Farming and Sericulture
Producing food by cultivating crops and raising animals was a most important step forward in the development of human history. Around 10,000 years ago, people moved from an economy of gathering to one of producing, and entered the New Stone Age. Before that, people maintained their lives by picking wild fruits and other plants, and hunting animals. In order to look for food, they lived a nomadic life, but cultivation of grain crops made them settle down, thus the earliest villages appeared.
Ruins of the New Stone Age can be found throughout China's north and south. This period saw the emergence of many distinctive primitive cultures, most noticeably the Peiligang Culture in Henan Province, the Hemudu Culture in Yuyao in Zhejiang Province, the Yangshao Culture along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, the Maojiayao, Banshan and Machang cultures along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, the Dawenkou Culture along the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the Hongshan Culture in Liaoning Province.
China was one of the first countries to see the emergence of agriculture. Finds at the ruins of the Hemudu Culture in Yuyao and the site of the matriarchal society at Banpo Village near Xi'an, which all date back 6,000 to 7,000 years, include rice, millet and spade-like farm tools made of stone or bone. The spade was the most typical farm tool of that time. The Hemudu Culture site in particular yielded a large number of spade-like tools made from animals' shoulder blade bones. Among the artifacts from the sites of the Peiligang-Cishan Culture in north China, millstones for husking millet are quite common. The Hemudu site, about 7,000 years old, was one of the earliest New Stone Age locations along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Archaeological studies have proved that the area of Hemudu at the time was covered under large tracts of marshland, providing suitable conditions for cultivating rice and developing farming. At the sites, indications of rice cultivation are in great abundance, as piles of rice grains, husks, stalks and leaves have been found there. In some places, the piles were one meter high. Examinations reveal that the rice grown at Hemudu was long-grained non-glutinous rice, and is the earliest example of artificially-cultivated rice that has been found in China to date. The relics are also the oldest rice found so far in Asia. This verifies that China was one of the key areas in the world where rice cultivation originated and reflects the advance of farming along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River during the New Stone Age.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), two revolutionary improvements in farming technology took place. One was the use of iron tools and beasts of burden to pull plows, and the other was the large-scale harnessing of rivers and development of water conservancy projects. These developments were widely spread during the ensuing Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
Before the Spring and Autumn Period, farm tools were mostly made of stone or wood. Human labor had to be employed to pull primitive plows. Farming areas were strictly limited by the natural environment. Iron plows pulled by cattle could plow larger areas of farmland within a shorter period of time, in addition to being able to plow deeper. This enabled the opening up of the desolate Loess Plateau. Improvements in iron smelting technology and the extensive application of iron tools served as a great impetus to the economy of the Warring States Period.
Dikes for controlling water extended alluvial plains with water conservancy facilities for farming until they covered most areas in north China. Several noticeable water conservancy projects of the Warring States Period were completed. Li Bing, a local official, organized the building of the Dujiang Dam in today's suburban Chengdu, Sichuan Province, which rationally solved the problem of diverting floods and irrigating farmland. This project greatly promoted agriculture in the region, and even today still irrigates more than 500,000 hectares of farmland on the Chengdu Plain. Another canal called the Canal of the State of Zheng played its part in developing agricultural production in the Guanzhong region in today's Shaanxi Province.
Economic development promoted urban prosperity. According to records, Linzi, capital of the State of Qi, had a population of 70,000 households and was crowded with carriages, carts and pedestrians. Yingdu, capital of the State of Chu, was no less bustling. Someone described the city by saying that the streets were so crowded with people that brand-new clothes put on in the morning got terribly worn by the evening.
After the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC) unified China, he had the Ling Canal dug, which linked the two large river systems in south China: those of the Yangtze and Pearl rivers. The canal not only facilitated water transportation but also served as a channel to link the Central Plains with the areas south of the Qinling Mountains. It was also used to irrigate fields. Even today, it brings water to some 3,000 hectares of farmland.
China was the first country in the world to raise silkworms and make silk. Jade effigies of silkworms as well as silk fabrics pasted on the surface of bronzes which have been unearthed at Dasikong Village, Anyang, Henan Province, prove that during the Shang Dynasty (16-11 centuries BC) sericulture and silk making had already reached maturity.
During the Warring States Period, more eye-pleasing silk textiles were produced. A piece of satin unearthed in a tomb of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period in Jiangling, Hubei Province, is 51 centimeters wide and has a pattern of eight groups of dancers in seven categories, along with dragons, phoenixes and animals. Its beauty and elegance fully demonstrate the scale and achievements of silk weaving of the period.
