‘Western’ exploration. In Hu’s 1947 introduction to the shuishan, he stated, not without emotion, that though the areas in Hubei province and around Wanxian in Sichuan were both investigated for many years by famous botanists such as Henry and Wilson, ‘these huge trees waited to be discovered by our own people’.46 Having grown in a remote area in isolation until its discovery, the shuishan also symbolizes the Chinese past, by preserving the ‘original’ and ‘true’ essence of the Chinese nation and granting the honour of its accidental discovery to Chinese scientists.

Distribution as Spatial Extension. To construct one’s identity is not only to look outwards, but also inwards, by investigating the special characteristics that make one different from surrounding others. These characteristics can only be comprehended within a broader framework that includes the different others; they only exist in relation to others, which means that they have to be comparable to those others.47 The shuishan as Metasequoia, bearing the prefix ‘meta’ in its name, fits perfectly into this paradigm; it is unique, but can be understood scientifically when classified and juxtaposed with the sequoia. Whether before or after 1949, the Chinese nation and its scientific community were not afraid or reluctant to give seeds and specimens of the shuishan to America and other nations and to spread the tree all over the globe. This was not only because of the tradition of mutual exchange in botanist circles, but also due to the fact that they felt the authentic specimen, the real one, to be in their own hands, while they wanted to see ‘copies’ spread to other countries, thus signalling the emerging Chinese nation.

The shuishan symbolized China abroad and this symbolism had tremendous significance for the Chinese people. The shuishan was portrayed as having first been discovered in China, thus as ‘coming from China’, before it was planted in many other nations all over the world, in this way continuously referencing its place of origin. The presence of the species abroad therefore enhanced its position within China. This trend continued, even between 1949 and the early 1980s, when China was partly cut off from communication with the West but maintained a close relationship with the Communist bloc. In this period, the give-away of shuishan trees was not stopped and the tree found its way to Russia, North Korea and other countries, which further enhanced its prestige in China. A very similar process took place in the case of the giant panda, which rose from its status as an appreciated animal to that of an acclaimed ‘national treasure’ in just a few years, largely through being offered as a state gift to other nations.48


The Periodization of Prehistorical Time. I use temporality in the sense of the ‘social organization of time’. Duara once discussed how Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Fu Sinian referred to ‘periodization’, e.g. the threefold model ancient – medieval – modern, to invest otherwise meaningless historical time with meaning.49 In the case of the shuishan, we can identify a similar tendency to ‘periodize’ prehistorical time in the geological time scale and render it into a meaningful framework. The Cretaceous Period, or the Quaternary Ice Age, though not necessarily systematically brought into daily discourse, nevertheless functioned to extend the historical axis beyond human society. At the same time, as in the case of the giant panda, this practice of popularizing the geological time scale could ‘justify the interest of the scientific community and inspire awe among the lay public’.50 We can also single out representative discourses in the several papers published by Hu Xiansu:

Except for its [shuishan’s] own value, the most interesting thing is its history. In Europe, Asia and America, Metasequoia fossils were discovered in the Cretaceous stratum dated to around hundred million years ago. It was widely distributed then …51

… with the arrival of the Quaternary Ice Age, the climate in Europe and Asia turned extremely cold, thus the Sequoia became extinct … Its close relatives have several genera, which grow in North America and Asia. However, its closest relative is the Metasequoia which was discovered last year in Wanxian, Sichuan province.52

Retro-projection and the Hijacking of Species Time Frame. The rare plants and animals endemic to the territories of specific countries, like the panda and the shuishan, are called ‘living fossils’ as they are currently surviving species with a long history. People associate them firstly with what they are in the present but also envisage their history as projecting into the distant past. As explained above, the Chinese nation tends to claim these species as its representatives, based on the fact that geographically their natural habitat happens to fall within the current borders of the Chinese state. In doing so, nation states can also hijack the history and time frame of iconic species, often using discourse suggesting, directly or indirectly, that the nation’s time span is as long as that of the species. In article in the Nanjing Central Daily News, the official newspaper of the KMT, Ding Su wrote, ‘as far away as the three eastern provinces, as early as sixty million years ago, there were already shuishan trees existing in China; they have been “published” [i.e. described in scientific publications] and named by Japanese people. However, they are only fossils’.53 It is worth comparing with the panda, about which Songster says, ‘the concept of pandas as living fossils thus rhetorically presents the panda as having scientific ties to the land that date back millions of years’.54

