Nongshu (On Farming)

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Primary Source Analysis

Written during the golden song dynasty and the eruption of Confucianism, an ancient text referred by the people of the song region as “Nongshu” provided information on how to expand current farming capacities and increase yields of crops for the southern Chinese region. The document was authored in the year 1149 C.E. by Chen Fu, a local farmer and cultivator of medical drugs. He is considered to have years of experience behind him in the fields to support his writings, some of which are considered the oldest existing texts exclusively about rice farming in southern China. “The text is broken down into three scrolls which depict different information regarding farming and business techniques. The first scroll describes techniques of farming and business operations, the middle scroll focuses on cattle breeding; and the last scroll contains information on the raising of silkworms and their agricultural benefits.” (Theobald) “On Farming” had a major impact in the way Chinese farmers grew and cultivated their rice during the song dynasty and can still be found now as many farmers continue to utilize the information presented in the text. Without the information provided by the text, Chinese rice production would have a lot more difficulty in cultivating the plant due to the country’s varying climate and topographical regions.

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Rice is a huge provider of nutrition for the people who grow it, can be found in wetlands where the plant has adapted to life and may have evolved due to the heavy precipitation caused by annual monsoon cycles of Southeast Asia. Some scientists now consider the original plant species from which domesticated rice developed now extinct due to natural evolution and careful propagation by humans through the species history. (Kimmel) There is speculation about the Song government requesting more production from its farmers at the time that Pu wrote his text, to possibly fuel growth of its population or to prepare for an inevitable war. The orders given to farmers were to increase rice production in the northern region while improving upland plantations in the south. These orders may have influenced Pu’s information on topography of the regions to assist the farmers in their production. As the farming techniques improved, rice was beginning to shape its identity in the everyday Chinese lifestyle as more and more rice became available to harvest and use.

As powerful and abundant as the rice was becoming, Pu envisioned even more with the knowledge he presented. This can be shown as farmers transitioned to new crops, allowing the information to carry over to crops such as cabbage, wheat, carrots and others. Pu states in the text that “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.” (Pu) His knowledge of the rotation of crops and fertilization further enhances the productivity of the region, with the use of fertilizers even unfavorable soil and exhausted fields could be made productive again. Before this information came about, most farmers had a belief that a field would be unproductive after five years of use. This advancement in the current farming technique prompted a huge wave of land being reused, allowing for a surplus of crops to begin to form.

As the information began to spread across the current Song agricultural system, it transformed mere peasants growing just enough food to survive into farmers with a productive power house of crops, which allowed for an explosive increase in population as more and more food began to pile up. The text included information of business conduct and finances for farmers, who may not properly understand how to conduct a deal or trade. This sparked economic prosperity amongst farmers in the region who could now profit off their rice and other crops or trade them for other items at the local markets.

“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.” (Pu) This idea was used by farmers in the area as they did not use the surplus food for themselves, finding that producing for the market made possible for a better life. The silk road, a connection between many European countries and China was in its prime at the time, allowing farmers to sell their surpluses in nearby markets and buy charcoal, tea, oil, and wine, which was sourced mainly from the countries connected to the route. Without this connection, the impact on China could have been devasting on its economy. During this time most of China was not allowing visitors from other regions to visit due to fears of outsiders and the theft of Chinese ideologies, but the trades conducted would begin to open way for foreign relations in the future.

Pu demonstrated the complexity of the improvements made to take advantage of the climate and topography, which both have a huge impact on yields of crops and the type of crops that can be grown in a specific area; helping improve yield and productivity from the crops selected. Understanding this information would prove vital to the advancement of southern Chinese rice production and cultivation. “Concerning mountains, rivers, plateaus, lakes, and swamps, their altitudes differ and so their temperatures and degrees of fertility do also. High lands are cold, their springs chilly, their soil cool.” (Pu) This information gave an advantage to farmers in the area who could now understand why one crop would flourish while another would quickly wither under the local conditions, thus selecting certain species over others for their genetic durability. 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.

The population on the lower lands found that fish would invade their rice fields from time to time, instead of getting rid of the fish they were used as pest control for insects and to feed the farmers. Most farmers had a high starch diet with little to no protein available, these fish provided an opportunity to the farmers who may have lacked hunting or fishing skills. The western view of rice is mainly in terms of food, however the Chinese also developed many products from other parts of the rice plant, such as paper made from rice straw. Rice paper was very smooth and white, which allowed it to be worked and accepted the use ink very well. This led to new and more subtle techniques for painting for the Song Dynasty which began to see an explosion in the releasing of artwork. This uprising of cultural and economic power throughout the dynasty would allow for more creative thinking promoting growth among the people and improvements in their everyday life.

With the help of these agricultural and economical advancements in rice, the Chinese would continue to grow strength as the dynasties faded away into a unified China. The benefits can still be seen today in rural parts of the country where rice farming is still very prevalent, and the techniques used still fall in line with those present in Nongshu centuries ago. To this day, China is considered the largest producer of rice among dozens of producing countries with yields in the millions of tons.

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Nongshu (On Farming). (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved November 27, 2022 , from
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