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Why a gazetteer and thesaurus?

To resolve the inconsistencies, uncertainties, and confusion of place names used over the past 150 years by explorers and collectors of natural history specimens in the Hengduan Mountains region, a multilingual gazetteer and thesaurus was prepared.

The Hengduan Mountains region lies at the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, largely in what were the former Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo, and in western Sichuan and northern Yunnan. Within these areas, cities, towns, villages, mountains, lakes and other geographic features have at least two names applied to them, one Tibetan, the other Chinese. Overlying this indigenous nomenclature are the names applied by the mostly late 19th- to late 20th-century European explorers and missionaries, each of whom used their native language to transliterate the place names they heard or read from Tibetan or Chinese script, and names in the languages of other ethnic minorities who live within the area. Adding to the confusion is the array of 'standards' for transliterating Tibetan and Chinese names. To resolve the inconsistencies, uncertainties, and confusion of place names in this region, this multilingual gazetteer and thesaurus was prepared. The gazetteer-thesaurus was compiled to be used as a tool for correlating the often radically different names assigned to a single place or feature and to provide the geographic coordinates for each. The impetus for this project was the need to assign geographic coordinates to plant specimens collected in the region and housed in the Harvard University Herbaria (primarily A, AMES, FH, and GH). The specimens date primarily from the 19th through the late 20th centuries. Geographic information on the labels from that period rarely includes more than the name of the place where the specimen was collected, and frequently includes the elevation  Very few specimens include the latitude of the place of collection. Until the advent and widespread use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the availability of inexpensive GPS handheld receivers in the 1990s, the inclusion of geographic coordinates on botanical specimens was rare. 


Resources for the gazetteer

Many explorers to eastern Tibet and the western borderlands of China documented their travels and discoveries in journal articles and books, and these were often accompanied by maps. Geographic names of places and features on these maps were also used on specimen labels. In our gazetteer, the names gleaned from specimen label data are associated with current place names. ESRI’s Digital Map Database of China (DMDC) was used as a base map for georeferencing. The ESRI data set (1:1000000) includes provincial and county boundary layers, over 33000 contemporary place names, roadways, hydrography, and hypsography. The Alexandria Digital Library Gazetteer and a dataset of place names in SW Sichuan from Conservation International were also used as sources of geographic names.

Some of the maps are particularly useful in associating historic and idiosyncratic place names with current localities. The four maps that Joseph  Rock provided in his two-volume The Ancient Na-khi Kingdom of Southwest China (1947) were georeferenced to the DMDC (see under 'Historical maps'). Many of the over 1000 place names (Naxi, Tibetan, and Chinese) on his maps relate specifically to his and other botanists’ collections (e.g., H. Handel-Mazzetti). He also cites the place name variations used by Major H. R. Davies, a British officer stationed in Burma in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on his map of Yunnan (Davies, 1909). Rock was also in the employ of the National Geographic Society for a portion of his time in western China. His articles and maps published in the National Geographic Magazine were an additional source of toponyms (Rock, 1930 a, b; 1931).

Other resources for place and geographical feature names were the maps compiled by Gören Herner of the routes of the Swedish botanist Karl August Harald (Harry) Smith (Herner, 1988); two volumes published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Diels, 1912, 1924) that detail George Forrest’s collections from southwest China; a map of NW Yunnan showing the route of the geologist J. W. Gregory (Gregory & Gregory, 1923); E. Teichman’s map of eastern Tibet (Teichman, 1922); and the numerous maps that accompanied the accounts of the explorers in the region.


The gazetteer and thesaurus is a work-in-progress. As historic specimens are georeferenced, more place and feature names will be added.  In cases where an historic name cannot be associated with a current name, the Chinese characters may not be accurate.  Please direct any comments and/or corrections to Susan Kelley.


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