Agriculture in ancient China – V part
From ancient China we received several fragments of older agronomic works, preserved through the quotations of other authors, but the essential techniques for the people represent the first Chinese agrarian treaty that has reached us in its entirety; this work was written in a clear and simple language, exhaustive and with an ordered structure, in which the techniques described appear extremely refined. Thanks to this, this work has continued to be used for centuries and has survived almost intact to the present day.
The author of the Essential Techniques for the People, Jia Sixie, was a mid-level official who lived towards the end of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD). It can be inferred that he lived in Hebei or Shandong and his work was completed between 530 and 540 AD.
The work consists of over one hundred thousand characters, written and ordered with great clarity, which represents at the same time an encyclopedia and a manual.
Furthermore, the fact that Jia apologizes for any inconvenience caused by the presence of a summary would seem to indicate that at that time the use of the summaries was not yet generalized.
In this work every aspect of the cultivation techniques, of the cultivated plants, of the farm animals and of the food processing widespread at that time in northern China is systematically treated.
Moreover in the preface Jia Sixie explains the choice of the title, asserting that the book describes the “essential techniques” (yaoshu) indispensable to the “common people” (qimin) or to the farmers, and introduces in this way his work:
– “I collected materials from traditional texts and popular songs; I asked the elderly for information and learned from practical experience. From plowing to pickles, there is no domestic or agricultural activity that has not been fully described. I called my book Essential Techniques for the People. The work includes ninety-two chapters, divided into ten books; each chapter is preceded by a summary which on the one hand can complicate the reading, but on the other hand makes it much easier to find what interests us […]. In writing this book my intention was to instruct the young (tong) of my family, not to compose a work for the educated public. I often repeat myself, in an attempt to make readers understand the instructions for each activity, and I don’t care about the elegance of the sentences. I hope not to look ridiculous to anyone for this ”.
The literary style that was used at the time was elaborate, flowery and allusive; however, although it was actually composed in a flat and technical style, Jia’s book was not aimed at an audience of illiterate peasants, but at that of landowners and, despite his excuses, Jia proves to possess a remarkable culture. As in all the works of this period, almost half of the book consists of quotations, taken from about one hundred and sixty works dating back up to seven centuries before its publication.
Furthermore, the author does not draw his citations only from agronomic texts, but he also freely uses historical works, treatises on the philosophy of Nature, cosmology and divination, works on the divine and the bizarre, such as the Biographies of the immortal saints (Shenxian zhuan, attributed to Ge Hong, ca. 281-341, an alchemy expert Taoist), and collections of natural studies, such as the Report on Southern Herbs (Nanfang caowu zhuang, attributed to Xu Zhong, a scholar of the Jin period of which only some quotations have been received).
All this makes us understand that the author’s approach is integrated, very different from modern scientific models and rather systemic and transversal.
In the essential techniques for the people, the chapters dedicated to a cultivable species or a domestic animal usually begin with a discussion of their different varieties or races and the common or scholarly names with which they were called. This discussion was based on quotations from etymological and encyclopedic works, such as the Approaching to what is correct (Erya, also known as Literary Lexicon, a work probably composed in the late Zhou period and expanded and commented around 300 AD by Guo Pu), the Dictionary of local expressions (Fangyan, ca. 15 BC, by Yang Xiong, 53 BC-18 AD approx.), and the Wide account of remarkable things (Guangzhi, a work from the end of the 4th century composed by Guo Yigong).
As was the custom in that period, Jia Sixie puts her comments alongside the quoted songs, placing them alongside the text in a double column with smaller characters, and uses the same format to add more details to her statements. In the translated songs mentioned in this chapter, the comments of the modern curator Shi Shengan are presented in round brackets.
This work, in addition to the agronomic and naturalistic technical quotations, has a highly historical value in that, despite all the previous agronomic works have been lost, the abundance of the sources mentioned in the Essential Techniques for the People demonstrates the belonging of this work to a long and rich tradition of agricultural studies. The bibliographic chapter of the History of the Han dynasty [front] (Hanshu) contains a list of nine books written by agricultural specialists (nongjia, “agronomists”), for a total of 114 chapters (pian), attributed in part to authors of the period of the fighting States and partly of writers of the earlier Han period.
Unfortunately these books have been entirely lost, with the exception of some fragments scattered in the works of later authors, and the quotations contained in the treatise of Jia Sixie very often represent the only or the main source of information that we have received on them, as well as on a book from the later Han period, the monthly Ordinances for the four classes of persons (Simin yueling), composed around 160 AD from Cui Shi (? -170 ca.).
One of the works mentioned in the bibliography of the history of the Han dynasty is the Book of Fan Shengzhi (Fan Shengzhi shu), composed in an unspecified period of the earlier Han dynasty.
According to this bibliography, it originally comprised eighteen books (against ten of the Essential Techniques for the People) but, although it is one of the most cited works by Jia Sixie, the fragments gathered by Shi Shenghan do not form more than a thin booklet, composed almost entirely of very detailed descriptions of agricultural practices; this suggests that the Fan Shengzhi Book was also largely made up of quotations from previous works.