A Great, Humble Man

The year 2004 was of great significance to Chinese botany. That was the year that Flora of China, with fifty million words and over nine thousand illustration plates was released, documenting the scientific names, forms, environments, geographic distribution, economic uses and life cycles of over thirty thousand plant species in China. This massive tome was the result of nearly a century of tireless effort by countless Chinese botanists. Many of the botanists who made outstanding contributions to this book are now in eternal rest, including Hu Xiansu, Chen Huanyong, Zhong Guanguang, Qin Renchang, Yu Dejun, Cai Xitao and Wang Qiwu. In 1914, Zhong Guanguang wrote the following pledge: “I wish to walk ten thousand miles, and climb a thousand mountains. I shall compile a complete collection.” Within four years, he had collected wax leaf specimens of over 1,700 plant species from 11 provinces. Qin Renchng took nearly twenty thousand photographs of Chinese plant specimens in Europe. Hu Xiansu proposed the compilation of a compendium of Chinese plants in 1934.

The compilation of Flora of China officially began in October 1959, with nearly five hundred people from eighty work units across the country responding to the call of this massive undertaking. Among their ranks was a 19-year-old illustrator from the Kunming Institute of Botany named Zeng Xiaolian. He never imagined that this would grow to become his life’s work, his most beloved endeavor. As time passed, he grew from a diligent young illustrator to a famed Chinese botanical artist.

Botany Found Him

 His interest in painting was an inborn trait. Zeng Xiaolian became obsessed with painting in primary school, and found he had a good eye and hand. He impressed his classmates with the ability to draw anything he saw. A classmate bought a magnifying glass from a secondhand market, and built a makeshift projector out of a soapbox and a tennis ball can. Zeng Xiaolian drew a comic strip, titled “Air Force Hero Zhang Jihui.” This was the first “exhibition” in his life. After admission into Kunming Number 1 Middle School, he would doodle whenever he had free time, and drew the decorations for his class’s blackboard bulletins. By his second year of middle school, he realized that all of his classmates who enjoyed drawing had bad grades. Feeling that he needed to get back on the right path, he resolved to quit his “drawing addiction.”

The primary school he attended, the Kunming Enguang Primary School, was a Christian school. The headmaster graduated from the Beiping Women’s Normal College, and was a firm adherent to the Three People’s Principles creed. Every morning, the school would assemble on the exercise grounds to watch the flag-raising and sing the school anthem. The boys and girls opened up their throats and sang, or as it was often described, shouted the school anthem.

The anthem was about grace, self-reliance, and becoming a source of strength for the nation.

Zeng’s greatest influence as a child was his grandfather Zeng Luguang, who was part of the first generation of China’s mining industry, and a man of culture. He was born in 1882 in Nibazi Village, Weixin County in Northwest Yunnan, and was smart and hard working from a young age. He left the mountains at the age of 24, and gained admission into the newly opened Yunnan Mid-Level Agricultural Academy in Kunming. Three years later, he crossed the ocean to study at the Akita Mining College in Japan. Like many young idealistic people of the day, he joined the Chinese United League. He jumped right into the heart of politics, and had frequent interactions with such figures as Huang Xing and Song Jiaoren. He eventually came to realize his mission in life was to explore and utilize mineral resources, using industry to save the nation. He took on a position as manager at the Hubei Copper Mining Company in 1913, and returned to Yunnan five years later to serve as an industry advisor to the government. He then spent the next two years surveying mineral deposits across the province before becoming dean of the Yunnan Industrial Academy and deputy director of the province’s largest enterprise, the Gejiu Tin Company.

Zeng Luguang resigned in 1942 and returned to Kunming, where he built a garden in which he cultivated his own flowers and bred fruit trees. This was Zeng Xiaolian’s first “botanical garden.” After school, his first order of business was to climb up the trees and eat his fill of fruit. A primary school classmate recalls trying crisp-skin plums for the first time at his home. Zeng’s grandfather had a large library, replete with everything from the Complete Library in Four Sections and the Four Tomes and Five Classics, to Das Capital. These were all later donated to Yunnan University. Aside from painting, Zeng Xiaolian’s favorite pastimes are reading and thinking. He will sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to jot down a sudden inspiration. Scholarship runs deep in the family.

