On April 18, 2022, the China National Botanical Garden officially opened its doors to the public — almost 80 years after it was first proposed. And while he didn’t live to see it happen, no one loomed larger over last month’s ceremony than Hu Xiansu, the man who spent his entire career trying to bring the garden to life.
Hu was born in 1894 in Nanchang, the capital of the central province of Jiangxi. His intellect stood out from an early age, winning him a coveted spot in an elite overseas exchange program. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1916 with a degree in Botany, Hu was named the vice-director of the Jiangxi Lushan Bureau of Forestry. Not long after, he became a professor of agricultural sciences at Southeast University in the eastern city of Nanjing, where he teamed with zoologist Bing Zhi to found the country’s first ever Department of Biology.
It was an impressive start to his academic career, but Hu wasn’t satisfied. In 1923, he returned to the United States for a Ph.D. program at Harvard University.
Harvard boasted some of the world’s top botanists, a wealth of Chinese botanical specimens, and the world-renowned Arnold Arboretum. It was a goldmine for a researcher like Hu. Yet he could never quite stomach the idea that a Chinese scholar should have to travel to the other side of the world to study Chinese plants. In a 1925 poem, he called it “a disgrace to the nation that my heart can hardly bear.”
In 1926, not long after finishing his Ph.D., Hu set about rectifying the situation. Arguing that plants represented an important industrial and agricultural resource, he sought funds for the construction of a botanical garden in Nanjing. In support of his plan, he pointed out that world-changing plant products like rubber, tea, and cinchona all benefitted from studies conducted in botanical gardens.
But just when Hu’s idea seemed to be gaining steam, it was abandoned when the ruling Kuomintang regime launched a major military expedition that summer.
Undeterred, Hu tried again in 1933, this time proposing a botanical garden in Lushan, near where he grew up. At the time, northern China was under threat of invasion by the Japanese, and Hu tried leveraging this fear to get his project built. At a meeting that year, he declared the Lushan facility would not just be a botanical garden: Should the Japanese invade, it would also serve as “a base to which (other research institutes) could be relocated.” Hu rallied support and funding for his plan on trips across China, and in August 1934, the Lushan Forest Botanical Garden — later renamed the Lushan Botanical Garden — was officially founded.
A view of the Lushan Botanical Garden, Jiangxi province. Courtesy of Yang Yang
Modeled after the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, the Lushan Forest Botanical Garden was a remarkable, if short-lived, success. Between 1934 and 1938, the Garden developed a seed exchange network with botanical research institutes in China and abroad, carried out investigations into Chinese botanical resources, and cultivated more than 3,100 species of plants.
After Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Lushan was occupied by Japanese troops and in 1938 its gardens were closed to the public. They would not reopen until 1946.
But even war could not dampen Hu’s enthusiasm for his plants. As China relocated its industry and universities deep into the country’s interior, Hu moved west, settling in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where he founded a research institute. Later, he transferred to Jiangxi province — closer to the front lines — where he revived The Report, a periodical devoted to the study of biology, in 1943.
And he kept pressing for China to invest in botanical research. In March 1944, Hu presented the Kuomintang government with plans for what he called a Central Botanical Gardens and Economic Plant Research Institute. Drawing inspiration from Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union, he framed the plan as a way to unleash the economic potential of China’s botanical resources.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture reviewed Hu’s plans that December, but the idea was seen as too costly for a government in the middle of a protracted war. The plan was again put on ice.
A portrait of Hu Xiansu taken in 1925. Courtesy of Yang Yang
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hu became a researcher at the Plant Taxonomy Institute in Beijing. In 1955, he helped open the Beijing Botanical Garden in Xiangshan in the city’s western suburbs. This, too, would prove short-lived: In 1960, as China dealt with the fallout of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the park’s funds were frozen and its development came grinding to a halt.
Although Hu remained unbowed, he was running out of time. In 1962, he attended the Third Session of the 3rd Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, where he continued to promote the construction of a national botanical garden. It was his last major attempt. Hu died of heart disease in 1968 and was buried in Lushan Botanical Garden.
By that point, however, Hu’s dream of a national botanical garden had taken root in the hearts of young Chinese botanists like Chen Fenghuai, Cai Xitao, and Yu Dejun. Yu, who had worked alongside Hu for many years, helped oversee the creation of the Beijing Botanical Garden in 1987. The garden features the largest dawn redwood in northern China — a species first catalogued by Hu — and an inscription of Hu’s poem “Ode to the Dawn Redwood.”
In late 2003, with the Beijing Botanical Gardens on solid ground, academics began pressing the government to turn it into a national botanic garden. After another two decades of delays, the State Council — China’s cabinet — approved the construction of the first ever “distinctively Chinese, world-class, ecologically harmonious” national botanical garden in Beijing in late 2021. It’s taken nearly a century, but the seeds Hu planted in 1923 have finally borne fruit.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visitors to the China National Botanical Garden, Beijing, April 22, 2022. VCG)