A suusar, a saoxue, a harsa: in the 18th century, Qing scholars agreed that these words referred to a single creature, “the marten.” Each word came from a different language (Mongolian, Chinese, and Manchu), and, at least until the 18th century, no scholar considered them to be identical. How, then, did the category of “marten” come to be, and how should we understand its emergence? This talk investigates the history of plant, animal, and fungi categories in Qing China. In the 18th century, I show, scholars, bureaucrats, and consumers redefined creatures from throughout the Qing world, from sturgeon and mushrooms to martens and moose. As commerce boomed and the empire consolidated control over Inner Asia, Qing subjects reimagined the provenance, instincts, and materiality of natural entities; they standardized translations for plant and animal types across languages; and they connected these new categories with those for ancient and forgotten beasts. Based on archival research into Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese sources, the talk examines the making of this new natural history and explores its broader connections to the early modern world.
Jonathan Schlesinger is an Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College in 2003 and his PhD from Harvard University in 2012, and in 2014-2015 he served as a postdoctoral associate at the Council for East Asian Studies at Yale. His book manuscript, “The Qing Invention of Nature,” uses Manchu and Mongolian-language archives to rethink Qing environmental history in the years 1760-1830, when a rush for natural resources transformed the ecology of China and its borderlands.