Sprouts of Fortune: The Powers of Ancient Trees in Late Imperial China

Presented by: Tristan Brown

When: 10:45 – 11:45 am Section 2: Regions & Functions of Texts; Panel 3, 3A

Abstract: Ancient trees were ascribed with special powers in imperial China. Often identified as fengshui (geomantic) or “spirit” trees, these plants were thought to provide insights into the past and even potentially portend the future. Accorded with special legal protections from being cut down for their expensive timber, these ancient organisms were identified as the living survivors of wars, famines, and plagues over the centuries and were thus highly valued by people across late imperial society. This paper examines examples of trees that were accorded cosmological and religious significance during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912): trees associated with the ruling emperors and the imperial family, those that grew within famous temples, those owned by prominent lineages and families, and those disputed in law courts. Why were these trees so important? How did people understand them? And how does the Chinese experience resonate with other traditions? Building off the once widely held belief that the felling of a significant tree had the power to end a dynasty or ruin a family, the paper examines imperial Chinese history through the verdant spectators that bore silent witness to it.