In Hu’s article introducing Sequoia and Metasequoia, this kind of ‘manipulation of time frames’ can also be recognized. When describing one old Sequoia tree in America, Hu wrote, ‘in other words, among this kind of tree the oldest was born during the period when King Wu overthrew King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty; it was almost 1000 years old when Confucius was born; 1330 years old when Qinshihuang claimed to be the Emperor; 1500 years old when Christ was born; more than 2000 years old when the Huns destroyed western Rome; 2400 years old at the time of the First Crusade; besides this one of which we know the exact age, there might be others that have experienced the flourishing age of Tang and Yu’.55 By projecting the life course of a natural object (the tree) onto human history, especially the linear history of the Chinese nation, Hu subtly blended the two time frames, that of the nation and that of nature.

A similar technique to manipulate the time frame of the nation was applied to palaeontological discoveries of prehistoric, now extinct, elements of the natural world. This happens especially with remains of hominids, which tend to be linked to modern ethnic groups residing in the same geographical area at the time of the discovery. This newly acquired prehistory then becomes intertwined with the cultural imagination of the origins of the nation. This happened in China in the case of the fossils of homo erectus pekinensis, more commonly known as Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s near Beijing. Ever since the 1930s, following the rise of palaeoanthropological nationalism, many scholars in China have tried to link Peking Man to Chinese history, despite the gigantic time gap (the Peking Man fossils are dated to around 750,000 years ago). Since the 1980s, some scholars such as Wu Xinzhi have advocated the controversial multiregional continuity theory according to which Peking Man is not just an extinct hominid, but a direct ancestor of the Chinese.56 An image of Peking Man can still be found today on the covers of some Chinese history textbooks.

A Symbol of Renewal and Rebirth. Of course, temporality too is not static, but closely related to renewal and rebirth. Knowledge from anthropology can shed some light on the role of the shuishan in China’s discourse of national renewal. There is a lot of anthropological research on tree symbolism which emphasizes the representative power of trees in the metaphor of rebirth.57 Trees are somehow in between dead and alive, they can reproduce and regenerate while keeping roughly the same form. While animal worship and sacrifice embody life to death, tree worship focuses more on the renewal of the spirit.

The most straightforward statement of renewal comes from a botanist, Wang Zhongkui, who, in writing about the discovery, went as far as to claim that the shuishan owed its discovery to the war of resistance against Japan. ‘The anti-Japanese war not only saved our Chinese nation, but also accidentally saved this relict plant from extinction. It seems this mysterious tree has been entangled with our Chinese race for a very long time; thus, it advances and retreats according to the prosperity and decline of the Chinese race’.58 In an introduction article published in 1974, after describing the discovery which took place before the PRC era, the author highlighted the work done for preservation and cultivation by the People’s Government. ‘After the liberation [i.e. after the CCP took power in 1949] … these [cultivation and preserving methods] obviously accelerated the development of the shuishan, and made this ancient species acquire a new life’.59 One year later, just before the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, another paper written in anthropomorphic style declared that in the old society:

All the reactionary ruling classes did was sell their country and exploit the people; science, in their eyes, was only useful for simulating peace and prosperity. I [i.e. shuishan] am such a precious tree, but with the exception of a little sporadic research by a few botanists, there was never any mention of me … Straight after liberation, the People’s Government inscribed me on the enhanced protection list … Today I have become a good source of fast-growing, high-yield timber forests and am cultivated all over the country. This really matches the saying ‘make the past serve the present’. My distribution area is increasingly expanding, I’m really getting a new lease of life. In my socialist motherland, where the people are masters of their own affairs, I, this ancient yet young ‘living fossil’, am growing sturdily under the warm sunshine.60

