SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) AGRICULTURE

SONG DYNASTY AGRICULTURE

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rice plants
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Farmers in Song China did not aim at self-sufficiency. They had found that producing for the market made possible a better life. Farmers sold their surpluses in nearby markets and bought charcoal, tea, oil, and wine. Some of the products on sale in the city depicted in the scroll would have come from nearby farms, but others came from far away. In many places, farmers specialized in commercial crops, such as sugar, oranges, cotton, silk, and tea. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer afe.easia.columbia.edu/song ]

“The many rivers and streams of the region facilitated shipping, which reduced the cost of transportation and, thus, made regional specialization economically more feasible. During the Song period, the Yangzi River regions became the economic center of China. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “For almost 1000 years, since the disastrous Yellow River floods of the early first century, the population of China had been gradually shifting from the fertile but dry lands of the North towards the South, a region characterized by a warm, moist climate and by a multitude of naturally navigable waterways. This shift accelerated during the peaceful years of the early Song, as farmers sought to open new lands in the South on which to grow rice, which was becoming increasingly popular throughout China, and also to produce other crops that Northerners would find exotic and attractive, such as tea. /+/

“In the South, crops could be grown year round, and Major North-South canals fostered a lively inter-regional trade that heated China’s economy to levels unseen before in the world. The South became particularly wealthy. Farming populations began to grow at spectacular rates, and enormously wealthy merchant families began to purchase large tracts of land, rent them out to peasant tenants, collect high rents, and use their wealth to gather together in increasingly large urban centers, where the upper classes lived in remarkable luxury. The growth of some of the largest Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou (Canton) and Nanjing, dates from this period.” /+/

Good Websites and Sources on the Song Dynasty: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; San.beck.org san.beck.org ; Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Agriculture and Rice During the Song Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Song dynasty (960-1276) saw a tremendous increase in Chinese agricultural productivity. Double- and triple-cropping in the irrigated fields of south China and the Introduction and dissemination of improved strains of rice and new farming techniques made these increases possible and, in turn, supported a growing population. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Millet, wheat, and sorghum were the basic subsistence crops in the north, while rice predominated in the south. Rice was grown primarily south of the Yangzi River. This area had many advantages over the north China plain, as the climate is warmer and rainfall more plentiful. The mild temperatures of the south often allowed two crops to be grown on the same plot of land — a summer and a winter crop.

“Farmers in Song China did not aim at self-sufficiency. They had found that producing for the market made possible a better life. Farmers sold their surpluses in nearby markets and bought charcoal, tea, oil, and wine. Some of the products on sale in the city depicted in the scroll would have come from nearby farms, but others came from far away. In many places, farmers specialized in commercial crops, such as sugar, oranges, cotton, silk, and tea. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer afe.easia.columbia.edu/song ]

Rice Farming During the Song Dynasty


Tang-era farm workers

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “During Song times, new developments in rice cultivation — especially the introduction of new strains of rice from what is now Central Vietnam, along with improved methods of water control and irrigation — spectacularly increased rice yields. Rice was used primarily as food, but was also used to brew the wine consumed in homes and taverns. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer afe.easia.columbia.edu/song ]

“As grown throughout East Asia before modern times, rice required much labor — to level the paddy fields, clear irrigation ditches, plant and especially transplant the seedlings, as well as to weed, harvest, thresh, and husk. Farmers developed many varieties of rice, including drought resistant and early ripening varieties, as well as rice suited for special purposes such as brewing. They also remade the landscape by terracing hilly land, so that rice could be grown on it. Agricultural manuals helped to disseminate the best techniques for rice cultivation.”

Lynda Noreen Shaffer wrote: “In the early part of the Song dynasty... a new variety of early-ripening rice was introduced into China from Champa, a kingdom then located near the Mekong River Delta in what is now Vietnam, and by 1012 it had been introduced in the lower Yangzi and Huai river regions.... Because the variety of rice was relatively more drought-resistant, it could be grown in places where older varieties had failed, especially on higher land and on terraces that climb hilly slopes, and it ripened even faster than the other early-ripening varieties already grown in China. This made double-cropping possible in some areas, and in some places, even triple-cropping became possible... the hardiness and productivity of various varieties of rice were and are in large part responsible for the density of population in South, Southeast, and East Asia. According to the Buddhist monk, Shu Wenying, the Song Emperor Zhengzhong (998-1022), when he learned that Champa rice was drought-resistant, sent special envoys to bring samples back to China.” [Source: Lynda Noreen Shaffer, from “A Concrete Panoply of Intercultural Exchange: Asia in World History,” in Asia in Western and World History, edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 839-840]

