An Interview with Professor at the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Minzu University of China. Chunlin works in the areas of Ethnobotany, Ethnoecology, Ethnopharmacology, Plant Genetic Resources, Phytochemistry, Plant Taxonomy, and Biodiversity. By student council member, Lukas Pawera @LukasPawera
Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?
Basically, I am an ethnobotanist, but sometimes people call me also ethnobiologist or ethnopharmacologist. I see myselfas an ethnobotanist, botanist and teacher. I teach undergraduate and graduate students in ethnobotany and botany subjects.
Describe your work/what you see as your mission
For the last 30 years, I have been doing research on the relationship of people and plants. Before I moved to Beijing, I spent 23 years in Yunnan, a place with the richest biodiversity in China. I was at the Kunming Institute of Botany and I was doing a lot of fieldworks in Southwest China. But now I travel all around China, and I spent much time in the villages. Since I am a teacher, I focus on training young people. Based on this, I can say that my mission has four main aims. The first one is to save the traditional botanical and ecological knowledge. China is developing very quickly, and we have to hurry up to save the disappearing traditional knowledge. But in China, we have very few people who understand ethnobotanical approaches. We need more people to join this mission. The second aim is to train more young people and ethnobotanists to continue this kind of work. We have huge diversity in China and we need more people to document it. The third aim is to disseminate the traditional botanical knowledge, not only at universities but also in the news and public media. The fourth aim is to develop new theories and methods. We always need innovative research and teaching methods.
What/where did you study? Do you think this influences you in any particular way?
I got my master degree from Kunming Institute of Botany (under the supervision of Prof. PEI Shengji and Prof. LI Heng). And then, I got my PhD degree in Japan, where I studied sustainable development at Shizuoka University. Dr. NAKAI Hirokazu was my supervisor, and I studied agrobiodiversity and sustainable development. Since then, I have been studying ethnobotany in very broad areas. I am interested in food plants, medicinal plants, and generally all useful plants! Besides China, I also do research in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Mongolia.
What got you interested in ethnobotany?
When I came to know ethnobotany, I was very young and I didn’t know what ethnobotany is and if to be interested or not. But when I got into local villages to do the fieldwork, I was so surprised by people’s rich traditional knowledge. I tried to learn from them and wondered how they have so much knowledge about plants, animals and the environment. I like to work with local people and it has influenced me a lot. Besides that, I have to mention Professor Pei, a distinguished ethnobotanist, and also other mentors who made me interested in ethnobotany.
Did you ever think you would be an ethnobotanist growing up? What did you want to be when you were a child? If you were not an ethnobotanist, what would you be?
Before knowing ethnobotany, I studied in Central China and I didn’t know anything about ethnobotany. I knew botany and plant taxonomy, but I learned about ethnobotany when I arrived in Kunming. When I was young, I wanted to be a miner or a factory worker in an urban area where I could operate the machines. Many people in China, especially people from the countryside and mountainous areas, try to get jobs in bigger cities to support their lives. The young people don’t stay in the countryside and do not know much about plants and animals.
What made you choose your current research themes on useful plants?
Because I spent a lot of time in villages, I realized the needs of people living in the countryside. They need many things to support their livelihoods. In the last 20-30 years, poverty has been a very big problem in China. In many cases, traditional knowledge has helped people to alleviate poverty. This knowledge reduced poverty and some people even become rich out of it. For example, there is a very old landrace of rice in Yunnan, called Changmaogu, which is grown in small areas over a few villages. The yield is not high, but the quality and associated knowledge are fascinating. We studied that variety, and we found lots of interesting results. This variety is very special and rich in nutrients and bioactive compounds good for health. We shared the results with the local people, the public, and small enterprises, and now people are buying this product for a very high price. As a result, the local people earn much money from this rice. Now, the locals protect their landrace in-situ to increase their income.
Another example is the traditional tea plantation. Typically, tea gardens are large monocrops, but in Southern Yunnan, people planted tea seedlings in the forests and managed their tea gardens in traditional ways. It’s a very interesting planting style, which doesn’t destroy the forests, it doesn’t apply chemicals, and the taste and quality of this tea is very good, and so is the price. People can get a good income from this traditional farming. Twenty years ago, they were very poor, whereas now they are economically very well.
Who was the most influential person on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?
Of course, my supervisors influenced my professional career. But another person I want to mention is Prof. WU Zhengyi, who passed away eight years ago, but he had a major influence on my career. I spent 10 years on gene bank establishment to preserve genetic resources in Kunming. Professor Wu encouraged me to study plant genetics resources. Lastly, I have to acknowledge my family members who have always supported me.
