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Agriculture in ancient China – part XI

Agriculture in ancient China – part XI

Follows from part X

To overcome this problem in some cases a conventional nomenclature has been established, as in the case of the seeder. The text entitled Explanation of figures and interpretation of characters (Shuowen jiezi, compiled by Xu Shen in 121 AD) contains the following terms for the seeder: lou, auger; hui, defined in the commentary as “six-pronged plow”; and hui, defined as ‘drill for sowing’ (zhonglou).
The agronomist of the 2nd century Cui Shi uses the term lou exclusively, stating that in the different regions one, two or three tube seeders were used (dujiao, liangjiao and sanjiao lou), but that he considered the single-tube version more efficient. Jia Sixie refers to the seeder instead with the names of lou and louli, “plow-drill”. Wang Zhen, an agronomist who lived in the Yuan period (1279-1368), in his Treaty of agriculture (Nongshu) mentions the example of these two authorities; he calls the louche seeder and adds that in his time the most common model in the northern plains was the two-tube model, while in the north-western regions a four-pipe version was more common. In the Song and Yuan era the term that, literally ‘chariot’, was used to indicate all those tools or machines driven by an axis, from the wagons to the machines for unraveling the silk and the hydraulic pumps; in this case the use of the term that refers to the fact that the seeder had a frame and was pulled by an animal. Wang Zhen lists three other contemporary vernacular names for the seeder: louli (formerly used by Jia Sixie), zhongshi (“planter-sower”) and jiangzi (“ridger”).
The persistence of the term lou as a key element of all the names used to designate the sower is probably related to the wide use in spoken language; on the other hand, being known at least two cases in which this tool had been introduced in a region by public officials who designated it with the term lou, it can be hypothesized that the official sanction of the use of lou, instead of hui or jiang , was decisive for the definitive affirmation of this word, both in the cultured and in the spoken language.
It should also be considered that at the time Jia wrote her book, many essential terms of the agronomic vocabulary had already stabilized. In most cases, in fact, Jia does not provide any explanation of the technical words used, which suggests that these terms are now commonly used.
Much of the terminology adopted by Jia and its predecessors is in fact still used, but in some cases the technical terms of current use at the time of the Essential techniques for the people would later become obsolete. One of Jia’s favorite tools, called feng, was a sharp, pointed hand tool used to eradicate dried millet plants, bury the young plants and clear the wasteland, but Wang Zhen, writing in the early 14th century, he stated: “modern farmers do not know what instrument it is, nor do they recognize this name” (Nongshu, ed. 1991, 13, p. 5r).
It is probable that the feng had not disappeared, but had simply changed its name, since in the Yuan era the same functions were performed by a tool called tieta (‘iron hoe’ hoe), still used in China with the same name.
If you follow the ‘seasons of the sky’ (tianshi) and carefully assess the potential of the Earth, then you will reap much with little effort, but if you act stubbornly and oppose yourself to the path to heaven, then, even if you work hard, you will not harvest any fruit . (Those who dive into a spring looking for wood or climb mountains to fish, will return home empty-handed. Spraying water against the wind or rolling a ball uphill, this means acting in unfavorable circumstances). (Qimin yaoshu jinshi, 3.2, p. 2).

What exactly did he mean by the “seasons of heaven”? Surely Jia intends to indicate the successive stages of the annual cycle of transformations of the natural world; is it possible, as an alternative that for “seasons of heaven” meant the complex cycles of growth and decline described in the yin-yang theory and in that of the Five phases, which related the changes of the microcosm with those of the macrocosm?
In the ancient Chinese agricultural culture, it was important not to miss the choice of times; however the most important decision of all was certainly that of the date of sowing; in fact, while it is impossible to go wrong when deciding whether the wheat is ripe or when it is time to pick fruit from the trees, sowing is the symbolic moment in which the seeds are given life, and in this case an evaluation error means a stunted growth, a meager harvest, the prospect of hunger.
Thus, while in ancient times the date of the sowing of the millet was decided by an act of real divination, towards the end of the Zhou dynasty there were some calendars called yueling, ‘monthly ordinances’, which linked human activities to the rhythms of the Earth and the Cosmos . The ‘monthly ordinances’ contained the rituals, the hunts, the domestic and agricultural activities permitted in each of the twelve thirty-day lunar months, along with phenological signals such as the configuration of the stars, the flowering of some plants or the singing of certain species of birds; It is interesting to note that one of the main functions of these calendars was to indicate the date for sowing the different types of cultivated plants. The dates provided by the calendars for the various agricultural operations, however, due to the vastness of the country and the differences in altitude, had local validity.
However, by establishing a link between certain human activities and the flowering of the acoros or the beginning of spring flashes, the monthly ordinances could, however, transmit the information requested in a form applicable in any region, provided that the dates provided were not taken literally .
In the texts of the Han period the dates for sowing were indicated in certain cases not according to the months of the lunar calendar, but in relation to the solstices or to the “twenty-four fortnightly terms” (qi) of the solar calendar; in this way, since the lunar year was only 360 days long, solar dates were more reliable indicators of the seasons.
The Book of Fan Shengzhi, which was possible to reconstruct from the numerous quotations received, indicated with great precision the solar dates for sowing; for example, the pan-fried glutinous millet had to be sown twenty days before the summer solstice in case of rain, while the sowing of the winter wheat was to take place seventy days after the summer solstice. Also Fan uses the phenological indicators, according to which, for example, the sowing of the beans should have taken place when the fruits of the elm began to form and that of the lentils when the mulberries were ripe; for the most important of the harvest, Fan states: “There is no established date for sowing the panìco, because the season depends on the type of soil” (Fan Shengzhi shu, 4, p. 1); at the same time, Fan recommends sticking strictly to the cosmological calculations of the Yin-yang school, relating to the unlucky days: “Avoid sowing beans on mao days, rice and hemp in the chen days, glutinous millet in chou days [respectively the fourth, fifth and second day of the twelve-day cycle] […]: the nine cereals all have their unlucky days and if you do not observe these rules in sowing, the harvest will be severely damaged.
These are not vain words, but the inevitable consequences of Nature “(ibid., 2, p. 1).

Guido Bissanti

XII part follows

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