The past is very important to modern nations, as it contains the materials for the construction of a ‘usable history’. However, at a time when the imperial past was politically suspicious, and the Republican past was denounced as ‘reactionary’, natural objects were employed to transform the past and thus they became significant in the nation’s renewal discourse. After the Cultural Revolution, political discourse surrounding nature became subtler. Nonetheless we can still observe the symbolic importance of the shuishan at turning points in the new era. In February 1978, Deng Xiaoping, who was then the de facto leader of China, made his first important visit to Southeast Asian countries. In Nepal, together with the Nepalese Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista, he planted a shuishan tree as the ‘tree of Sino-Nepalese friendship’,61 and this elicited the first mention of the shuishan in the Peoples Daily in the sixteen years since Hu’s poem in 1962; an introduction article followed in the same year. From then on, articles about the Shuishan appeared regularly in the paper. Later, in 1992 when the reform was being resisted by the conservative section of the CCP, in order to reassert his economic policy, Deng made a symbolic southern tour to Shenzhen, a city in Guangdong province. On this trip, the shuishan and its discovery were again highlighted by being incidentally mentioned by Deng on his tour of a botanical garden there.62

Modernity Embedded in Scientific Achievement. At the beginning of twentieth century, two trends of social thought took a strong hold over Chinese intellectuals, namely linear history and evolutionary theory.63 To give an oversimplified summary, they imagined the world as full of nations competing with each other. The stronger (i.e. modern), developed nations, would triumph and survive, and the weaker ones would have to struggle to modernize themselves in order to avoid the fate of extinction. So the general framework for imagining the world was not geographical, but primarily temporal, a ‘time-conquered space’ in Duara’s terms. There is not only the dichotomy of China vs. America, East vs. West, but also old vs. new, past vs. future, backwardness vs. progress. In this context, science was somehow singled out as the sign of development and modernity, and this has prevailed across disciplinary boundaries to form a social atmosphere of understanding but also evaluating everything under the criterion of science. At the same time, the level of scientific development was deemed the criterion of a nation’s strength, thus possibly revealing its fate in the global jungle.

The discovery of the shuishan is specifically interpreted as a great achievement of Chinese scientists, proving the development of science in China and highlighting one big step towards modernity. ‘There is a great contribution of the Chinese science community, one that is big enough to overthrow all the research literature of recent decades, i.e. the discovery of the shuishan. Since its discovery, the Chinese shuishan has attracted the attention of the whole world, and has been named a “living fossil”’.64 Also, as mentioned above, the shuishan was discovered in a remote forest, in a poor area in central China. Because of the discovery this location appeared in the media and became a focus of the modernizing nation. On the metaphorical level, bringing this area into the light, and this tree into the body of modern scientific knowledge, was like leading China into modernity. The interest of American and Chinese scholars, as borne out by their visits to the place of discovery, is emphasized in almost all the reports. Because the West, in this case the USA, had long been seen as representing the new, the modern and the future, the viewings, investigations and approval of American scientists accorded well with the aura of modernity and national renewal surrounding the discovery.

Psycho-Emotional Involvement

Besides spatiality and temporality, constructing national identity also involves psycho-emotional aspects. ‘The strength of emotions overrides reason, because it is through a sentimental identification with the nation that individuals transcend their finite and, at least for some, meaningless lives’.65 In Liah Greenfeld’s analysis of Russian nationalism, she employs the term ressentiment which was coined by Nietzsche and later developed by Max Scheler. It refers to ‘a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred (existential envy) and the impossibility of satisfying these feelings’.66 Greenfeld deems ressentiment to be a driving force of nationalism.67 This ressentiment does not simply disappear in the initial stage of nation building. In Asia and elsewhere, where nationalism and modernity developed under the influence of western imperialism, there was always a strong sense of inferiority within discourses of national identity.68 According to Shen, ‘although definitions of “Chineseness” in terms of race, culture, history, or character remained divisively contentious in the Republican period, the very act of feeling China’s shame as one’s own assumed both the existence of the nation and the membership of the self in that unit’.69

Figure 2 

A close-up of the commemoratve plaque on the type specimen of ­shuishan. The red strips of cloth were hung on the branches for good luck by local people (Ma Xintang 2016, Plant Photo Bank of China).

