The Metasequoia Mystery

The 1940s discovery in China of the dawn redwood, a living fossil, remains in shadows cast by war, political upheaval, and scholarly intrigue.

By Kyna Rubin

On a clear August day in 2002, Ma Jinshuang, a botanist, struck gold. At the bottom of a cabinet in a dark, moist, long-abandoned herbarium in Nanjing, perched unprotected on top of the conifer specimens, lay a barely intact cluster of twigs and needles. A rotting heap of nature, to most eyes.

But Ma had spent years finding the pile—the lone survivor of a lost series of specimens that, in 1940s China, led to the botanical find of a century: a living fossil we now call Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or dawn redwood.

Its discovery captivated the world, especially the American public, and made possible the myriad dawn redwoods we see today in cities, parks, and campuses on nearly every continent. Metasequoia dots cemeteries in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. A million dawn redwoods line either side of a 30-mile-long avenue in the city of Pizhou, in Jiangsu Province. They can be seen in Chile, Japan, England, and Zimbabwe. The tree’s easy cultivation in temperate climates around the globe contrasts with its increasing rarity in wild form in China, where its habitat is in decline.

Metasequoia has long been found in fossil form across the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Russia to Japan. Its fossils are so common in eastern Oregon that in 2005, legislators made the tree the state fossil. It was “perhaps the most abundant tree in many North American forests 50 million years ago,” says Peter Raven, Honorary ASLA, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

When uncovered, live, in a remote corner of Si-chuan Province in the 1940s, the tree was thought to be as extinct as the dinosaurs with which it once co-inhabited the earth. Its live discovery led scientists to reexamine the redwood fossils collected to date in North America and Asia that had been called Sequoia but were, in fact, Metasequoia, wrote the paleobotanist Ralph W. Chaney of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1948.

An Imposing Find and a Scandal

I first learned about the tree and its discovery while doing research for a visitor center display at Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon, where I am a volunteer writer, tour guide, and herbarium specimen mounter. Hoyt’s signature tree is one of six Metasequoia grown on its grounds from seed originating from the 1940s China find. That same tree was reportedly the first of its provenance in the Western Hemisphere to produce cones, in 1952.

The tree is stately. At an average 100 feet high, Metasequoia is imposing next to the chestnut, oak, and maple trees with which it was found to coexist in China. “It is the biggest, strongest, straightest tree for many days of travel,” a Sichuan villager told a visitor in March 1948. Yet it is the shortest of the three redwood conifers, reaching half the height of its Cupressaceae family cousins growing in California and Oregon—the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Unique among them, Metasequoia is deciduous. It has an ethereal presence in winter, when its bare limbs reveal delicate clusters of long, male cones.

The drama surrounding the tree’s discovery played out on both sides of the Pacific. Stateside, the press set the tone in 1948 with a riveting series of dispatches, live from civil-war China, by the San Francisco Chronicle science writer Milton Silverman. He had persuaded the paper to have him accompany Chaney, the paleobotanist, on what would be a harrowing trek into interior China to see live Metasequoia in situ, a few years after its discovery and identification by Chinese botanists. The trip itself was dramatic enough: Chaney and his chronicler, believed to be the first Western men to see the newly discovered tree, between them lost 65 pounds on the mountainous trek, which took 10 days across 220 miles, during which their guards shot one bandit, and one porter nearly fell to his death.

Silverman’s series ran across the country and hit national TV news, capturing the public’s imagination.

But an editor’s headline on the first of the series—“100,000,000-Year-Old Race of Redwoods: Science Makes a Spectacular Discovery”—created a whopping misperception. The wording led the public to believe that Chaney himself had discovered the tree. Chaney, whose China trip was funded by the Save the Redwoods League, never made that claim within scientific circles. But Chaney’s press coverage and resulting visibility sparked what Silverman called “a seven-year transcontinental barrage of misunderstandings, denunciations, attacks, vilification, innuendos, libel, slander, and outright lies”—much of it “ridiculously petty”—between the Harvard University botanist E. D. Merrill and Chaney over who first introduced Metasequoia seeds into this country, among other matters. (Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum funded Chinese botanists to collect more Metasequoia seeds in 1947, seeds Merrill received in early 1948, then distributed around the world, including to Chaney. Today’s living Metasequoia outside China thus date no earlier than the late 1940s.)