Iron farm tools became very popular during the Western Han Period (202 BC-AD 16). Such tools were available in even remote border regions, as indicated by the Han Dynasty iron plow discovered in Liaoyang, Liaoning Province. Iron plowshares and moldboards dating from the Han Dynasty have been unearthed in Xianyang, Shaanxi. They were relatively advanced combination farm tools for their time. The plowshares, which are triangular in shape, were fixed to the plow to cut open the soil. The U-shaped moldboard was fixed to the rear of the plow for the purpose of turning over and crushing the earth. Therefore, two operations were combined in the same implement.
Silk weaving by this time had developed vigorously. The great varieties of silk products, including thin tough silk, figured woven silk, different types of gauze, brocade and embroidered silk which itself came in more than a dozen types, unearthed at a Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province, and the complicated ways of weaving and bright colors seen in these materials suffice to pinpoint the high level of silk weaving and embroidery techniques during the Han period.
In the early Western Han period, 36 small kingdoms, including the Loulan, Yutian, Qiuci and Shule kingdoms, existed in the regions on both sides of the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang, in western China. Some of them were engaged in farming while others raised animals. At the time, people used the broad term "Western Regions" to refer to Xinjiang in China, and Central and Western Asia. I, Emperor Wu of Han twice sent his envoy Zhang Qian (in 138 BC and 119 BC, respectively) to travel to the Western Regions, taking along over 10,000 cattle and sheep, and large amounts of gold and silk fabrics, as gifts to the rulers of these kingdoms. In 60 BC, the Western Han court established a government agency to exercise administration of part of the Western Regions.
Zhang Qian's trip to the west promoted cultural and trade exchanges between the East and West, and established a route starting from Chang'an (today's Xi'an), then capital of the Western Han, through Gansu and Xinjiang to reach the region that today includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Chinese silk began to be regularly transported along this route to Central Asia and the Mediterranean region, and further on to Africa and Europe. The ancient Roman kingdom regarded silk as being as valuable as gold. In many Central Asian countries, possession of Chinese silk was a symbol of high social position and an indicator that distinguished powerful chiefs from weak ones. Thus, the route became known as the Silk Road. Along the same route, Western Han techniques such as iron casting, canal building and well digging were introduced to the Western Regions. For more than 1,000 years -- from the Western Han to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) -- the Silk Road served as an important transportation artery between the East and the West. Silk fabrics of the Han Dynasty have been found in many countries and regions along the Silk Road.
The first country in the world to invent the technology of silk weaving, China had its primitive form of loom some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Repeated improvements in the ensuing years brought forth the twilled spinning wheel with heddling ability and powered by foot peddles. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), such spinning wheels were very popular. Many stone engravings from the Han Dynasty carry images of spinning wheels, which were the most advanced weaving apparatus in the world, despite their simplicity. The textile industry reached a highly advanced level during the Han Dynasty, which was able to produce not only silk gauze of very fine quality, but brocade of fine and complicated patterns. From these products, we can infer that complicated and accurate jacquard looms were already in use.
The Eastern Jin (317-420) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) saw further social and economic development in areas south of the Yangtze River. For three centuries, the north was troubled by wars, which gravely disrupted the normal social order and production. In contrast, the areas along and south to the Yangtze River were relatively stable. Northerners migrated to the south in large numbers, taking not only an enormous labor force but also advanced production tools and technologies from the north. People from the north and south learned from each other and worked together to develop the south, giving a great impetus to economic growth in the region.
In agriculture, people opened up large areas of wasteland and built irrigation works. Rice was already grown twice a year. Use of cattle and manure in farming was widespread, and the per-unit yield of grain saw a great increase. Some northern crops such as wheat and soybeans began to be cultivated in the south. Tombs in Nanjing dating from the Eastern Jin and the Southern Dynasties have yielded pottery models of granaries which are the best proofs of agricultural development. Increase in grain production enabled the improvement of processing tools. Water conservancy projects included instruments to process grain such as water-powered trip-hammers and water-mills.
In agricultural science, Jia Sixie of the Northern Dynasties emerged as the leading agronomist of the time. His work Important Arts for the People's Welfare was China's first book on agronomy. With 92 chapters in 10 volumes and running to nearly 120,000 characters, the book covers a wide range of topics, recording agricultural production experiences and production methods in farming, forestry, animal husbandry, fisheries and side-line occupations from the Western Zhou era and particularly at the time the author lived. To this day, the book remains a valuable source of reference for the study of the history of agricultural science and a rare work in the treasure house of China's ancient knowledge of science.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), China, as a unified multi-ethnic country, experienced further development, increased exchanges between various ethnic groups, saw the prosperity of its feudal economy and led the world in certain types of technology in the fields of agriculture and handicrafts. Both the Sui and Tang were powerful empires, well known worldwide.