Two Reactions to Ressentiment. Two kinds of response to this sense of inferiority can be recognized. The first I call compensation, the claim that, despite being backward in other aspects, we have something really special to be proud of, whether its value is in being ancient or rare or precious. By being proud of one’s nation, one also secures one’s own identity. By being the nation’s subject, one is part of something bigger than oneself, something no longer ephemeral, but part of eternity. Anderson stated, ‘Awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet of “forgetting” the ­experience of this continuity – product of the ruptures of the late eighteenth ­century – engenders the need for a narrative of “identity”’.70

This is clearly shown in the arguments of the Xueheng school, of which Hu Xiansu was a prominent member. Although most of the participants of this school were students who had graduated from Western universities, they welcomed the new humanism developed by thinkers such as Irving Babbitt, and advocated authentic Chinese culture as a redemptive power for the modern world. We can sense a strong desire to defend the nation’s cultural dignity, which was wanted ‘as much as military and political eminence’.71 They generally admitted China’s material backwardness but proposed to keep the notion of Chinese cultural superiority over other cultures. Hu was an active critic of the New Culture Movement and its promotion of vernacular language, which was embedded in Western modernization ideas. Although he was trained in America and did research on modern botany, he wrote intensively in the traditional style. The Song of Shuishan is a good example. He had played the key role in its discovery, and his enthusiasm towards popularizing the Shuishan may also be connected with his passion for authentic Chinese culture as the core of Chinese national identity.

To achieve singularity sometimes requires a logical leap, that is a leap from taxonomic or scientific singularity to general singularity. As revealed in the case of the giant panda,

by classifying the giant panda as the sole extant species of its family, it was treasured not only as a species native only to China and in danger of extinction, but also as a species that held an unusually unique position in the animal kingdom … The difficulty in classifying the giant panda thus set the stage for the transformation of the giant panda from an oddity into a national icon … Once it was shown to be both scientifically unique and unique to China, the giant panda became a bridge between the modern Chinese nation and the natural region that comprised its territory.72

The Shuishan case shows exactly the same logical leap. Taxonomically, it stood between Cupressaceae and Taxodiaceae, so a new genus had to be established to include only itself. Though it was not in danger of extinction, it was very rare and unique to China. Thanks to all this it acquired its status as a national treasure.

The other reaction to ressentiment is pursuit, that is to make a strong case for following the strongest or the best and catching up with them, while admitting inferiority. This goes further than simple comparison; it is in a way an exclusive focusing on what has or can be done to catch up. We have already touched on this aspect in the discussion about the USA as China’s counterpart. But there are several further points worth mentioning.

Dependency on foreign science has always been a big issue, and it raised uncomfortable questions for the Chinese about China’s status in the world.73 Compare the case of Chen Huanyong, another famous botanist and a friend of Hu Xiansu. According to Haas, ‘Chinese students with an ardent desire to strengthen their country often claimed that the subject they studied was the one most crucial to China’s future’.74 In Chen’s talk at the Fifth International Botanical Congress in Cambridge (1930), he proposed a three-period history of Chinese botany: old China research, European research and modern Chinese research. He said that in the third period the Chinese themselves were ‘undertaking a re-examination of the vegetation of their own country on a scientific basis’. Clearly in the shuishan case, the fact that it was discovered exclusively by Chinese scientists contributed significantly to the legend. As Hu declared in his introduction paper,

Before [the discovery of the shuishan], European and American botanists made many discoveries in Yunnan province. However, in the last fifteen years, our country’s botanists have made many new discoveries. The recently found shuishan is the most important and most interesting of the new plant discoveries in the [Chinese] southwest … One day, if we can transplant just one shuishan tree to the park of the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing for people to admire, not only will this precious tree be displayed for all the world to see, it will also bear witness to the achievements of Chinese scientists.75

Later, in the process of preservation, foreign influence is also recognizable. The national park plan and preservation committees were obviously formed following the example of redwood preservation in America. And later on, the establishment of nature conservation areas was again strongly motivated by the global trends.