After graduating high school in 1958, Zeng Xiaolian was passed over for university, and was preparing himself for a career working in factories. But a few days later, he was surprised to receive a letter of employment from the Kunming Institute of Botany. He would collect a salary, and would no longer be a burden on his parents. He was delighted. He only found out years later that his turn of fate was thanks to two leaders at the institute. What was then a mere local research station was about to be upgraded to a research institute under the direct auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They needed to greatly expand their ranks, but faced a shortage of college botany graduates. Director Liu of the Kunming branch of the CAS, and deputy director of the institute and famous Chinese botanist Cai Xitao had the idea of recruiting graduates of the top high schools around the province who had lacked the grades to get into college. This bold decision brought more than thirty young people into the fold of botany. The institute became their university and graduate school. Many of these young people would go on to become the core of the institute. Zeng Xiaolian was among seventeen such recruits to be named to high level positions. But all that would come later.

He drew encouragement from the words of Arthur Schopenhauer: “Whatever fate befalls you, do not give way to great rejoicings or great lamentations.” Looking back over this life, Zeng Xiaolian now feels that not getting into college was actually fate watching over him. The China Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Botany is spread across 130 acres on Yuanbao Mountain in northern Kunming, next to the famous scenic spot, the Black Dragon Pool. When he arrived, the surrounding environment alone was enough to excite him. Zeng had been assigned to the botanical chemistry studio. People appreciated his blackboard bulletin drawings, and the institute was just then looking for illustrators for the compilation of Flora of China, and so they transferred him to the taxonomy research department, where he engaged in what would become his life’s calling: botanical art.

His first assignment was to draw the plants of the Lamiaceae family, which he did for five years. The reason he immediately fell in love with botanical art was simple: it was so difficult, such a challenge. Four stamens, two long and two short. Their position on the corolla must be placed with the utmost accuracy, and the ovary must be opened. The flower disks have many different shapes, some resembling hands, others resembling steamed buns. The artist must observe the minute details under a microscope, and must also seek out the plants in their natural environment, and see their living forms. They must be drawn with precision, but also must be drawn alive and vivid. In five years, Zeng Xiaolian scoured Yuanbao Mountain, collecting every Lamiaceae plant he could find. Each day he diligently depicted these specimens with great fascination, honing his basic skills.

In the West, skilled botanical artists are often described as botanists in their own right. In China, they are seen as botanists’ assistants. They are “tools” who must stand up to the tests of solitude and cold benches. When Flora of China was published, it won the National Natural Science Awards first prize. The list of prize-winners did not include a single illustrator. Zeng Xiaolian and his colleagues, however, did not raise a fuss. He felt that being able to take part in the production of this national classic was an honor in its own right.

“When Fan Wenlan and the others wrote History of China, they had to ensure that ‘every statement had a source, every assertion had a root basis.’ When we compiled Flora of China, we also had to ensure that ‘every flower had a source, and every leaf a root.’ Our task was to write a faithful biography of plants. This project took up most of my life, and I find this quite satisfying.” These words call to mind the school anthem he sang on the exercise grounds as a child about growing up to become a source of strength for the nation.

Enter the Kingdom of Plants

An outstanding painter cannot emerge without a bit of help from destiny. The compilation of Flora of China was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, but that gave Zeng Xiaolian an unexpected opportunity. After illustrating plant specimens for several years, Zeng Xiaolian traveled to the tropical forest on Yunnan’s southwestern frontier in 1967. He was sent to join the team of 700 people put together for the China State Council “5.23 Office” to search for effective herbal malaria treatments. Another task for the team was to compile an “illustrated catalogue of wild tropical edible foods” and “tropical animal fodder” for war preparedness. He spent the next five difficult years in the forests along the borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. He once described it thus:

“The vast primeval forest is like a giant green labyrinth. Towering trees rise up through the mist, with vines stretching across, the entire scene filled with verdant, thriving vitality and wildness. It is dark, gloomy, humid and hot, crawling with insects I have never seen before, old trees and new branches blocking the way, vines and thorns marching rampant.”

