J Syst Evol ›› 1978, Vol. 16 ›› Issue (3): 101-112.

• Research Articles • Previous Articles    

A preliminary study of the thoughts of plant classification in ancient China

Chen Chia-Jue   

  1. (Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica)
  • Published:1978-08-18

Abstract: This article contains the thoughts and a brief description of the historical de velopment of plant classification in ancient China. In a primitive society our ancestors distinguished the edible and poisonous plants by taste and personal experiences. Such comparitive observations and assessments constituded the emergence of the thoughts of plant classification. 1. In the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 700-500 B. C.) Shih Mo (史墨) suggested that, “Living organisms contain paired factors”. At the end of West Chou Dynasty (c. 400 B. C.), Shih Pai (史伯) maitained, “heterogeneity leads to prosperity, homogeneity leads to extinction” (国语.郑语, Kuo-yu-Cheng-yu). This ancient idea corresponds with the principles of modern genetics. 2. The Logics of Classification of Later Mohists: In the text of Ching Shang (经上, Upper Conon) of Mo Tzu (c. 400-300 B. C.), three types of names were distinguished: .'Ta-ming” (达名 General names), “Lei-ming” (类名 Class-names) and “Si-ming” (私名 Private names). These types of names may include different scope of things, but they all reflect reality objectively. The Later Mohists have touched the Rule of Dichotomy or Excluded Middle (排中律) in reasoning. In the same article it was written that, “Truth is Law. Whatever is true fits with the Law. Whichever matches with truth is correct. Whichever does not agree with truth is incorrect”. It continued, “If one is false, the other may be correct. This is meant that even one is incorrect, it can not be assumed that the other is also incorrect”. The above idea approaches the philosophy and logic method of Plato and his disciple, Aristotle. In addition, the Later Mohists emphasized that in analytical studies of natural objects, “One must take them by kinds and group them by nature”. This is to say that we must make comparative analysis of natural objects of the same ranks. Otherwise, the conclusion is useless. For example, in modern taxonomic research, if some workers compare variety with species, their conclusion will not be trustworthy. 3. A series of valuable ideas about classification and nomenclature was brought forth by Hsun Tzu (荀子, c. 278-238 B. C.) in Cheng Ming (正名, Rectification of Names). This is briefly reviewed in the following: (1) Importance of Nomemclature and Classification: Ne maintained, “Whenever the actual differences of two things are known, two names must be given. They must not be cofused ...... when the ranks are not clarified, the similarities and differences not distinguished, the thought becomes the basis of confusion and the action is the source of trouble”. (2) Relationship between Names and Facts: Hsun Tzu expressed, “A name must refer to the actual thing”. He emphasized, “The position is determined after the acquisition of evidences”. (3) Regarding the Principle of Classification: Hsun Tzu asserted, “Whatever are similar, put them in the same category. Whatever are different, group them separately. When the species of a monotypic genus expresses fully the generic characteristics, leave it alone. When one species cannot fully explain the characters of that genus, place several related species together. When it is discovered that the characteristics of a monotypic genus and that of a larger genus are not in conflict, then they must be combined”. Regarding the hierarchy in classification he continued,” ...... In dealing with the multitude articles of nature, we may treat them inclusively as a whole and call them organisms. So, organism is a generalized term. Within the organismic world we can begin with the simple lowermost ranks and group them upwards into higher ones, stop only when there are no more categories. We may also treat the organisms separately by groups. For example, we may deal only with birds and animals. Even birds and animals are inclusive terms. We can take these and separate them. We may divide them again and again, until there is no more division to be made”. From the above quotation, we understand that ancient Chinese philosophical thoughts about nature were established two millennia ago. The basic principles of nomenclature and classification was the recognition of similarities for higher heirarchy and differences for lower ranks. (4) Formation of Name: The thought of “codification of traditional usages” (约 定俗成) was evident in the formation of name. Hsun tzu maintained, “Names are not innate”. “Names may not fit always”, “When a name is supported by traditional usage and defined by regulations, it is the proper one”. (5) Dialectics in classification was evident: Hsun Tzu maitained, “Things may appear alike, yet belonging to different categories, or they may appear differently, but belonging to the same group. This phenomenon must be recognized. When the appearances of two articles are alike and their natures are different, though grouped together, they represent two entities...... When there are phenotypic variations without genetic differences, the individuals belong to one species”. (6) Understanding of Variation: Hsun Tzu explained variation by saying, “Phenetic difference without genetic change is called variation”. From the above quotations, we realize that over two thousand years ago, the ancient philosophers and naturalists of China already have established the principles and deviced the method of nomenclature and classification. Their thoughts laid the foundation of plant classification in ancient China. On account of TIME, they developed the theory without any voluminous practical production. Neverthless, these thoughts exerted definite influence in various kinds of work related to botanical classification, especially in the Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu (本草纲目) of Li Shih-chen (李时珍).