The last paragraph of Hu’s Song of Shuishan clearly expressed this feeling of ressentiment and also the sense of ‘pursuit’. ‘Now that science is more prosperous and righteous, we can already see the waving of the Han [Chinese] flag … the very precious book collection [Flora sinensis] is coming out, we can stand and watch the east wind prevail over the west wind’.76 Hu was unpopular in political circles at that time, but it was precisely this sentence that moved one of the powerful military leaders, Chen Yi, to intervene so that the poem could finally be published in the Peoples Daily. In Chen’s comments accompanying the poem he stated that,

This poem by Mr. Hu, introducing a new discovery of Chinese science, proves that Chinese science can be independent and has an innovative spirit, and that we do not always have to follow others. The conclusion of the poem, ‘the east wind will prevail over the west wind’, can serve to encourage our army. The rich allusions and beautiful language complement this spirit. The poem is worth reading and reciting.77

If this is not obvious enough, we can turn to similar plant species to make further comparisons. The shuisong (Glyptotrobus pensilis K. Koch) and the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba L.) clearly share a similar position in plant taxonomy and palaeobotanical research, but they were not discovered by Chinese scientists, and this somehow reduces their status in public discourse. However, new species discovered by Chinese scientists do not necessarily acquire iconic status; they have to be easily comparable to cases in other countries, especially in those of the significant Others. An example is the Abies beshanzuensis which was discovered and named by Chinese scientists independently in 1976. Though it is very rare and also unique to China, it has not attracted much attention.78 Besides the fact that its discovery was not as spectacular as that of the shuishan, another explanation for this is probably that there is no corresponding American species for it to compete with in the ‘pursuit’ response.

Moralization. Besides the projection of emotions onto the shuishan, especially in literary works, there is also a trend towards moralization. Several anthropopathic characteristics have been attributed to the shuishan. The upright shape is seen as symbolizing a positive attitude, while the fact that it survived the Ice Age is interpreted as evidence of strength and bravery.79 Besides this, in a new trend in the quest for national authenticity, current discourse tries to tie the shuishan in with the local community of the Tujia ethnic minority people. Although the Tujia legend about the shuishan has been exploited or simply invented, their way of life, formerly deemed backward and primitive, is now promoted as living in harmony with nature. And this way of life is credited with being the reason why the Shuishan was able to survive modern deforestation.80


The Chinese shuishan was discovered, disseminated and protected in the name of science. But science is not as transparent as is usually claimed, and neither are nature and history. I have examined the discourse about the discovery of the shuishan both in scientific publications and in popular culture and literature, in order to show how the tree was used in the construction of China’s national identity, with a particular focus on the recurring motives of spatiality, temporality and psycho-emotional involvement. Chinese citizens, by associating with this iconic species, gain a psycho-emotional experience, a new appreciation of time and space, and thus the assurance of China’s place in the world. The reciprocal construction of nation and nature is revealed in these processes too. On the one hand, the conceptualization of the iconic species in nature is framed by scientific knowledge and nationalism, and on the other, in the interpretation of this seemingly neutral and objective discovery, the national space is anchored and history, even prehistory, is extended and ‘eternalized’.

The shuishan as a tree species is old in the time frame of natural history and special in plant phylogeny and taxonomy, but the whole discourse which developed around its discovery is rather new and modern. The tree’s status and power as a national symbol depends on its connection with the temporal, spatial and emotional entanglement in national identity building. It has symbolized the development of Chinese science, participated in mapping the modern Chinese nation in the global space and locating it in linear history, and countered the ressentiment and inferiority complex of the newly-emerged nation. Only in modern times, in the process of constructing a national identity, can these features of antiquity and uniqueness acquire the significance found in the discourse surrounding the Shuishan discovery. While ‘hijacking’ and repurposing the singularity of an iconic species, the nation, an imagined community, simultaneously objectifies and materializes itself, thus acquiring the characteristic of nature that it desires.