MRI Forum 50

"The Jesuits Le Cheron d´Incarville (1706-1757) and
João de Loureiro (1717-1791) and the Plants of China"

by Manuel Serrano Pinto


Summary of the Presentation

Pierre Noël Le Chéron d’Incarville (1706-1757) was a French Jesuit missionary in China from 1740 onwards, having died in Beijing after 17 years of full dedication to botanical studies of Chinese plants. In China he became director of the Imperial Gardens and corresponding member of the French Académie Royale des Sciences. He prepared a herbarium that was sent to France addressed to Bernard de Jussieu, offered  in 1857 to the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris by descendants of Jussieu.

It was only in the 1800s that d’Incarville published in Moscow an alphabetical catalogue of those plants and it was only some 150 years after that the plants of his herbarium reached France where they were carefully studied by M. Franchet. It contained 149 species collected in Beijing and in the surrounding mountains as well as 144 species collected in Macao.

João de Loureiro (1717-1791) was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who spent more than 40 years in the Far East. Having received a copy of Linneo’s Genera Plantarum he made use of it to study the flora of Cochinchina as well as that of Guangzhou. He prepared the Flora Cochinchinensis published by the Academy of Sciences in Lisbon in 1790 including the description of 235 genera not only from Cochinchina but also from China and Mozambique. He also corresponded with the Philosophical Society of London. Sections of his herbarium are kept in Lisbon, Paris and London.   

The importance of the botanical activities of the above authors may be summarized as follows: 1) they were pioneering Westerns studies on China; 2) through herbaria, drawings and written descriptions, they first have made known in Europe many Chinese plants; 3) these pioneering ethno-botanical studies brought to Europe the knowledge of the medical use of many plants; 4) they promoted the transfer of some plants from and to China; 5) they contributed to the progress of botany in general and of Chinese botany in particular, especially those coming from the regions of Peking, Guangzhou and Macao; 6) apart from their medicinal use they made known to Europe many other kinds of uses (pigments, edible fruits, etc.); 7) the above Jesuits played an important role in the West-East scientific exchange in the 18th century in the field of botany through their correspondence with several Western learned societies.

Profile of the Speaker

Manuel Serrano Pinto is Invited Professor at the University of Aveiro, Portugal.  He is a retired Full Professor (catedrático) at the same University.  His general research interests include Environmental Studies and History of Science and Technology. The environment in China and the historical contribution of the Jesuits to the Sino-Western relations are particular aspects of such interests. He published three papers related to the first topic: one in the review Administração (Macau) and two in the proceedings of the meetings “Semana da China”, Lisbon, and presented a paper at Florianopolis, Brazil. On the Jesuit contribution he authored one paper published in (“Semana da China”) and, as co-author, he presented two papers in Lisbon and Beijing. 

Prof. Serrano Pinto is the Director of the Centro de Estudos Asiáticos (Centre for Asian Studies) and coordinator of the Master Program in Chinese Studies at the Universidade de Aveiro. He is also the representative of the same University on the EastAsiaNet. He is a member of the Secretariat of the Centro de Estudos de História e Filosofia da Ciência e da Técnica (Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Aveiro) and coordinator of the Luso-Brazilian Master Program in Environmental Management and Policies.