King of Flowers: Reinterpretation of Chinese Peonies in Early Modern Europe


  • Richard Zhang Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University


natural history, peonies, botany, bioprospecting, Chinese medicine


This work argues that the introduction of Chinese peony variants into early modern Europe not only incorporated them into a new, systematic, and universalizing taxonomic body of knowledge, but also accompanied a narrowed translation of their uses that exemplified agnotology, or culturally-induced ignorance. Cultivated in China at least since the Tang Dynasty, both herbaceous and “tree” peonies traditionally enjoyed important medicinal applications and symbolic purposes there, in addition to serving as ornamental garden flowers. Yet, their introduction into Europe beginning in the late eighteenth century by naturalists such as Sir Joseph Banks saw their use confined, albeit popularly, to the latter ornamental use. This research draws upon classical bencao texts of Chinese medicine, early modern correspondence, and printed books to capture how different cultures may utilize and construe the same material objects in markedly contrasting ways. Additionally, quotes from early modern physicians such as Menuret de Chambaud and John Floyer help illustrate European confusion and disregard for concepts from the Chinese worldview such as qi, which likely contributed to medicinal understandings of Chinese peonies not traveling with the actual plants themselves into Europe. This work finally references lately-emerging pharmacologic literature on peonies to support biomedical inquiry into traditional medical materials worldwide, for the potential benefit of broader patient populations.