The popular press also gave Metasequoia its more easily digestible name. “Dawn redwood” was a spur-of-the-moment invention. In Silverman’s unpublished account of his and Chaney’s China trip, written seven years before Silverman’s death in 1997, the writer stated that he and his city editor “dreamed up” the moniker dawn redwood as a more romantic—and column-size—name for Metasequoia glyptostroboides. In evolution terms, the link among Metasequoia, coast redwood, and giant sequoia is a common ancestor, not merely their red-hued wood.

Let the Record Show Wang Zhan

Botanists and others outside China know less about the lingering rancor in that country over credit for the Metasequoia discovery itself. If the specimen revealed by Ma’s sleuthing was so central to a great botanical find, why was it left to decay in a neglected provincial herbarium?

The answer lies, in part, in the events leading to Metasequoia’s discovery, which Ma Jinshuang, a professor and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Chenshan Plant Science Research Center, has been attempting to bring to light since 2000.

Ma is a U.S. citizen who was born in China and educated there. He has a PhD in plant taxonomy, has taught in China, and spent lengthy research stints at Harvard and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In his Boston home are documents he has amassed on the Metasequoia discovery. He founded the website, devoted to everything Metasequoia including research, sightings, impressions, and directions on how to reach the original Modaoxi village tree from which the first specimens were harvested. Since 2000, Ma has published articles on Metasequoia in and outside China. His meticulous literature review reveals scholarly inconsistences and distortions Ma finds in many of the articles and books published in China, Taiwan, and abroad.

Unraveling Metasequoia’s complicated history has been challenging. To fill out the picture of the tree’s discovery, Ma has interviewed descendants of the main players in the Metasequoia story. Scientific records and research materials went missing amid China’s fight against Japan during World War II, its subsequent civil war, the fleeing of Chiang Kai-shek’s government to Taiwan, and the Communist takeover. Later, what materials remained, especially letters and handwritten manuscripts, disappeared during the Cultural Revolution.

By the time Ma became interested in the topic, in the late 1990s as a visiting scholar at Harvard, “the main players were already gone, making material collection and corroboration very difficult,” Ma writes. “Those still alive were unable, for various reasons, to publish their experiences.”

Part of this truth finding, for Ma and others, is setting the record straight for people outside China on the contribution of Wang Zhan, a highly accomplished botanist and forestry expert who died in 2000. In 1943, however, he was just starting his career as a modest forester whose sudden illness while traveling led him to a most unusual tree.

Detoured to Discovery

Much of Wang Zhan’s early career was spent dodging war. In 1932 he fled his home in northeast China, then called Manchuria, to escape the recent Japanese invasion. After graduating in forestry from Beijing University in 1936, he remained at the school’s agricultural college teaching dendrology and forestry. He followed the college to Xi’an in 1938, when, like many academic and government institutions, it evacuated to the interior to dodge Japanese bombing.

In 1943, at age 32, he joined the Kuomintang (Nationalist) administration’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Six years earlier, Japan’s Rape of Nanjing, in December 1937, had prompted that agency, with the rest of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, to relocate from Nanjing up the Yangtze River to Wuhan, then to Chongqing.

As the forest administrator of the Central Forestry Experiment Institute’s new forestry survey department, Wang Zhan left Chongqing that summer to explore the botanically rich forest area of Shennongjia. A sudden bout of malaria forced him to stop in the river town of Wanxian.

There, he rested at an agricultural school whose head instructor, Yang Longxing, an old classmate, told him about an unusual tree he’d heard about, growing 50 miles southeast of Wanxian in the village of Modaoxi. The locals called it shuisha and had built a small mud-and-tile temple at its base in deference to its height and perceived protective properties.

