Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - Translator's Preface

Translator's Preface

One day in the seventies, fired by a new (and still enduring) enthusiasm for the genus Primula, the translator visited the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society to read the papers presented at the Fourth Primula Conference in 1928. Among them was one entitled The Natural Habitats of Chinese Primulas, by Dr H. Handel-Mazzetti from the Natural History Museum in Vienna. At first reading it was obvious that he had travelled widely in China. Had he published an account of his travels? A glance at the card index led to his book Naturbilder aus Sudwest China. I sat there enthralled until closing time came and soon decided to translate it into English. So scarce is the book that many years passed before I was able to buy a copy for my own use.

Why is this almost forgotten book worth reissuing in English? In the short window in time during which Western China became open to visitors from the western world — from the later years of the nineteenth century to the twenties, when political restrictions made travelling more and more difficult — only a small number of botanists and plant hunters worked there and very few of them left satisfactory narratives of their journeys. E.H.Wilson concentrated on an area north of the Yangtse and hardly touched Yunnan. Joseph Rock's interests shifted to ethnology and he published nothing on botany. George Forrest intended to write a account of his travels after retiring, but death came unexpectedly and in any case he had never kept a diary. Frank Kingdon Ward wrote several fascinating books about his plant hunting travels in China, but his writings are somewhat unsystematic and sometimes seem to have been composed from the diaries of two journeys conflated into one narrative. Handel-Mazzetti's book is quite different. Written from his diaries, it gives a sober and well organised account of his journeys. Though it is not in journal form, the date and place are nearly always discoverable, the plants are listed and the people he meets are vividly portrayed. Yet it is also a thrilling tale of exploration and adventure told with literary skill as well as scientific accuracy and leavened by occasional passages of sly humour.

Though a few of the plant names have been brought up to date, no attempt has been made at any systematic revision, nor have I thought it necessary to write more than occasional notes on the plants - over two thousand — that Handel-Mazzetti mentions.

This edition could not have been completed without help from many friends in Austria and elsewhere. I am deeply grateful to Hofrat Professor K.H.Rechinger, who in 1986 granted me two interviews at which he recorded on tape his reminiscences of Handel-Mazzetti; Paul Handel-Mazzetti, the botanist's nephew, who shared his memories of his uncle and unearthed numerous long forgotten articles in journals and newspapers; Dr Else Handel-Mazzetti, the botanist's niece, who lent me Handel-Mazzetti's mother's diary for the year 1912, a record which threw light on his relations with Archduke Franz Ferdinand; Dr Eva Schonbeck, formerly Curator of the Herbarium at the Botanical Institute, Vienna University, for lending me the collection of 1700 photographs taken by Handel-Mazzetti in China and for tracing the reference to his journey through the Dolomites as the Archduke's botanical guide; Dr Riedl-Dorn at the Naturhistorisches Museum for helping to trace Handel-Mazzetti's photographs; Franz Hada-cek, for general help and guidance during and after my stay in Vienna in 1986; Dr John Richards for advice on botany; Katharina Tabbernor, the only one of my German friends who succeeded in deciphering Handel-Mazzetti's mother's handwriting; Dr Rüdiger Hoffmann for advice on Handel-Mazzetti's mountaineering exploits (Chapter 29); Stephen Haw, who transcribed all the place-names into Pinyin and gave me much useful advice about Chinese customs; Herr Kai Kahler for information on Edward Amundsen; Dr Edmund Launert for introducing me to Professor K.H. Rechinger; Ingrid Roderick of the Bible Society for a copy of the committee's minutes (4th November 1915) dealing with Amundsen's recall from Kunming; Valerie Wheat of the American Museum of Natural History for information on Roy Chapman Andrews; Osterreichischer Bundesverlag, the firm that published the first edition in 1927, for generously waiving their claim to copyright (which in Austria lasts for 70 years after the author's death), and the librarians of the Natural History Museum, the Royal Geographical and the Royal Horticultural Societies.

David Winstanley 1996

[Biography of Handel-Mazzetti]