What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?
I have a few highlights. The first was 12 years ago, when I proposed a concept of “Modern ethnobotany” at the national conference on ethnobotany in China. And since then, more researchers follow the methodologies I proposed. The second highlight is, that I have trained 121 graduate students who received master or doctoral degrees in ethnobotany. Not all of them are ethnobotanists now, but many apply ethnobotanical approaches in other disciplines and sectors. The third highlight is that we contributed to poverty alleviation and rural development through our research on traditional knowledge and plants. Another highlight is the 10 years of work to establish the genebank program “Southwest China Germplasm Bank of Wild Species”, and to link traditional botanical knowledge with plant and fungi accessions. Before, people just collected ecological and biological information on the species. Now it includes also traditional knowledge.
And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?
When I go outside and meet new friends, they ask what my background is, and they are always surprised by ethnobotany. Ethnobotany is still a marginal subject. Even in botany societies, only a few people do ethnobotany, and it is hard for us to compete, for example, with plant geneticists and molecular biologists. This is a kind of general lowlight of my work.
What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany? (maybe 1 or 2 tips, or things you had wish you had known as a student?
It depends on the background and study programs of the students. But in general, please get interested in the relationship of people and plants and try to understand it more. And please trust the local people, they have lots of traditional plant knowledge!
How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched? What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?
In general, we have a lot to do in future. We need to strengthen the inventories of traditional knowledge since we are losing a lot and it’s a big pity. Now in South-East Asia and in developing countries elsewhere in Africa or South America, there is plenty of traditional knowledge which have not been documented. New technology and methods should be used for investigation, documentation and analysis. For example, we can use GIS, we can use the internet and other online approaches. We can also use genomics and phytochemistry to study traditional varieties of crops and useful plants to understand their properties and biological activities. And we need to go beyond basic science and raise awareness to make the public better understand the significance of ethnobotany. I also think that urban ethnobotany will be more important, since now it is quite overlooked.
Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?
For example, Anthony Cunningham has been a great inspiration for me. Also, Alan Hamilton, who used to work for Kew. And, of course, Gary Martin. And then my supervisor Professor Pei. I should also mention Professor, plant taxonomist and ethnobotanist: Peter Raven, who used to be the Missouri Botanical Garden director. Lastly, I want to highlight Rick Stepp and Nancy Turner.
Have you any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?
For my students, I have a list of many books. But I would suggest two books for others in general. One is Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline by Richard Schultes and S. von Reis. Another one is Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual by Garry Martin. From the Chinese ones, there are some by Professor Pei and myself, such as《民族植物学》《应用民族植物学》《民族文化与生物多样性保护》.
What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?
When I was young, I liked many sports such as football, volleyball, table tennis, and Go Chess (Wei Qi) but that one is time-consuming and we did spend nights on that! But now I am busy and I don’t have any leisure time. Even on weekend time, I write articles or prepare some education materials. But since I like my work, it is actually my hobby!
What is your favourite plant and why?
I have many, many favourite plants. I will share you two for now. The first one, the beautiful one, is endemic Musella lasiocarpa from Musaceae family. It’s smaller than banana plant, with erect inflorescence. It’s very useful, providing food, medicine, and material. The other plant is less beautiful but an interesting one. It’s alder tree Alnus nepalensis, which is distributed in Eastern Himalayas. It’s a fast-growing and nitrogen-fixing tree with lots of uses for local people, providing timber, crafts, or container for food and tea. The bark, which contains tannins, is used for medicine, and the leaves are used as fodder for animals. Importantly, this tree improves the soil fertility for farmers.
Finally, is there anything you would like to share with us?
Yes, I would like to ask one question to other ethnobotanists. Since I teach ethnobotany in China, I am now writing a textbook of ethnobotany in Chinese, but it takes time. I would like to know if there are any textbooks for teaching ethnobotany that could be used for inspiration. Please reach out to me if you have some tip.
Video links to check:
花木间的神明, Introduction to traditional botanical knowledge: https://www.bilibili.com/video/av15973388/
脱贫攻坚人物志, 第6集, 植物猎手龙春林, Traditional knowledge of rice landrace for poverty alleviation and agrobiodiversity conservation: https://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDkwMTMyMjA3Mg==.html
游学于山野村寨的生物学者 (TED talk), An ethnobiologist who learns from indigenous peoples: https://www.bilibili.com/video/av756071875/
CCTV9《追梦者5, 家园》 Traditional management of old tea garden (from minute 26):
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*An interview with SEB Student council member, Lukas Pawera @LukasPawera. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you would like to interview someone, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for the guide.