“There must be a god in the tree,” a 60-year-old villager was to tell Milton Silverman, when he and Ralph Chaney visited Modaoxi five years later. A village leader told them that tea brewed from the tree’s bark and prayers to the tree god had saved his daughter’s life. According to other villagers, the thickness of the tree’s foliage and the quantity of its seed cones predicted the region’s crop fertility.

Wang was intrigued. Once he recovered, he hiked three days through mile-high mountains to reach the tree site. The tall tree above the small temple that Yang had described stood flanked by two similar, smaller trees.

Collecting the Tree’s First Specimens

“When he reached Modaoxi on July 20, the light was already fading and he was unable to work,” Wang wrote in the only published account of his trip, written, perhaps out of modesty, in the third person. “At dawn the next day, he saw it.” That morning, July 21, 1943, Wang gathered more than 10 tree specimens—needled branches and 10 stemmed cones, the latter collected from the temple’s tiled roof.

At the time, Wang thought the tree might be water pine (Glyptostrobus pensilis). Its presence in this remote area of eastern Sichuan—now part of Hubei Province—indicated a wider distribution than its usual range in Guangdong and other southern provinces, and he “was excited by that,” he wrote. Later, after closer examination, he noted its needles grew opposite along the stem, its cones were round, their stems long, “making it different from water pine, a new species.”

Once back in wartime Chongqing, with sparse reference materials at hand, he was unable to identify it. A few years later, Wang handed over to Zheng Wanjun, a dendrologist at the National Central University, a few of the novel specimens for identification. In February and May 1946 Zheng sent a graduate student, Xue Jiru, to carry out more complete collections.

Suspecting the tree was a new genus or even a new family, in April 1946 Zheng sent the specimens collected by Wang and Xue to Hu Xiansu, the Harvard-trained director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing. In late April or early May, Hu solved the mystery of the unknown tree by matching it to the photo of a five-million-year-old fossil that had come across his desk from a most unlikely source—Japan.

In 1941, a Japanese paleobotanist, Miki Shigeru, published a paper about his discovery near Tokyo of tree fossils that looked somewhat like sequoias. He assigned them to a new genus, Metasequoia—“akin” to sequoia. During the Sino-Japanese War, not every Chinese botanist would have had access to recent international research, let alone articles by botanists of an enemy country. But Hu, whose Beijing institute had received American government funding before Pearl Harbor, was well-connected.

With Miki’s paper in hand, Hu matched the Si-chuan specimens to Metasequoia. Hu’s 1946 paper announced the discovery of a living Metasequoia. In 1948 Hu and Zheng described their findings in a paper published by Hu’s institute, adding to Metasequoia the species name glyptostroboides, because of its resemblance to Glyptostrobus pensilis, water pine. The paper made no mention of Wang.

A Joint Effort with an Omission

A large source of contention over the Metasequoia discovery, according to Liu Qijing, who studied under Wang Zhan, and also described in Ma’s writings, is that after publication of Hu and Zheng’s 1948 paper, people denied Wang’s role because of a new character whom Zheng Wanjun introduced into the story after the fact—Gan Duo (or T. Kan), a name often associated with the tree’s discovery. Sometime after the 1948 publication, says Liu, Zheng Wanjun ran into Gan, a dendrology professor at National Central University. Both had moved back to Nanjing after Japan’s defeat in 1945. Nobody knows for sure what was said between Zheng and Gan. But the story some tell is that during their encounter, referring to the recent Metasequoia publication, Gan offhandedly mentioned that in 1941 he had passed the tree in Modaoxi and collected specimens. Liu’s take is that Zheng realized that not crediting Wang Zhan for his crucial role in the Metasequoia discovery was “a very dishonorable thing.” By stating that someone else—Gan’s remark made him a convenient vehicle—first discovered the tree, Zheng Wanjun could “avoid others’ questioning” about the issue of credit, Liu says. That questioning arose, he says, because people within the field knew of Wang’s key role. The Chinese literature is contradictory on this point, according to Ma. Nonetheless, Gan was never able to produce specimens he claimed to have collected in 1941, and even Zheng Wanjun acknowledged there was no proof of Gan’s story, Ma’s research has found. Some sources credit Gan Duo, some Wang Zhan, and some both, muddying the issue.

