Nanfang caomu zhuang 南方草木狀 "Herbs and trees of the south" is a description of southern China's flora written during the Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316) by Ji Han 嵇含 (263-306). Ji Han served as a high official at the courts of several imperial princes in southern China and was finally promoted to the post of regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Guangzhou 廣州 (modern Guangdong). He was assassinated on his way to the south. Ji Han was a relative of the famous poet and thinker Ji Kang 嵇康 (223-262).
Ji's interest in plants might come from his relationship with Daoist adepts seeking immortality from the essence of herbs, the so-called immortality herbs (xiancao 仙草, xianyao 仙藥). His collected writings, Ji Han ji 嵇含集, with a length of 10 juan, are unfortunately lost.
The Nanfang caomu zhuang was finished in 306. It is 3-juan long and describes plants and vegetable products in the regions of Guangzhou, Jiaozhou 交趾 (today northern Vietnam) and imports from Southeast Asia. Economic plants were traditionally divided into four groups: herbs (cao 草), trees (mu 木), fruits (guo 果), and bamboos (zhu 竹), with the plant shape as criterion. Grains, vegetables, perfumes, textile fibres, dyestuff plants, woods, medical plants and ornamental plants (criterion: use) are included in these four categories. Inside these groups plants are discerned according to the shape, colour, taste and fragrance of the fruits, the different flowers, and so on.
A field which Ji Han covered very detailed is the agriculture of citrus plants, the kumquat (ganju 柑橘), and the use of insecticides. Another interesting point is the fabrication of alcoholic liquors from sticky rice (nuomi 糯米).
The scientific quality of the Nanfang caomu zhuang is relatively high. It therefore attracted the interest of many later scholars and is often cited in the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) pharmacopoea Bencao gangmu 本草綱目, as well as in older Japanese treatises on medical plants. It was also studies by many Western scholars, like Friedrich Hirth (1845-1927), Emil (Vasilyevich) Bretschneider (1833-1901), Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), and Joseph Needham (1900-1995).
The original text has been lost, it is therefore not recorded in the imperial bibliographies of the official dynastic histories Suishu 隋書 and the two Tangshu 唐書, the official histories of the Tang period 書 (618-907).
The earliest records in Song period 宋 (960-1279) bibliographies show that the transmitted version is a reconstruction from quotations, mainly from the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) encyclopaedia Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚. Some scholars even raised doubts about the authenticity of the received Nanfang caomu zhuang.