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Agriculture in ancient China – part VII

Agriculture in ancient China – part VII

It follows from Part VI

The construction of large irrigation infrastructures and other state policies led to an increase in the value of the land; moreover, during the period of the later Han and in the period of successive division, the successive governments failed to restrain the expansion of the large estates.
This policy was also continued by the Northern Wei dynasty and most of its successors, including the Tang (618-907), who tried to maintain a regular system of distribution of land to small farmers; in spite of all the efforts they failed however to hinder the supremacy of the latifundio.
Furthermore, the environmental characteristics of northern China favored cultivation systems based on large-scale interventions; Essential techniques for the people offer a complete overview of the most advanced cultivation systems then in use in northern China, which could only be used with large tracts of land and therefore with large resources of draft animals, labor and specialized equipment. layout.
All this was also determined by the complex crop rotation system recommended by Jia, which was difficult to apply for a farmer whose plot had to be enough to support his family. In fact the techniques he described required not only a wide use of labor, but also the use of a wide range of specialized equipment for animal traction and, while reserving the priceless place of honor among the cultivated plants, Jia suggests not to neglect the large-scale cultivation of commercial species, such as safflower or building timber, saying: “a qing (approx. 4.6 ha) planted with rapeseed produces up to 200 bushels of seeds. If you bring the seeds to an oil mill, they will make you [an amount of oil equal to that produced by the pressing of] 600 bushels of wheat, or three times the weight of the rapeseed. It is a much greater yield than you can get from 10 qing of wheat “(Qimin yaoshu jinshi, 18.6, p. 1). A qing (100 mu) in the Han period was the extension considered most suitable for the needs of a family-sized agricultural enterprise, but in reality the average extension was closer to 70 mu.
The essential reason is that the company that Jia had in mind was much more extensive than that of a small farmer, as we can also understand from the quality, quantity and diversity of the food products described in his work; for example, the recipe for the distillation of ‘spring wine’ required the use of 180 dou of wheat (about 360 liters), while that for the widespread seasoning called chi (‘fermented or salted soy beans’) it involved the transformation of a thousand dou (2000 liters approx.) of beans into product, and was supposedly intended for marketing, as well as for domestic use.

Reading the essential techniques for the people there is a complete panorama of the most advanced cultivation systems then in use in northern China, a region with very different climatic characteristics from the southern one, with cold winters and hot summers in which the scarce rainfall is concentrated in spring and autumn and often take the form of violent storms.
In this part of China, in inland areas, along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, we find the plateaus made up of the famous löss, a sedimentary rock made up of thin granules of minerals that allows excellent yields to be obtained, provided a sufficient degree is maintained of moisture in the soil.
Much of the Wei River valley, near the capitals of Chang’an (now Xi’an) and Luoyang, since the time of the Han, was artificially irrigated. The area instead of the lowlands, which are located along the lower course of the Yellow River and in the Shandong peninsula, is instead made up of an alluvial soil much heavier than the löss; winters are warm and summer rains are more abundant, on average 500 mm / year.
In these northern regions the basic cereals of the agricultural system were represented by some varieties of millet rather rustic and resistant to drought, which were planted immediately after the spring rains and had been domesticated around the fifth millennium BC. or even earlier.
Among the most cultivated varieties there was the panìco or millet cluster (Setaria italica), a summer plant that is resistant to drought and that is planted immediately after the first spring rain; the actual millet (Panicum miliaceum) is even more rustic and the more glutinous varieties were used for the manufacture of wines or liqueurs.
In his writings Jia Sixie lists as many as fourteen non-glutinous varieties of panic, early and resistant to drought and insects, two of which are particularly tasty; twenty-four varieties with beards and able to withstand the wind and the attacks of sparrows, one of which is particularly easy to clean; thirty eight mid-season varieties and ten late insect-resistant varieties; the author in this part of his work says that:
There are endless varieties of millet that ripen at different times and are distinguished by their height and productivity, the strength of the stem, the taste and the ease with which they expel the grains. (The varieties that mature first have short stems and give a good harvest; those that ripen late have longer stems and yield fewer grains. The varieties with a robust stem belong to the class of short yellow millet, and those with a more fragile stem belong to the class of long mile, white, black or green.The varieties that produce less are the tastiest, but they easily disperse their grains, while the most productive varieties have an unpleasant taste); [this last characteristic is shared by the varieties of wheat and rice used during the Green Revolution]. (Qimin yaoshu jinshi, 3.2, p. 1)
Among the other cereals, barley and wheat, which originated in western Asia, were normally cultivated in winter, thus contributing to crop rotation.
Thus the foods produced with wheat flour, such as pasta and bread, spread starting from the Han, more as refinements than as basic foods; the main course of each meal consisted of native cereals, millet or rice, which were eaten boiled or steamed.
Although today rice in China represents a prominent cltura, Jia Sixie devotes only a brief chapter to dry rice and raw rice; this makes us understand how rice was not then, nor would it later become, an important cereal in northern China. Among the other cultivated plants described by Jia we remember beans, peas and soy; the pumpkins; oily plants, such as rapeseed and sesame; hemp, for oil or for fiber; plants for the production of dyes.

Guido Bissanti

The VIII part follows

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