Ma Jinshuang concludes that the discovery of living Metasequoia was a joint effort involving the original collector, Wang Zhan; the dendrologist, Zheng Wanjun; and Hu Xiansu at the Fan Institute. Indeed, among the older generation of botanists in China, Wang Zhan has been linked to the discovery of Metasequoia for decades, says Qian Hong, a former doctoral student of Wang’s who is now the curator of botany at the Illinois State Museum.

Outside of China, Wang’s role as the person who first collected the tree’s specimens and without whom Hu and Zheng would not have been able to publish their discovery isn’t so obvious.

In the opening line of the Chinese version of their 1948 paper announcing the new species, Hu and Zheng credited Wang Zhan’s initial specimen collection. But in the article’s English summary, likely penned by Hu—the version that was read by foreign botanists and thus provided the international record of the find—the authors omitted Wang’s name. Perhaps as a result, most publications outside China ignore or play down Wang’s role.

Was the omission careless or intentional? If the first, the authors, both prominent men, never corrected the record in writing. Of course, regardless of nation, it is not unusual for academics to fail to credit all contributors to a find. So does this omission matter? In China, it appears to.

The discovery by Chinese forestry and botany experts of a living fossil on Chinese soil is a source of pride in China. Pride and scholarly curiosity drive Ma’s quest to sort out who did what in the process. In addition, Wang’s former graduate students, now middle-age professionals in the field, highly esteem their teacher. It is therefore not surprising that some of them feel slighted on his behalf within the context of the Metasequoia story. (As mentioned earlier, Wang went on to have a very successful career.)

Back in the 1940s, “They shoved Wang Zhan aside. They should have included his contribution, but didn’t,” says Liu Qijing, who is 55 and a professor at Beijing Forestry University. Liu spoke several times with Wang Zhan about the discovery while studying under him for his PhD at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Applied Ecology.

Qian Hong told me: “I respect Professors Hu and Zheng as taxonomists, but their scholarship in relation to the Metasequoia discovery was unethical.”

Crediting Contributors

Hu and Zheng both used Wang Zhan’s specimens, collected in July 1943, as the original basis for their Metasequoia discovery. However, given that it is impossible to collect all the tree parts needed to identify a new species in any one season, Zheng sent the graduate student Xue Jiru to collect the additional specimen material from the same tree in 1946.

Botanists are not required to use the first specimen collection ever made, says Bruce Bartholomew, a retired collections manager and now a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. “Somebody could have collected a really scrappy specimen, and you say, ‘Oh, this is something new and really interesting; we’d better get some better material.’ You get better material and use that as the type specimen.”

That’s presumably what Zheng Wanjun did when he sent his student to collect further specimens. He and Hu then cited those rather than Wang’s specimens, making the student’s collections the “type” specimens—the twigs, leaves, fruit, and flowers cited in publication of a new plant. Yet it was Wang’s specimens they had first examined, and those specimens brought the tree to their attention to begin with.

Absent Wang’s specimens, Hu and Zheng could not have published their Metasequoia discovery, writes Ma Jinshuang. Referring obliquely to the failure of these elder titans in the field to right a wrong, he writes, it is “regrettable that those involved did not immediately correct the matter and issue the necessary explanation but instead blindly introduced the saying about Gan Duo seeing the tree in 1941.”

“There’s nothing in the code that says you have to credit the original specimen collector,” says Bartholomew, but “it’s common courtesy…and out of courtesy one would, of course, tell the whole story.”

Why didn’t Hu and Zheng cite Wang’s specimen? “It’s an unsolvable mystery,” says Qian Hong. “If they had hewed to science and tradition, there would be no controversy.”

Unabated Contentions

The omission of Wang’s contribution sparked an immediate hullabaloo inside China’s botanical circles in the late 1940s, Ma says. This concern, together with “issues of family status, rumors, and blind citations combined to make an already complicated series of events even more convoluted, making it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. It is precisely this kind of completely avoidable human factor that led to the contention that continues, unabated, more than a half century after the Metasequoia publication,” he wrote in 2002.