Their efforts did not go to waste. The team selected an effective plant for malaria treatment, Artemisia annua, from which scientists eventually extracted artemisinin. Fifty years later, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery. Zeng Xiaolian found just as much satisfaction in his position as a screw in another machine: “The tasks I took part in were all part of vast systemic projects, of which each individual could only complete a small part. As one task was completed, that page was turned. Those scenes remain vivid in my memory, however, those pages never to be turned. Though the project was eventually completed, I still cherish that experience.”

These five years truly brought him into the world of plants. He saw how plants strove to reach sunlight and burrowed deep into the ground for nutrients and stability in the quest for survival. He saw how plants and animals competed with each other and also depended on each other for survival. The craftsmanship of the great creator inspired reverence for nature: “I would often lose myself gazing at a leaf. I found the simple, prosaic beauty of leaves profoundly beautiful. The leaf withers and falls to the ground in autumn, decaying into inorganic compounds that will feed next year’s shoots, nourish seedlings into great trees and bring the green of life. This is the cycle.”

“Each flower, each bird is a living thing, each branch and tree an object of tender feelings.” He realized that botanical art was more than just cold representation; it required observation of natural objects with a scientific eye, but also the artist’s passion to depict nature’s beauty. “It must not only be realistic and accurate, it must also be vivid. In order to convey the ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ of plants, you need to feel them with your heart. The diverse states of the many species of plants emerge from their adaptations to the external environment and their yearning to survive.”

On the television program The Readers, he spoke of his perception, making for a classic quote that spread far and wide: “He feels that flowers are the greatest, most magnificent expression of the profusion and evolutionary drive of plants. Flowers do not bloom for humans. Humans are overthinking it. But they have found inspiration for love and beauty within.” Each blade of grass, each tree, each flower, every one of them has its own personality, its own story, in Zeng’s eyes. He is quite adept at poetically describing them:

“The Himalayan blue poppy lives at altitudes between three to five thousand meters, and grows from the cracks in rocks. Just imagine you are walking through the thin air of the high mountains, each step made with great difficulty, your eyes pierced by powerful ultraviolet rays. Imagine your surprise when there, in that harsh environment, you suddenly see a radiant, vibrant flower standing high against the cold wind, its shining petals quivering slightly.”

“The golden lotus banana is endemic to China. Its flower can last up to nine months. It is one of the ‘five trees and six flowers’ of Buddhism. Its leaves resemble those of the hardy banana, its flower like a golden lotus, is radiant golden petals solid and plump.”

“Lichen is a very strange plant. It resembles both fungus and algae, but is neither. It is actually a composite of fungus and algae, combining the advantages of both. Such symbiosis is common in the natural world. We don’t realize that ants ‘herd cattle.’ They protect aphids and drink their milk.” I truly hope that one day Mr. Zeng will write down his plant stories.

Not Seeking Achievement, it Comes to Him

Zeng Xiaolian dedicated his reading to a botanist, former Kunming Institute of Botany Director Cai Xitao. He was the first noble man Mr. Zeng encountered. The two did not work together directly, but came to appreciate each other’s wisdom, and became lifelong friends. Cai Xitao was a strict leader, but also a benevolent mentor. Mr. Zeng felt that Cai was the most sincere scholar he encountered, approaching scholarly matters, people and things with the same earnestness, and insisting on speaking the truth in every situation. This botanist from the previous generation taught Zeng Xiaolian how to conduct himself as a man.

In 1968, when the battles of the Cultural Revolution began, Yuanbao Mountain was no longer lonely. Finding fortune amidst tragedy, it was at this time that he met a colleague from Beijing, Zhang Zanying. “How could I have been working in the same place as this wonderful woman for so many years without meeting her?” Brought together by shared circumstances, they joined hands and began a lifetime with each other. She is a truly devoted wife, standing by his side for half a century. Without her, Zeng would not have been able to dedicate himself so completely to painting. He jokes that he went to one primary school, one middle school, held only one job for forty years, one spouse, one son and one grandson. His life has been a series of ones, his thoughts never wavering, richness concealed beneath a veneer of monotony.

