China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Zitan (red sandalwood), a precious tropical wood of somewhat ambiguous origin, yielded one of the most valuable timbers in premodern China. As its popularity soared in the eighteenth century, however, domestic resources in Guangxi and Sichuan gradually dried up. This led the Qing state to increasingly rely on supplies imported from South(east) Asia by European and other Asian traders. Following the itineraries of zitan from the Indian Ocean to Canton to Beijing, this paper examines exchanges and negotiations between Chinese and European botanical knowledge and their impact on the knowledge and consumption of the wood in the Qing era. Traded under the familiar name of zitan, the wood brought by Europeans to Canton was in fact a different species from its domestic counterparts and it was consequently unfamiliar to both trading parties. In this context, the embodied skills of Chinese merchants in identifying and appraising wood had to adapt to the changing qualities of the imported species. European commissioners, likewise, had to learn how to work with this wood while also adapting to Chinese arboreal taxonomy. By tracing the flow of material and epistemic facets within the web of commercial transactions, I argue that the knowledge and identity of zitan in the Qing period were rewritten and restructured alongside the long-distance maritime trade. They were the outcome of multi-nodal negotiations between divergent practitioners and their activities in the tropical forests, at the shipping ports, in the marketplace in Canton, and in the imperial palace in Beijing.