"Dwarf Trees" from Lord Macartney's Embassy

        Lord George Macartney (1737-1806) was the English ambassador sent to China .  The first British Embassy to China, for the promotion of science and to secure a more favorable trade agreement and diplomatic ties, set sail from Spithead on 26 September 1792.   The embassy was given the opportunity of traversing a  part of the country beyond the Great Wall when it travelled in early September 1793 to Jehol, one of the summer residences of the Manchu Emperors.
         Macartney, along with visiting Mongols and Burmese, was then given a single imperial audience and presents for his mission and the King.  He received no state dinner.  Macartney was received only as a tribute bearer.  The 85-year-old Emperor Qianlong 's councilors had already prepared a haughtily worded edict.  It acknowledged King George III's "sincere humility and obedience" in sending a tribute mission to the Emperor.  It also absolutely rejected the proposals for changing the existing trade arrangements since they did not "conform to the Celestial Empire's ceremonial system."  This was quite possibly because the Chinese government was alarmed by news of recent great troubles in Europe and considered the inhabitants there to be of a turbulent character, conquering nations by violence and deception.  The imperial edict Macartney was to convey to George III declared that China was self-sufficient and had "not the slightest need for your Country's manufactures."  It also admonished the British monarch to "act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience..."
       After the audience there was the return to Peking in late September.  The embassy was allowed to return from the Chinese capital beginning on 7 October to Canton through the interior of China.  Reaching Canton on 19 December, the members sojourned in that city and in Macao, leaving there on 17 March 1794 and arriving in England on 6 September.   Sir George Leonard Staunton (1737-1801), Secretary to the embassy, brought home from this journey a rare collection of Chinese plants gathered by him in regions where plants had never been collected by Europeans before.  The secretary was charged with producing the official account of the Embassy after their return.  Some 400 plants are listed with their botanical names in Staunton's three-volume work, An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China ... : Together with a relation of the voyage ... to the Yellow Sea, and Gulf of Pekin ... : Taken chiefly from the papers of ... the Earl of Macartney ... Embassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary ... and Sir Erasmus Gower, Commander of the Expedition, and of other gentlemen ... of the Embassy. 1

Lord George Macartney


      An Authentic Account of An Embassy From the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797):