Destiny came knocking one day in 1991. The China State Post Bureau was planning a set of rhododendron stamps, and had been searching everywhere for a designer. Zeng Xiaolian, who had never designed a postage stamp before, was nominated, unbeknown to him. That day, the institute’s switchboard operator called him in from the field, covered in mud, to answer the phone, and that’s how he entered the field of postage stamp design. His rhododendron design stood out among the five proposals, and won the award for best postage stamp design of the year, surprising even himself.

After this, he frequently received commissions from the Post Bureau, eventually designing nine sets of stamps with bird and flower themes. Aside from Rhododendrons, his Sequoias and Clivia series all won best stamp design of their respective years. He holds the record for the most times receiving this honor. Lilies won the Excellence Award. His other designs, Cycas panzhihuaensis, Treasured Birds, Menconopsis lancifolia, and Living Plant Fossils, were all enthusiastically received by philatelists. His 2008 design Birds of China won Best Stamp Series at the Thirteenth Government Postage Stamp Printers’ Association Conference. To date, he remains the only Chinese painter to have received this honor.

As a botanical artist, Mr. Zeng has a professional advantage in the design of bird and flower stamps, but more important is his diligent attitude. He feels that stamps do not represent the individual but the nation. They are a calling card for the nation, and must not be taken lightly. Each time he has received a commission, he has treated it with great importance and applied the greatest effort. In any aspects where he feels uncertain, he consults the experts in that field. Interestingly, while Zeng Xiaolian is not famous for his botanical art, he is acclaimed among collectors of Chinese stamps.

Some simple words spoken by Zeng Xiaolian’s grandfather became his maxim in life: “A person’s existence does not depend on the appraisals of others.” He has always appreciated the Buddhist view of remaining indifferent in the face of gains, calm in the face of loss, to only struggle for that which is necessary, and to follow the flow of nature. For centuries, people have abstained from meat and studied the Sutras in order to reach this level of attainment. It is no easy task. Zeng Xiaolian’s talisman is his paintbrush. Whenever he is disturbed, he simply picks it up and begins to paint. The clouds are soon dispersed.

Zeng Xiaolian’s indifference to fame and fortune are a bit much for this ordinary person to swallow. He cherishes his time, and generally turns down media interviews and exhibitions. In 2017, out of gratitude for the opportunity given to him by the Kunming Institute of Botany, and in thanks to his superior Cai Xitao, he agreed to hold a small painting exhibition at the institute. By this time, he was a nationally famous botanical artist. I saw the exhibition preface introduce him as “Zeng Xiaolian, old employee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Botany.” I found that ridiculous. I called to ask him who had given him this title. He laughed, “I wrote that myself. I’m an old employee.”

During his five years in tropical forests, Zeng Xiaolian was drawn to birds. Flowers and plants do not move, but birds fly everywhere, and present a particular challenge to the painter. This sparked his creative impulse. One year, Zeng Xiaolian came to the Beijing Zoo, found a small room and set up an army cot. He lived there like that for eight months. During the day, he would watch birds and photograph them. By night, he would paint them. Recalling this, Zeng laughs mischievously: living inside the zoo, he didn’t have to buy tickets. His first standard is accuracy. Mr. Zeng went to the Institute of Zoology to carefully observe the specimens and record the traits of each bird, sparing no detail. He then consulted with famous Chinese ornithologist Yang Lan. He felt no need to tell others of the great efforts he expended. This is perhaps the way of the scientific artist.

Zeng Xiaolian felt that before he retired, he was like a screw inside the camera, out in the field collecting specimens, bent over his desk producing paintings. Others may pay little notice, but he was fully absorbed in the joy of it all. Retirement was a major watershed in his career. With no more tasks coming down from his work unit, he was free to do as he pleased, to experiment with new techniques and explore new subject matter. To date, he has experimented with every form of painting aside from printmaking. One could say that as a painter, he was not one to always strictly “color inside the lines.” There’s actually a print hanging in a prominent location in his house. Could it be…

The Humble Gentleman

In 1991, Zeng Xiaolian came to the Chinese University of Hong Kong to take part in the compilation of a compendium of Hong Kong flora. It was the first time I encountered someone at the university who spoke authentic Kunming dialect, and we became fast friends. We got together frequently over the year that followed. In my impression, it seemed that every time we met, he would tell stories of his local colleague, the botanist Shiu-Ying Hu. This 80 year-old scholar was a devout Christian, with a good heart and a meticulous approach to research. One time, they went out in the field to collect specimens. Shiu-Ying Hu was taking her shoes off to go into the water, and Zeng Xiaolian offered to go in her stead. “No, I must feel out the root system myself.” The stubborn Professor Hu had a lot in common with this painter from Kunming, and they soon became good friends.