In 581, Yang Jian, known as Emperor Wen, established the Sui Dynasty. To facilitate economic and cultural exchanges between the north and the south, he had the Grand Canal, which runs more than 2,000 kilometers, dug. This ancient economic artery was the world's earliest and longest canal. Taking Luoyang as the center, it began in Yuhang in the south and ended in Zhuo Prefecture in the north, flowing through the five provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan, Shandong and Hebei. It served as the only water transportation channel for shipping grain from the south to the north as well as north-south trade. The canal played a significant role in economic activities not only during the Sui and Tang dynasties, but in all the dynastic periods that followed.
China had grown into one of the most powerful countries in the world by the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Improvements in farming machinery, including the curved-shaft plow and bucket carriage continued to expand the acreage of arable land and irrigated farmland. The curved-shaft plow was a representative achievement of the renovation of agricultural machinery in the Tang Dynasty. According to historical records, the plow had 11 component parts of both metal and wood. Greatly improved from earlier types of plows, the curved-shaft plow could turn both left and right, and even turn around. It had a multitude of functions, such as crushing and turning over the soil. Easy to operate and energy-saving, it greatly raised productivity and created the necessary conditions for the prosperity of farming during the Tang period. Murals at Dunhuang realistically portray the plow at work. The bucket carriage was a water-powered irrigation tool. Wood or bamboo was used to produce a huge vertical wheel. Its size was determined by the height of the river bank and the flow of the water. Both sides of the wheel had a pillar to support it. The edge of the wheel was fixed with wooden planks on which wooden or bamboo buckets were fastened. The river water pressed against the planks on the wheel, making it revolve. The bamboo or wooden buckets on the planks lifted water from the river and then poured into the canals leading to the fields. This water wheel was a major creation of the Sui-Tang period, as it visibly raised per unit grain yield and promoted economic crop production.
Silk textiles showed a relatively high level of development during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As early as in the Han Dynasty, Chinese people were already producing woolen fabrics of long warp and segmented weft on jacquard looms. When this technique was applied to silk weaving, the result was a type of silk called kesi (silk fabric with large, stand-out jacquard patterns). Kesi took plain-colored silk thread in the warp and colored ones in the weft. According to designs placed underneath the warp frame, weft was woven where blanks had been left out in the pattern. The weft thread did not go through the entire piece of fabric, which could produce extremely complicated patterns. During the Song Dynasty, people combined this technique with the art of painting to create vivid images on superbly elegant works with moving effects of the painting brush and halo colors.
Cotton planting and weaving technology were extensively adopted and improved during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Huang Daopo was well known as a female textile specialist of the time. In improving cotton weaving machinery, she converted the traditional spinning wheel into a new three-spindle cotton spinning frame which brought about a marked rise in the production of cotton yarn. Cotton textile craft of the Yuan Dynasty thus took a great leap forward.
In both quantity and variety, silk fabrics turned out during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) surpassed those of the Tang-Song period. Objects that have been preserved to this day indicate that silk textiles of this period had extensive topics for their patterns and show livelier and brighter colors. Artisans of the Ming period improved the jacquard loom for silk weaving. According to Exploitation of the Works of Nature by Song Yingxing, the jacquard loom of the Ming Dynasty was normally more than five meters long and operated by two people working together. One weaver sat or stood on an elevated jacquard frame to lift the warp according to the pattern design while the other moved the shuttles at the bottom of the loom. A bolt of fabric took two people working in concerted efforts and careful operation. This type of tall jacquard loom was in use until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In recent years, such looms have been exhibited to demonstrate China's ancient civilization in many Chinese exhibitions abroad.
Some important works combining the achievements of the previous dynasties in science and technology were printed during the Ming Dynasty.
The eighteen-volume Exploitation of the Works of Nature was written by Song Yingxing of the late Yuan and early Qing period. The book covered almost all the important production technologies and processes in agriculture and handicrafts. Under the influence of early capitalism, it dealt in great length with the production techniques of the handicrafts industry, which was rarely seen in other books, thus giving it a very high scientific value. The more than 200 drawings, mostly describing production processes, are equally important. The book has been referred to as the world's first encyclopedia of agricultural and handicraft production. Soon after it was published, it was translated into several languages including German, Japanese, English and French and caught the attention of people in various countries.
Complete Treaties on Agriculture was written by Xu Guangqi (1562-1633). An avid reader from childhood, he gained extensive knowledge of a wide range of topics, and made in-depth studies of mathematics, astronomy, the calendar, geography, water conservancy and firearms making. But Xu's greatest achievement was in agricultural science. He devoted almost his entire lifetime to the study of agricultural science, and eventually brought out the gigantic work quoted above. The book, half a million characters long, is divided into 60 volumes. It records in detail farming, agricultural techniques, soil, water conservation, application of fertilizers, selection of seeds and grafting of fruit trees, thus summarizing and preserving many agricultural production experiences and techniques of the ancient Chinese people.