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
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
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
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
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.