When Mr. Zeng left Hong Kong, Hu gave him her most cherished award, the Bauhinia Star, which had been awarded to her by the governor of Hong Kong, asking him to keep it safe for her. When I returned to Kunming one summer, many years later, Zeng said he had a serious favor to ask of me. He wanted me to return the medal to her: “I have held onto it for her for many years. This is the highest honor she ever received. I cannot keep it.” Professor Hu had no children, and treated Zeng as family. “Safekeeping” was just one way of saying it. I urged him to hold onto it, but he found someone else to bring it back to Hong Kong and give it to her.

After Mr. Zeng left Hong Kong, we stayed in constant contact, but saw each other infrequently. Every time I get together with him and his wife, it feels like we only parted yesterday. We always have something to talk about. As is custom in Kunming, our two families grew quite close. One summer in the early 1990s, Mr. Zeng brought my brother and I to visit Black Dragon Pool and the Institute of Botany. Only then did I realize Kunming had such a tranquil Eden. Under the summer sun, he ran and jumped around the ponds, catching dragonflies for Tingting. It feels like it was just yesterday. We took to calling him “Grandpa Dragonfly.”

Looking back over our interactions and conversations, it is clear that Zeng Xiaolian is a noble gentleman, and I am just an ordinary person. His home is by Kunming’s Green Lake. One time I visited him there, and joined him and his grandson on a trip to the nearby zoo on Yuantong Mountain. It was getting close to closing time, so we jogged the whole way there. Inside the zoo, I saw Zeng’s paintings of birds hanging all over the place. “Do they know these are your paintings? Did they get your permission?” That was such a commoner question, a very Hong Kong question. I could have easily guessed the gentleman’s answer. I couldn’t stop myself from telling a worker, “Did you know that this man painted these paintings?” The worker immediately began to show respect, but did not offer (as I was hoping) to give him free admission in the future.

If it weren’t for Duku editor-in-chief Zhang Lixian’s visionary idea to publish a collection of Mr. Zeng’s works, which in turn led to his appearance on The Readers, Mr. Zeng would perhaps still be generally unknown to the public. During his television appearance, he touched countless viewers with his sincerity, outshining the more famous figures appearing alongside him. In an early draft of this essay, I told some stories about his indifference to gain and loss, but at his request, I deleted them.

Serenity of Autumn

The price of fame is that your time is often borrowed, even stolen from you. Mr. Zeng does not like taking part in festive events. He just wants to sit alone and paint. He says, “I have experienced many ups and downs in my life, and now I’m enjoying my best time. The nation is at peace, I am relaxed and free to do whatever I want. I am very satisfied.” A few years ago, he and his wife traveled far and wide to see various plants. To see the desert poplar, they once spent an entire night waiting outside. He completed more than twenty large paintings of plants and animals, and has a goal of creating 100 such paintings. He particularly yearns to paint the tropical forest of Xishuanbanna, which had been so formative in his youth. In early 2018, Contemporary Gallery Kunming proposed holding an exhibition of his paintings, but he demurred. This year, after much urging by his friends, and out of love for his hometown, he finally agreed.

Mr. Zeng has a good friend who researches plants in the Araceae family, the famous international authority Li Heng. She has spent her lifetime scouring Mount Gaoligong for specimens, and has been called the Goddess of Gaoligong. This 90 year-old friend told him she had a five year research plan. His response: “I only have a three year plan. You’re a decade older than me. In that case, I’ll make a five year plan as well.”

May Mr. Zeng complete his five year plan, and many more five year plans to come!


Jean Hung

September 11, 2019