Han-Lu Rice

Agriculture in the Song Dynasty was in part revolutionized by the use of fast-ripening Han-lu rice. Xiongsheng Zeng wrote in “Huang-lu Rice in Chinese History”: “ The pronunciation of huang-lu (yellow rapid-ripening rice), an historic Chinese variety, suggests it existed in northern Wei Dynasty (386-543), but was not very popular until Song Dynasty (960-1279). Since then, the southward economic shift saw many new land uses like paddies and dikes, but due to natural conditions and human activities were weak; e.g., liable to waterlog and flood. But huang-lu’s fast ripening and water resistance permitted proper ripening, surpassing actual need. It could also use the limited time before and after flooding to complete growth from sowing to harvesting. [Source: “Huang-lu Rice in Chinese History” by Xiongsheng Zeng, Research Institute of History in Natural Science, Scientifica Sinica, Beijing, (Agricultural Archaeology 1998(3):292-311. Transl./interpreted by W. Tsao, Ph.D. 10/10/01; ed. by B. Gordon, carleton.ca/~bgordon/Rice]

These traits met economic needs and natural conditions; e.g., land reclamation from water. Hence, huang-lu promotion and popularity played an important role in grain supply and population growth after Song Dynasty. I compare the famous early ripening drought-resistant champa rice introduced by Song Emperor Zhen Zong (998-1022) from Fujian in the year 1012, and suggest huang-lu influence in Chinese history exceeds champa. This is because paddy fields were larger than mountain ones, and flood resistant varieties are better in cultivation than dry ones after Song Dynasty.

“He Bingdi’s Early Ripening Rice Varieties in Chinese History said the 11th century "agricultural revolution" was a rapid basic population growth initiator, with "dry-resistant zhan-cheng (champa) rice import the top fast-ripening variety, extending growth to lowland, valleys, riverbanks and hills…changing land use and doubling rice growing. These varieties greatly influenced food supply and directly increased population" Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty food sources concentrated around Tai, Poyang and Dongting Lakes in the middle and lower Yangtze basin. Despite its high population, much food was sent to other areas, provoking post-Song-Yuan period sayings like "Suzhou and Huzhou crops ripen, so things will be adequate elsewhere", and similar ones voiced in Suzhou, the Lake area and Guangdong.

“On Farming” (Nongshu) by Chen Pu


One way in which farming techniques were spread around the empire was through the printing and circulation of handbooks on farming. One of the more famous handbooks was “On Farming” (Nongshu, “Book of Agriculture”), written by Chen Pu (Chen Fu 1076-1154) in 1149. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Chen Pu's “On Farming” is the oldest existing book exclusively on the subject of rice farming in southern China, and comprised of more than 12,000 characters in three scrolls. It was first written in the 19th year of Shaoxing period (1149). The first scroll described the production, operation and techniques of a farming business; the middle scroll focused on breeding of cattle; and the last scroll showed on the raising of silkworms. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Chen Pu “had adopted the sobriquets "Secluded Quanzhenzi in Xishan" and "Quanzhenzi of Rushi"; he was a Taoist of the Quanzhen School. Chen had lived as a hermit in Xishan at Yizhen County of Huaihai East Road (now Yihui County of Jiangsu Province), producing on his own farm. Besides relying on his own agricultural observations, he had also sought advice from older farmers, finally completing this book at the age of 74, in the manner of “The Art of Governing the People and Essential Farming Activities in Four Seasons” from earlier dynasties. \=/

“In addition to planting of rice, “On Farming” also expounded upon the so-called "six crops". The "six crops" are "upland crops", referring to crops on dry land, that is hemp, millet, sesame, soybean, radish, Chinese cabbage and wheat. Chen Pu's attention to upland crops had a special historical importance. Since Song Dynasty, the government had emphasized the importance of upland plantations from the perspective of defense against natural disasters. According to governmental orders and letters of persuasion from local officials to farmers, the policy was to increase rice production in the north while promoting more upland plantation in the south – the traditional rice plantation regions – so as to make preparation in the event of food shortages. Based on experiences in planting of upland crops in the south, Chen Pu concluded that the order of planting is important in the planting of upland crops, and one should plant different crops according to the month of the year.” \=/

“On Farming”: Finance and Labor

On “Finance and Labor,” Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: All those who engage in business should do so in accordance with their own capacity. They should refrain from careless investment and excessive greed, lest in the end they achieve nothing. Tradition has it, “Profit comes from a little; confusion comes from a lot.” In the farming business, which is the most difficult business to manage how can you afford not to calculate your financial and labor capacities carefully? Only when you are certain that you have sufficient funds and labor to assure success should you launch an enterprise. Anyone who covets more than he can manage is likely to fall into carelessness and irresponsibility; under such conditions, he cannot reap even one or two out of every ten portions, and success will certainly elude him. Thus, to procure more land is to increase trouble, not profit. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York:The Free Press,1993), 188-191 ]

