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Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Edward Gray   14 January [1856]1

Down Bromley Kent

Jany. 14th

My dear Gray

You have often helped me,2 will you be so kind as to help me this time in regard to the enclosed memorandum, with Mr. Birch.3 It is my only imaginable channel by which I can ever learn anything about the varieties of our domesticated animals & plants in China.—4 Do pray use your interest for me with Mr. Birch; I could not ask myself.—

My dear Gray | Yours very truly | C. Darwin


Is there any translation of any Chinese work, ancient or modern, descriptive, or even simply enumerative, of the varieties of domestic Pigeons & Fowls or Ducks kept by the Chinese; & likewise of the Dogs, sheep, cattle &c; but I care more about the former even than the latter.— And the same in regard to the varieties of cultivated plants, but more especially of tobacco & maize; for these latter plants, the work, of course, must not be ancient.—

If any such Chinese agricultural work or Encyclopædia exists in the British Museum but has not been translated, would it be possible for Mr Birch, & would he be so very kind as to take the trouble as to look at it (& as probably saving him a little trouble) & let me be present to note down names of any varieties mentioned, if such are specified.. This would be of extreme interest to me; but I hardly know how great a favour I am asking, for Chinese seems to be so wonderfully difficult to read.—

C. Darwin


Dated by the relationship to subsequent letters to Samuel Birch and William Darwin Fox (see n. 4, below).
In particular, Gray had assisted CD in obtaining permission to borrow the British Museum’s collection of Cirripedia while CD was working on his monograph of the group (see Correspondence vol. 4, letters to J. E. Gray, [18 December 1847], 18 December 1847, and [5 or 6 February 1848]).
Samuel Birch was assistant keeper of the department of antiquities, British Museum. Gray was keeper of the zoological collections.
See letters to Samuel Birch, 6 February [1856] and [12 March 1856], and to W. D. Fox, 15 March [1856]. In both Origin and Variation, CD cited Birch as having translated for him passages from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Egyptian texts that described breeds of pigeons and fowls. See Origin, pp. 27–8, and Variation 1: 205, 230, 238, 246 n. 33, and 247.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Requests that JEG secure the assistance of Samuel Birch in regard to information about varieties of domesticated animals and plants in China. Encloses memorandum.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Edward Gray
Sent from
Source of text
British Museum (Department of the Middle East, correspondence 1826–67: 1490, 1488)
Physical description
2pp encl 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1820A,” accessed on 8 August 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6