       "The hall of audience furnished also another [53] object of curiosity, striking at least to strangers.  On several tables were placed in frames, filled with earth, dwarf pines, oaks, and orange trees, bearing fruit.  None of them exceeded, in height, two feet.  Some of those dwarfs bore all the marks of decay from age: and upon the surface of the soil were interspersed small heaps of stones, which, in proportion to the adjoining dwarfs, might be termed rocks.  These were honeycombed and moss-grown, as if untouched for ages, which served to maintain the illusion, and to give an antique appearance to the whole.  This kind of stunted vegetation seemed to be much relished by the curious in China; and specimens of it were to be found in every considerable dwelling [sic].  To produce them formed a part of the gardner's [sic] skill, and was an art invented in that country.  Beside the mere merit of overcoming a difficulty, it had that of introducing vegetables into common apartments, from which, their natural size must otherwise have excluded them.  According to the usual course of nature, different vegetable productions attain their perfect state in different periods, and after acquiring different dimensions, and passing through different stages of growth.  Thus the cedar of Lebanon, for example, consumes some years in forming a [54] tall and woody trunk, with many horizontal branches, before it emits its colourless flowers, and small cones, for the purpose of reproduction, which is the period of its perfection; while the hyssop, capable, at most, of raising a short herbaceous stem, produces its flowers and seeds the season after it is sown.  Some trees are reproduced, indeed, from cuttings of young branches, without the necessity of sowing any seed; but such cuttings, planted in the ground, must become trunks themselves in the usual period of their respective increase, and after acquiring their ordinary size, emit new branches, before they become adult, or capable of fructification; but by the art of dwarfing, an abscinded branch committed to the earth, continues still to fructify, as if it had been grafted upon a full grown tree, with its juices ripened for reproduction.
       "The general method of obtaining vegetable dwarfs is said to be the following: a quantity of clay, or mould, is applied to the upper part of the trunk of a tree, from which a dwarf is intended to be taken, and close to its division into branches.  The mold [sic] is to be confined to the spot by coarse hempen, or cotton, cloth, and to be carefully kept moist by water.  In consequence of this application, continued sometimes above a [55] twelvermonth, small tender fibres shoot down like roots from the wood into the mould.  The part of the trunk emitting those new fibres, together with the branch rising immediately above it, is then to be carefully separated from the rest of the tree, and planted in new earth, in which the fibres become new roots, while the former branch is now the stem of the vegetable, thus transformed in some measure.  This operation does not destroy or alter the productive faculty which those parts enjoyed before their separation from their parent root.  That which, while a branch of the original tree, bore flowers and fruit, continues to produce the same, tho no longer supported upon any stock.  The terminal budsof [sic] such branches of trees as are meant to become dwarfs, are torn off; which circumstance prevents the further elongation of those branches, and forces other buds and branchlets from the sides.  These branchlets are bent by wires to whatever form the operator wishes: and when the appearance of age and decay is meant to be given to a dwarf tree, it is repeatedly smeared with treacle or molasses, which attracts multitudes of ants, who, in pursuit of those sweet juices, attack the bark, and, by a gradual corrosion of it, produce the desired effect.  These different [56] processes are sometimes attempted to be kept secret by the gardeners, and they vary designedly in the mode of carrying them on; but the principle on which they are founded is sufficiently apparent from what is related here; and the contrivance argues ingenuity and perseverance, rather than the practice does true taste, which consists in assisting nature in its most favourite works; not in counteracting its operations or distorting its productions." 2



1      Goodrich, L. Carrington and Nigel Cameron  The Face of China As Seen by Photographs & Travelers, 1860-1912 (New York: Aperture, Inc.; 1978), pg. 149;

Fessler, Loren and the Editors of LIFE  China (New York: Time Incorporated; 1963), pg. 48;

Gothein, Marie Luise  A History of Garden Art (reprinted by Hacker Art Books, New York; 1966), pg. 252 mentions "The ambassador said that the understanding of dwarf tree culture was a secret, and was very highly esteemed."  Reading Staunton's account, the secret is actually the bark aging process and not the dwarfing.

Bretschneider, Emil, M.D.   History of European Botanical Discoveries in China (Leipzig: Zentral-Antiquariat; 1981.  Reprint of the original 1898 edition), pp. 155, 158-159, 162.  Another reference to Macartney and Staunton can be found here.

William Alexander (1767-1816) was the official artist attached to Lord Macartney's embassy.  He provided the British public with thousands of drawings to accompany both the official and non-official accounts of the diplomatic missions.  His official 1805 book contains forty-eight hand-coloured plates showing various scenes from the Embassy’s journey.  Did he ever depict any penjing?
        Per Jackson, Anna and Amin Jaffer (ed.)  Encounters, The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800 (London: V&A Publications; 2004), pg. 359, Alexander "'made no attempt to contact Chinese counterparts or to acquire an understanding of their work' while in China.  Instead, Macartney's Britain still preferred the escapist fantasy of a tamed and lanquid Orient."  Pg. 358 also notes that after his embassy to China, "British envoy Lord Macartney likened the country to 'an old crazy first-rate man-of-war,' which had long overwhelmed her neighbours 'by her bulk and appearance,' but was doomed under inept leaders to be 'dashed to pieces on the shore.'  Fear of the East had definitely been replaced by contempt -- even in such a cultured mind as Macartney's."

