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0445 Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1
Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1 / Page 445 (Color Image)

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doi: 10.20676/00000246
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183. COTTON   429

The preliminary results reached by WATTERs (Essays on the Chinese language, 439-440), HIRTH and ROCKHII.I. (JNCB, XXI, 230-231, and HR, 217-220), and LAUFER (Sino-Iranica, 488-492 and 574) are sadly in need of correction and elaboration. Although I am not a botanist, and moreover cannot undertake here a thorough examination of the problem, I think it will be worth while to record a certain number of facts which I have ascertained.

GOSSYPIUM AND BOMBAX. — Before examining the various terms which have been used in Chinese to designate cotton, some preliminary explanations are necessary. Cotton, properly so called, is the produce of a malvaceous plant, the Gossypium. There are many species of Gossypium; for our present purpose, they may be reduced to two, the Gossypium herbaceum, which is a plant of little size, and the Gossypium arboreum, which is a small tree, reaching three and sometimes even six or seven yards in height. In the Middle Ages, it was Gossypium arboreum which was most generally planted in tropical or subtropical regions like Indo-China, and in parts of Yün-nan, Kuang-tung, and even Fu-chien, whereas only Gossypium herbaceum was grown in the provinces of Chê-chiang and Chiang-su which soon produced most of the cotton stuffs used throughout the country. But there is also a lofty tree, of imposing proportions, the Bombax, or silk-cotton tree, the fruit of which yields a floss, the kapok, which is used for stuffing and padding purposes. Although recent botanists are inclined to speak of it as Bombax pentandrum, or Bombax ceiba, or Ceiba pentandra, there is only one kind of Bombax in Asia, with varieties, and we may retain for it the earlier and more common name Bombax malabaricum. Now, the whole problem of the history of cotton in the Far East is dominated by the confusion which has been made by Chinese scholars between Gossypium arboreum and Bombax malabaricum. But Western scholars might have known better. Speaking of Gossypium herbaceum, STUART (Materia Medica, 197) says that « this malvaceous plant, which yields the cotton wool, and which is the same as Gossypium indicum, is not distinguished in Chinese works from the sterculiaceous Bombax malabaricum, the cotton tree. The reason for this probably appears in the fact that the cotton tree was known in China from very ancient times, and its cotton was used by the Chinese in the manufacture of cloth before the intro• duction of the cotton plant ». But, as we shall see, there is no indication that the Chinese ever used the floss of the Bombax for making any cloth. Moreover, there is not one single word in STUART'S book about Gossypium arboreum, which is precisely the one species which lies at the basis of the confusion. In the same way, LAUFER (Sino-Iranica, 491), finding in a Chinese work a plant the name of which was said to be synonymous with mu-mien, « cotton », automatically equated it with Bombax malabaricum, because mu-mien literally means « tree floss », and in spite of the fact that the very author he cited has expressly stated that the plant in question was « the mu-mien which was like a plant », not « the mu-mien which was like a tree »; but the Gossypium arboreum is absent, too, from LAUFER'S notes on cotton. The only Western authors who have written on cotton in China and introduced Gossypium arboreum are HIRTH and RocKHIl.l. (HR, 219) ; they give it as the equivalent of mu-mien, and translate the latter term « tree-cotton ». But we shall see that mu-mien applies to both Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum, not to speak of its confusion, perhaps even at an early date, with Bombax malabaricum. To avoid misunderstandings in the following notes, I shall never speak of Bombax malabaricum as the u cotton tree », but always as