“On the other hand, anyone who plans carefully, begins with good methods, and continues in the same way can reasonably expect success and does not have to rely on luck. The proverb says, “Owning a great deal of emptiness is less desirable than reaping from a narrow patch of land.” Too true! I have the following example to prove my point. In ancient times there was a great archer, Pu Qie, who was able to draw a delicate bow and string to orioles on one arrow, high in the clouds. The reason he could achieve such dexterity in aiming was that he had more strength than needed to draw the bow. If the bow had been heavier than he could handle, he would have trembled and staggered under its weight; then how could he have gotten his game? By extension, for the farmer who is engaged in the management of fields, the secret lies not in expanding the farmland, but in balancing finance and labor. If the farmer can achieve that, he can expect prosperity and abundance.”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu: Topography


millet field

On Topography, Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “Concerning mountains, rivers, plateaus, lakes, and swamps, their altitudes differ and so their temperatures and degrees of fertility do also. Generally speaking, high lands are cold, their springs chilly, their soil cool. The tradition that “In the high mountains there is more winter,” refers to the constant windy cold. Also, these areas are more prone to droughts. On the other hand, low lands are usually fertile but prone to flooding. Thus, different methods of land management are required for different terrain. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu, from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191 ]

“In the case of high land, choose a spot where water can converge and dig a reservoir of appropriate size. (For every ten mu of land, two or three mu should be set aside for the reservoir.) In late spring and early summer when rainfall is frequent strengthen the embankments and deepen and widen the reservoir so that it will have enough space to contain the water. On the embankments plant mulberry and pomegranate trees on which cows can be tethered. The cows will be comfortable under the shade of the trees; the embankments will be strengthened because the cows constantly tread on them; and the mulberry trees will grow beautifully because of the nourishing water. Whenever there is a drought, the water in the reservoir can be released for irrigation, and whenever there is heavy rainfall, the crops will not be harmed by floods. As to lowlands, because they are easily flooded, you must study their topography and build high, wide embankments surrounding the area most likely to be inundated. On the slopes of the embankments vegetables, hemp, wheat, millet, and beans can be planted. On either side you can also plant mulberry trees and raise cows.

“Because of convenient water and grass, the cows can be successfully raised with little effort. For lakes and marshy swamps, use the “rape.turnip soil” system. First, bind logs together to form a base for the field. Let the base float on water but remain tied to land. Then lay the “rape.turnip soil” on the wooden platform and plant there. As the platform floats on water, it rises and falls with the water level, so the crops are never lost to floods.”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu: Plowing


Han-era iron plow

On plowing, Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “Early and late plowing both have their advantages. For the early rice crop, as soon as the reaping is completed, immediately plow the fields and expose the stalks to glaring sunlight. Then add manure and bury the stalks to nourish the soil. Next, plant beans, wheat, and vegetables to ripen and fertilize the soil so as to minimize the next year’s labor. In addition, when the harvest is good, these extra crops can add to the yearly income. For late crops, however, do not plow until spring. Because the rice stalks are soft but tough, it is necessary to wait until they have fully decayed to plow satisfactorily. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191 ]

“In the mountains, plateaus, and wet areas, it is usually cold. The fields here should be deeply plowed and soaked with water released from reservoirs. Throughout the winter, the water will be absorbed, and the snow and frost will freeze the soil so that it will become brittle and crumbly. At the beginning of spring, spread the fields with decayed weeds and leaves and then burn them, so that the soil will become warm enough for the seeds to sprout. In this way, cold as the freezing springs may be, they cannot harm the crop. If you fail to treat the soil this way, then the arteries of the fields being soaked constantly by freezing springs, will be cold, and the crop will be poor. When it is time to sow the seeds, sprinkle lime in the wet soil to root out harmful insect larvae.”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu: Six Kinds of Crops

On the different kinds of crops grown in China, Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “ There is an order to the planting of different crops. Anyone who knows the right timing and follow the order can cultivate one thing after another and use one to assist the others. Then there will not be a day without planting, nor a month without harvest and money will be coming in throughout the year. How can there then be any worry about cold, hunger, or lack of funds? Plan the nettle hemp in the first month. Apply manure in intervals of ten days and by the fifth or sixth month it will be time for reaping. The women should take charge of splicing thread and weaving cloth out of the hemp. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191]

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hemp
“Plant millet in the second month. It is necessary to sow the seeds sparsely and then roll cart wheels over the soil to firm it up; this will make the millet grow luxuriantly, its stalks long and its grains full. In the seventh month the millet will be harvested, easing any temporary financial difficulties.

“There are two crops of oil hemp. The early crop is planted in the third month. Rake the field to spread out the seedlings. Repeat the raking process three times a month and the hemp will grow well. It can be harvested in the seventh or the eighth month. In the fourth month plant beans. Rake as with hemp. They will be ripe by the seventh month. In mid-fifth month plant the late oil hemp. Proceed as with the early crop. The ninth month will be reaping time.