J. C. Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening; comprising the Theory and Practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture and Landscape Gardening, Including all the Latest Improvements; a General History of Gardening in all Countries; and a Statistical View of its Present State, with Suggestions for its Future Progress in the British Isles, 2nd ed., London, 1824, pp. 103-104: “The British works, published after different embassies, contain accounts of their modes of propagation, by inarching and local radication; of their dwarfing forest-trees, producing double-flowers, monstrous unions, and various other exertions, in the way of conquering nature.” Per Craig Clunas in "Nature and Ideology in Western Descriptions of the Chinese Garden," pp. 24.

Image from here.

2      Staunton, Sir George  An Authentic Account of An Embassy From the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (London: 1797), Second Volume, pp. 52-56.

The British Critic, A New Review, Vol. X, September 1797, contains the passage on pp. 231-232.

The European Magazine and London Review, December 1797, pp. 392 contains the first half of the first paragraph followed by "Sir George Staunton gives us in the three following pages a minute detail of the method by which this distortion of taste is gratified; but for this we shall refer to the work at large.  We have no relish for such montrosity of littleness, and we shall believe the same of our readers."

The Scots magazine, or, General repository of literature, history, and politics, Vol. LX, Aug. 1798, "New and Curious Particulars regarding the Chinese Empire" includes this material on pp. 543-544.

The Encyclopædia britannica: or, A dictionary of arts, sciences, and miscellaneous literature, Volume 1, Part 2, 1797 includes the reference on pg. 499.

The Weekly Magazine, Vol. I, No. 7, March 17, 1798, pp. 209-210 has the two paragraphs as most of its excerpts from An Authentic Account.

The two paragraphs also show up in the entry for "DWARFING OF VEGETABLES", pp. 580-581 of Supplement to the Encyclopædia, or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, Vol. I (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson; 1803).

The Massachusetts Agricultural Repository and Journal, Papers on Agriculture, Consisting of Communications made to the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1805, has the material on pp. 55-56 as part of its 57-page "A letter to Judge DWIGHT FOSTER, respecting the methods in use for forming DWARF FRUIT TREES, with some detailed particulars respecting FRUIT TREES IN GENERAL; and observations on the supposed decline and extinction of certain fruits.  By a Member of the Kennebec Agricultural Society.  Kennebec April 28, 1804."

Staunton's description is reproduced in the article "Dwarf Vegetables" in The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, Vol. I, No. 1, September 1834, pg. 168, edited by Nathaniel and Elizabeth Manning Hawthorne.

Under "Chinese Mode of Striking" in the Dec. 20, 1834 issue of The Genesee Farmer (Rochester, NY), Vol. IV, No. 51, pg. 402, an excerpt of this passage can be found, said to be an extract from Kennies "Alphabet of Scientific Gardening for use of beginners," published in Lindon in 1833.

The second paragraph is repeated in Ruschenberger, William Samuel Waithman  A voyage round the world: including an embassy to Muscat and Siam in 1835, 1836 and 1837 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard; 1838), pp. 403-404 citing its source as "Staunton's China, -- vol. 1. p. 212. Philad. 1799."