The “family status” Ma alludes to is likely the power and class differences between Hu and Zheng on the one hand and Wang Zhan on the other. In 1946, both Hu and Zheng were prominent, well-established scholars who had earned their PhDs abroad, Hu in the United States and Zheng in France. Hu Xiansu, then 52, trained at Berkeley and Harvard and is credited for founding the field of botany in China. Zheng Wanjun, a conifer expert, then 42, was professor and chair of National Central University’s dendrology department. The 35-year-old Wang had been born in a remote village in Manchuria, had not studied overseas, and was, in Ma’s words, an ordinary teacher.

Just as, today, Wang’s former students’ views reflect high regard for their teacher, six decades ago Wang likely treated his elders in the field with respect and, because of the times, perhaps awe. Wang looked up to Hu and Zheng as his teachers, says Qian Hong. “At that time in China, your teachers were even more elevated than your own father.”

Which may help explain why, in May 1948, Wang Zhan wrote his account of the Metasequoia discovery in the third person under a (thinly disguised) pseudonym. “Writing in the third person was more convincing,” theorizes Liu Qijing. “And using his own name would have made it look like he was arguing on his own behalf.” That is something an ordinary teacher would avoid in the face of formidable leaders in his field, says Qian Hong.

According to Wang’s former students, he never once mentioned his 1948 piece—a short report based on a field diary and the only thing he ever wrote about the Metasequoia discovery.

Wang Zhan went on to become one of China’s most distinguished forestry experts and botanists. He taught in several institutions, collected specimens from every corner of China, and published many new species. He contributed to widely adopted forest regeneration practices in China, and in 1979 issued early alarms about the dire effects on land and people of deforestation along the Yangtze River. He helped found and was the first director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Changbai Mountain Forest Ecosystem Research Station, near the North Korea border. He helped create the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Applied Ecology, where he directed three doctoral students—Liu Qijing, Qian Hong, and Shao Guofan.

“He was 75 when I studied with him,” recalls Shao Guofan, a professor of geo-eco-informatics at Purdue University. “He was very energetic, very dedicated to research.”

Discerning Wang’s Personal Feelings

Wang died in 2000 at age 89. According to Liu Qijing, he was preceded in death by his wife in 1992, and his son, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, when Wang and his family suffered severe persecution. He is survived by three daughters.

In the Chinese-style hagiography Wang’s former students published the year he died, they write he “never complained” about the way his role in the discovery of Metasequoia was “distorted.” Pressed, his students offer more.

“He spoke to us about it a few times,” says Liu Qijing. Sensing that Wang felt hurt about the affair, “we didn’t readily ask him about it.”

Ma Jinshuang says nobody dared ask Wang directly how he felt about the affair. “It’s a question of face, very important to the Chinese.”

Shao Guofan perceives possible regret on Wang’s part. “He might have felt ashamed that he hadn’t accurately identified it himself, that he lost the chance to make such an important 20th-century discovery.”

But Wang was not interested in personal gain, says Shao. Who discovered Metasequoia was less important than the fact it was now growing successfully all over the world and was better protected, Shao says Wang once told him.

The Crumbling Pile of Needles

Ma’s quest to unearth as much evidence as he can about the dawn redwood’s discovery fueled his expenditure of three years, plenty of guanxi (human network capital), and an unstated amount of what he calls “fees” to gain access to the three-story building he suspected held one of Wang’s original specimens. For Wang gave Zheng only some, not all, of his specimens. The facility, in Nanjing, in Jiangsu Province, belongs to the Jiangsu Forestry Academy.

The Metasequoia specimen, its typed label noting it was collected by Wang Zhan on July 21, 1943, ended up in that dank storehouse after a tangle of geographic moves and institutional mergers that characterized China’s decades-long journey through war, political upheaval, and a change of government systems.