“After the 7th day of the seventh month, plant radishes and cabbage. In the eighth month, before the autumn sacrifice to the god of the earth, wheat can be planted. It is advisable to apply manure and remove weeds frequently. When wheat grows from the autumn through the spring sacrifices to the god of the earth, the harvest will double and the grains will be full and solid.

“The Book of Songs says, “The tenth month is the time to harvest crops.” You will have a large variety of crops, including millet, rice, beans, hemp, and wheat and will lack nothing needed through the year. Will you ever be concerned for want of resources?”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu: Housing

Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “The ancient kinds who reigned over subjects in all four directions and took advantage of the earth in the right seasons must have had good principles. They decreed that five mu of land should be set aside for housing, out of which two and a half mu were for a cottage erected in the center of the fields. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191]

“In the period of plowing and sowing, move into this cottage to facilitate management and provide supplies for the farm workers. At the same time start a garden and plant vegetables. Along the walls, mulberry trees can be planted for the breeding of silkworms. In this manner you will live up to the system exemplified by the ancients.

“When the ninth month has come, transform the vegetable garden into a harvest processing area. In the tenth month, when the harvest is done and the year’s work finished, you can rest as compensation for your labor of plowing and sowing in the spring. Now move the whole family, both old and new, back to the house. For if you stay too long in the cottage in the fields, your house will become dilapidated as a result of neglect.”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu:Fertilizer and Weeding

On fertilizer and weeding, Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “ At the side of the farm house, erect a compost hut. Make the eaves low to prevent the wind and rain from entering it, for when compost is exposed to the moon and stars it will lose its fertility. In this hut, dig a deep pit and line it with bricks to prevent leakage. Collect waste, ashes, chaff, broken stalks, and fallen leaves and burn them in the pit; then pour manure over them to make them fertile. In this way considerable quantities of compost are acquired over time. Then, whenever sowing is to be done sieve and discard stones and tiles, mix the fine compost with the seeds, and plant sparsely in pinches. When the seedlings have grown tall, again sprinkle the compost and bank it up against these roots. These methods will ensure a double yield. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191 ]


Song grain mill

“Some people say that when the soil is exhausted, grass and trees will not grow; that when the qi [material force] is weak, all living things will be stunted; and that after three to five years of continuous planting, the soil of any field will be exhausted. This theory is erroneous because it fails to recognize one factor: by adding new, fertile soil enriched with compost, the land can be reinforced in strength. If this is so, where can the alleged exhaustion come from?

“The Book of Songs says, “Root out the weeds. Where the weeds decay, there the grains will grow luxuriantly.” The author of the Book of Rites also remarks, “The months of midsummer are advantageous for weeding. Weeds can fertilize in the fields and improve the land.” Modern farmers, ignorant of these principles, throw the weeds away. They do not know that, if mixed with soil and buried deep under the roots of rice seedlings, the weeds will eventually decay and the soil will be enriched; the harvest, as a result, will be abundant and of superior quality.

“There is method to weeding. In the Zhou dynasty, Minister Ti, who was in charge of the weeding, ruled that “In the spring the weeds begin to sprout and grow and in the summer one has to go and cut them down daily.” This is to say, in the summer the weeds grow easily, therefore, one should labor every day to curb their growth. “In the autumn one should hoe them with measure.” This means chopping offs the seeds so that they will not reach the soil. “In winter one should go and plow the fields daily.” That is because the crops have now been reaped, and plowing through the roots of the weeds will expose them to snow and frost, so that they decay and do not revive the next year. Also, they can serve as fertilizer for the soil.”

“On Farming” by Chen Pu: Concentration

Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “If something is thought out carefully, it will succeed; if not, it will fail; this is a universal truth. It is very rare that a person works and yet gains nothing. On the other hand, there is never any harm in trying too hard. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191]

“In farming it is especially appropriate to be concerned about what you are doing Mencius said, “Will a farmer discard his plow when he leaves his land?” Ordinary people will become idle if they have leisure and property. Only those who love farming who behave in harmony with it, who take pleasure in talking about it and think about it all the time, will manage it without a moment’s negligence. For these people a day’s work results in a day’s gain, a year’s work in a year’s gain. How can they escape affluence?

As to those with many interests who cannot concentrate on any one and who are incapable of being meticulous, even if they should come by some profit, they will soon lose it. For they will never understand that the transformation of the small into the big is the result of persistent effort.

“To indulge in pleasure and discard work whenever the chance arises and to meet matters only when they become urgent is never the right way of doing things. Generally speaking, ordinary people take pride in having the prosperity to indulge in temporary leisure. If there should be a man who remains diligent in prosperity everyone else will mark him as a misfit, so great is their lack of understanding!”

Image Sources: Paper Money, Brooklyn College; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021


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