28 November 2008

Essay introduction for the course "Chinese and Chinese Culture," Xiamen University
Ruben Verwaal

In the intellectual history of China, one of the most distinguished works among the scientific classics is the Wáng Zhēn Nóng Shū 王禎農書 ("Agricultural Treatise of Wang Zhen," 1313). Written during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the county magistrate Wang Zhen (1290-1333) had specifically designed this work to serve as a guide to agricultural production. The book consisted of three parts: first, a general outline on the origin of agriculture and on various agricultural aspects and techniques, such as its dependence on weather conditions, terrestrial productivity, and human effort; the second part consisted of discussions on the cultivation, protection, harvesting, storage and utilisation of crops, fruit, vegetables, bamboo and other plants and trees; the last and most extensive part consisted of a collection of about 270 illustrations of various farm tools and instruments (Deng Yinke, Ancient Chinese Inventions, 129). Many of these tools have long been lost, making this agricultural treatise an invaluable source of information. What has often been unexplored, however, was the agricultural calendar included in the Nóng Shū.

This essay will therefore investigate a sophisticated feature in Wang Zhen’s comprehensive work on agriculture, namely the yué lìng 月令 (monthly ordinances) or agricultural calendar. The reason for the neglect of attention to this agricultural calendar in the discourse on Chinese astronomy or on agriculture might be found in the reason that it fell exactly in between the two subject matters. Despite the fact that the genre of agricultural calendar was one of utilitarianism (Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation of China, Vol.6, Pt. 2, 52), I would be of the opinion that Wang’s agricultural calendar deserves special attention because his advanced creation was able to include ancient Chinese concepts of Heavenly Stems, the Earthly Branches and Solar Terms, as well as details for year-round farm management.

In order to show the exceptional standing of Wang’s agricultural calendar, we will first briefly look into the history of this literary form. Considering that China was an agricultural economy, farmers have made use of the study of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, in an attempt to get a grip on the country’s often unpredictable climate. Second, we will discuss the ancient Chinese philosophical concepts included into the calendar and relate them to their practical use in Chinese society and agriculture. Third, we will investigate the influence of Wang’s agricultural calendar in the continuation of the yué lìng genre.

Ever since the beginning of agriculture in China, farmers made use of natural signals such as blooming in order to decide upon when to begin farming season. For example, before the availability of the calendar, Chinese people would observe the morning and evening stars in order to recognise the seasons. This remained a difficult practice, however. In an attempt to solve this problem, farmers and working people invented a system of the twenty-four jiéqi 節氣 (Solar Terms), with which the seasons could be better indicated and therefore useful for the farmers (Chen Jiujin ascribes the invention of the Solar Terms to the Chinese working people in Jiujin, “Chinese Calendars,” 46 ). Throughout Chinese history, scholars have attempted to perfect the calendar for various reasons, such as to provide new emperors with legitimacy, but the utility of its application in agriculture can be said to remain one of the most important reasons.