That the herbarium in which Ma exhumed it, unattended since the 1980s, was abandoned would not surprise a botanist. Neglected herbaria appear all over the world, Bruce Bartholomew says, especially among lesser institutions such as this one, or where the one person who built and doted on the collection retired.

Ma was also unsurprised by the Jiangsu academy’s reaction to his 2002 visit, of which he did not notify them in advance, as he felt doing so would have eroded his chances of seeing the collection.

“It was very hard for me to get in the room. The academy didn’t want me to see it,” Ma recalls. After he published, with Shao Guofan as his coauthor, the finding of Wang’s specimen (in Taxonomy, August 2003), with photo, and despite—or because of—its negligence of the herbarium, “they hated that I published the specimen because they thought they should have published it themselves.” The specimens meant nothing to them, he says. “We can’t tell them what to do. More important are title and power,” says Ma, than collegial sharing among scientists. “There are many things like this in China,” he laments.

Wang’s former students observe that people in positions of power in China protect things they perceive as economically valuable. Academic matters and botanical specimens don’t typically fit that bill. It’s likely the Jiangsu Forestry Academy was unaware of the significant piece of history under its nose.

Since the brouhaha following Ma’s published discovery and others’ visits to the premises, the Jiangsu Forestry Academy has taken steps to better preserve the Wang specimen, according to Liu Qijing. “This specimen appears to be very valuable,” Liu says someone he met from that institution has told him. Other, functioning herbaria have offered to take it, but the academy won’t part with it now, he says. The day Ma located the object of his three-year search, he was tempted to spirit it away for proper preservation and safekeeping. But not wishing to create an incident, he left it behind.

To Ma’s knowledge, the poorly preserved specimen is the only extant one of the series that the young forester Wang Zhan collected on that July morning in 1943 from the tree that still exists today in a mountainous village in Hubei Province.

Taxonomically, it may have no significance, because it wasn’t cited by Hu and Zheng in their publication of the Metasequoia discovery. Instead, its worth lies in its history, and the evidence it provides of Wang Zhan’s pivotal role in a seminal botanical find of the 20th century.

Kyna Rubin is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

9 thoughts on “The Metasequoia Mystery”

  1. Really fascinating. It points out the value of dispersed collections and benign neglect. With the extensive conflict in China in the middle 20th century it is amazing the sample survived. I also appreciated the sensitive portrayal of Chinese cultural concepts woven into the story.

  2. I think that every plant has a story equal to this Metasequoia glyptostroboides…it is only for humans to look a little longer, a little harder, with a great deal more sensitivity. 🙂

  3. And, of course, the people of Modaoxi who named the tree, built a temple to it, made tea from it, and predicted the outcomes of their yearly crops from it cone production for generations… they get no credit. Only the people who gathered some samples and placed it in context with other species. It’s like astronomers naming stars, “I saw it first, I saw it first!” Petty is right.

  4. I have just been reading my father, Jack Heslop-Harrison’s account of visiting the Forest Institute in Nanking/Nanjing on 23rd July 1985. He writes “Herbarium. We were escorted by Chu ? , the curator. … A special display had been prepared for us of delectable items from the collection. The show piece was the type specimen of Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu et Chen (Hu had been Dean of the College at one time), in a special glass case. Other types including T… odoum, Cunninghamia lanceolata and Cryptomeria fortunei … The cupboards were old fashioned and over-crowded, but the labelling and general standard of curation is very high. There was no evidence of any research in progress, and the principal function seemed to be nowadays identification and teaching. The curator was not familiar with the Flora of China project, and had not been asked to cooperate.” So clearly as late as 1985 the significance of the type in the collection was well recognized and shown to visitors with some pride.

  5. It seems we can count on humans acting like humans in all their inspiring and disappointing variations. Thank you for your careful research.

    Our town’s post office got a seed in the 1947 international seed distribution meant to help preserve the species. It was planted on March 7, Arbor Day. This year – 2019 – is its 70th Birthday. There is a plaque on it. Our town, Palo Alto, is by San Francisco Bay where the weather is temperate and home to many Sequoia sempervirens, with some next to the Dawn Redwood – the cousins keep each other company.

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