Per The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century by Jules Verne, translated from the French (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; 1887), pp. 363-364, the following comments are given with Macartney's account:
      "...an opportunity was taken to visit Tinghai, where the English excited as much curiosity as they felt themselves at the sight of the many things which were new to them.
      "Many of the facts which surprised them are familiar to us, the appearance of the houses, the markets and dress of the Chinese, the small feet of the women, and many other particulars to which we need not refer.  We will only allude to the account of the method employed by them in cultivating dwarf trees.
      "'This stunted vegetation,' says Macartney, 'seems to be highly appreciated in China, for specimens of it are found in all the larger houses.  It is an art peculiar to the Chinese, and the gardener's skill consists in knowing how to produce it.  Independently of the satisfaction of triumphing over a difficulty, he has the advantage of introducing into rooms plants whose natural size would have precluded such a possibility.
      "'The following is the method employed in China for the production of dwarfed trees.  The trunk of a tree of which it is desired to obtain a dwarfed specimen, is covered as nearly as possible where it separates into branches with clay or mould, over which is placed a linen or cotton covering constantly kept damp.  This mould is sometimes left on for a whole year, and throughout that time the wood it covered throws out tender, root-like fibres.  Then the portions of the trunk from which issue these fibres, with the branch immediately above them, are carefully separated from the tree and placed in fresh mould, where the shoots soon develope into real roots, whilst the branch forms the stem of a plant which is in a manner metamorphosed.  This operation neither destroys nor alters the productive faculties of the branch which is separated from the parent tree.  When it bears fruit or flowers it does so as plentifully as when it was upon the original stem.  The extremities of the branches intended to be dwarfed are always pulled off, which precludes the possibility of their growing tall, and forces them to throw out shoots and lateral branches.  These shoots are tired with wire, and assume the form the gardener chooses.  When it is desired to give an aged appearance to the tree, it is constantly moistened with theriaca or treacle, which attracts to it multitudes of ants, who not content with devouring the sweetmeat, attack the bark of the tree, and eat it away in such a manner as to produce the desired effect.'

      "Upon leaving Chusan, the squadron entered the Yellow Sea, never before navigated by an European vessel..."

      This is quoted again in Horne, Charles F., Ph.D. (ed.)  Works of Jules Verne (NY: F. Tyler Daniels Company, Inc.; 1911), pp. 324-325.

Another version of this is in the footnote on pp. 142-143 of Manual of Plant Diseases by Prof. Dr. Paul Sorauer, in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Gustav Lindau and Dr. Ludwig Reh, translated by Frances Dorrance (Record Press, 1914, third edition 1922), Vol. I, Non-Parasitic Diseases (referenced by Hansen):
      "* In an article on 'dwarf growth in the vegetable kingdom,' ['Zwergbildung im Pflanzenreich' Gartenwelt, 1904, No. 49] Grube quotes a report by Sir Geo. Staunton, from 'des Grafen McCartney Gesandtschaftsreise nach China,' Berlin 1798.  Staunton saw in Ting-hai, spruces, oaks and orange trees none of which were more than 2 feet high and on which fruit had set abundantly.  At the base of the trunk the soil was covered with layers of stones weathered and covered with moss giving the pots the appearance of great age.  'Throughout China, there is a great liking for these artificial plant dwarfs for we found them, as a rule, in every house of any pretention whatever.'  It is there further related that the 'liliputian' [sic] trees were propagated by binding loam or garden soil around different branches.  This was kept moist until the branches developed new roots in the earth ball; they were then cut off.  We still use this process in the layering of branches or top shoots and the covering of the cut places with moss.  This plan [143] was followed in China, because it had been observed that an artificially produced dwarf character is hereditary.  When the tendency has become hereditary it is strengthened in the new individual by turning down the end bud of the main shoot and bending it with wire in another direction.  'If it is desired to give the dwarf tree the appearance of an old, already half dead tree, the trunk is often covered with syrup to attract ants and these, after they have eaten the sweet, immediately injure the bark, giving it thereby a brownish, half-weathered appearance.'"

The British Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 9, 1830, contains the following lines in one review: "A woman's lyrics are often lovely as a bank of primroses, and primroses she may plant at the foot of forest trees; but her oaks[sic] will never be those of Bashan, only those that Sir G. Macartney met with in China, dwarf ones in porcelain vases." (pg. 138.)

A brief paragraph comparing Macartney's description with Livingstone's is found in Kenrick, William  The New American Orchardist, or an account of the most valuable varieties of fruit (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. and Russell, Odiorne and Co.; 1833), pg. xxx.

See also 1827 article in Loudon's The Gardener's Magazine which has excerpt from James Main's 1793-94 China Journal.  Main was in Canton hunting plants, not with Macartney's embassy in Peking.

Home  >  Bonsai History  >  Travellers  >  Macartney