Sound, Touch, and Vision: The Translation of Ginseng from the Chinese to the Dutch

In the „stream of translation“ (Latour) flowing from the island of Ambon, where Rumphius‘ had collected the specimens for the Ambonese Herbal at the end of the seventeenth century, to the city of Amsterdam, where Johan Burman made one editorial decision after the other in the 1740s, the relation of text and image was steadily transformed.

One of the manuscripts kept in the Special Collections of the Leiden University Library (BPL 314) contains a warning for the printer and engraver. Rumphius highlighted questions of vocabulary, punctuation marks and clerical errors for the first, and instructed the second to adjust proportions or to choose from two illustrations of one plant.

In the case of ginseng, the editor made this choice instead of the engraver. Rumphius had made clear that his (mental) image of the plant’s leaves was mediated by a local informant and his paper model:

„A certain Chinese by the name of Suyku, showed me the shape of the [ginseng] leaves anno 1685. He said he was a Chinese Medicus and that he had seen it grow on a certain Lord’s estate, who ordered it brought there from distant places; and the same Suyku cut the plant shape out of paper for me, as best he could remember, and we used it for the accompanying illustration.“

In the manuscript, this coloured drawing is supplemented by a smaller sheet of paper with two pencil drawings of the ginseng plant copied from a Chinese Herbal. Rumphius elaborated on Suyku’s „tale“ as well as as excerpts from the Chinese Herbal that had been „related“ to him, an indication that he did not understand Chinese himself, but someone in his vicinity. It might have been that his wife, a local woman who went by the Christian name Susanna, belonged to the community of ethnic Chinese around Kasteel Victoria.

Ginseng in Rumphius' Kruidboek

Ginseng in Rumphius‘ Kruidboek

In the end, the editor Burman prized his own network node in Amsterdam over that of Rumphius in Ambon. In the plate for the print version, he included yet another image because, as he wrote in his commentary, „they [the copies from the Chinese Herbal] did not warrant such, and since they resembled mostly those by Cleyerus in the German Epheremides, where one will also find others depicted. The one I display in its stead here, was copied in China itself by the Honorable Mayor, N. Witsen, who was a very careful observer of foreign plants, and this is the true and genuine root [..].“

Unfortunately, neither the paper model, a cheap and volatile epistemic thing, nor the copper plate, a solid and expensive object at the time, have been taken from the stream of translation to find rest in one of today’s archives.

– Quotes on ginseng from the English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. 5, p. 545 ff.
– Slide from my presentation „Between the Exact and the Economic. Material and Illustration the Rumphius‘ Rariteitkamer and Kruidboek, 1670s to 1740s“ at the Conference „Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries (1560-1730)“, Huygens ING/Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 17/18 September 2015