An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Period Agriculture

Mar 30, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald


Land ownership

An often-quoted verse is part of the 'lesser' ode Beishan 北山 from the Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", where the ownership of all land is said to be in the hands of the king of Zhou 周 (pu tian zhi xia, mo fei wang tu 普天之下,莫非王土). Taken literally, this would mean that all arable fields were in the possession of the highest sovereign. Other interpretations see this verse as referring just to the royal domain (neifu 內服). Even then, parts of the royal domain were territories occupied and used by persons invested as dignitaries (houfu 侯服), like the lords of Guo 虢, Yu 虞, Bi 畢, Ji 祭 or Zheng 鄭, and lands inhabited by non-Zhou tribes (yaofu 要服, huangfu 荒服). The history book Guoyu 國語 (ch. Zhouyu 周語) adds the information that the "field services" (dianfu 甸服) brought tributes for the [daily] sacrifices to Heaven (ji 祭), the "marquisate services" (houfu 侯服) such for the [monthly] sacrifices (si 祀), the "guest services" (binfu 賓服) such for the seasonal sacrifices (xiang 享), the "restricted services" (yaofu 要服) delivered annual tributes (gong 貢), and the "services of the barren lands" (huangfu 荒服) were presented directly to the king.

The common picture is that of nine concentric rings (or rather squares, fang 方) around the royal capital. The closest of these areas was the state or royal domain (wangji 王畿, guoji 國畿) making a square of 1,000 li (c. 500km) of length around the capital. The next ring was the "marquisate domain" (houji 侯畿) or the "marquisate services" (houfu 侯服) with a distance of between 500 and 1,000 li to the capital, meaning a square with a length of 2,000 li. The six inner rings (nei liu fu 内六服) covered a theoretical area of 9,621,126km2 with a distance of no more than 3,500 li to the capital. The outer rim of the Zhou empire was 5,000 li (c. 2,500km) away from the capital.

Table 1. Types of domains ('concentric squares') in the Western Zhou
distance to the capital Zhouli (jiuji 九畿) Sanlitu jizhu (jiufu 九服) Zhouli yishu
500 li 國畿 guoji 王畿 wangji 王服 wangfu
1,000 li 侯畿 houji 侯服 houfu 侯服 houfu
1,500 li 甸畿 dianji 甸服 dianfu 甸服 dianfu
2,000 li 男畿 nanji 男服 nanfu 男服 nanfu
2,500 li 采畿 caiji 采服 caifu 采服 caifu
3,000 li 衛畿 weiji 蠻服 manfu 衛服 weifu
3,500 li 蠻畿 manji 要服 yaofu 要服 yaofu
4,000 li 夷畿 yiji 夷服 yifu 夷服 yifu
4,500 li 鎮畿 zhenji 鎮服 zhenfu 鎮服 zhenfu
5,000 li 蕃畿 fanji 藩服 fanfu 藩服 fanfu
Sources: Zhouli 周禮, ch. Da sima 大司馬; Nie Chongyi 聶崇義, Sanlitu jizhu 三禮圖集注, 4: 7a-8a; Jia Gongyan 賈公彥, Zhouli yishu 周禮義疏. Note: The distances refer to the distance of the outer border of each area to the royal capital, but the texts do not say if this distance is meant in horizontal/vertical direction or in diagonal direction of the 'concentric squares'.

The king had the right to confer land and/or people (workforce) to functionaries like ministers (qing 卿), grand masters (dafu 大夫), or servicemen (shi 士), and the right to claim tributes (gong 貢) and revenues from the lands (shui 稅, see state finance). The lands, usually with villages where the farming population lived, were called "salary settlements" (caiyi 采邑, caidi 采地, or short cai 采) and their revenues (lu 祿) served as a 'reward' (or salary) for the services the functionaries paid to the sovereign. For this reason, these lands were not allowed to be partitioned, sold (tian li bu yu 田里不鬻; Liji 禮記, ch. Wangzhi 王制), or handed over to subordinates for their services. The king, as the original 'owner' of the land, had also the right to confiscate it and distribute it to other functionaries. Salary fields were not inheritable.

The royal dynasty used of course part of the lands of the royal domain to sustain the royal household. These lands were called "large fields" (datian 大田 or futian 甫田). In the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), the system of salary fields expanded to the various regional states. Grand Masters were given larger lands (caiyi 采邑) than servicemen (caitian 采田, lutian 祿田). The terms for the people living on the salary fields were manifold, and at least part of them might have been war captives during the early Western Zhou period, quite probably being transferred from their original settlements into villages within the royal domain.

He Xiu 何休 (129-182), commenting on the Gongyang Commentary (Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳), held that in the salary field system the fields were left fallow every three years, and the peasants moved their houses to the vicinity of the fields used in the next period. A change of the field used to produce the annual 'tributes' is attested in the Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) regulations (Tianfa 田法) found in 1972 in Yinqueshan 銀雀山 close to Linyi 臨沂, Shandong (Zhou 2000: 589).

The most difficult issue is the question of the so-called well-field system (jingtian zhi 井田制) of which the Confucian philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (385-304, Mengzi 孟子) believed it was carried out in the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). Well-fields (called so because the character 井 signified the field distribution) were a special type of salary field perhaps used in fertile lowland. According to Mengzi, well-fields consisted of a compartment of "public" or common field (gongtian 公田) of 100 mu 畝 (1.6ha; see weights and measures) for "mutual aid" (zhu 助) which had to be worked first, before each peasant started with the work on his private field (sitian 私田). When and in which areas this type of cultivation was carried out, cannot be known.

Quotation 1. Mengzi on the well-field system
請野九一而助,國中什一使自賦。卿以下必有圭田,圭田五十畝;餘夫二十五畝。死徙無出鄉,鄉田同井,出入相友,守望相助,疾病相扶持,則百姓親睦。 I would ask you, in the remoter districts, observing the nine-squares division, to reserve one division to be cultivated on the system of mutual aid (zhu 助), and in the more central parts of the kingdom, to make the people pay for themselves a tenth part of their produce. From the highest officers down to the lowest, each one must have his holy field (guitian 圭田), consisting of fifty mu 畝. Let the supernumerary males (yufu 餘夫) have their twenty-five mu. On occasions of death, or removal from one dwelling to another, there will be no quitting the district. In the fields of a district, those who belong to the same nine squares render all friendly offices to one another in their going out and coming in, aid one another in keeping watch and ward, and sustain one another in sickness. Thus the people are brought to live in affection and harmony.
方里而井,井九百畝,其中為公田。八家皆私百畝,同養公田;公事畢,然後敢治私事,所以別野人也。 A square li 里 covers nine squares of land, which nine squares contain nine hundred mu. The central square is the public field, and eight families, each having its private hundred mu, cultivate in common the public field (gongtian 公田). And not till the public work is finished, may they presume to attend to their private affairs. This is the way by which the country-men are distinguished from those of a superior grade.
Mengzi 孟子, ch. Teng Wengong 滕文公 A. Translation according to Legge 1895.

The yields from the common field are variously called zhu 助 or che 徹—yet these terms might just refer to a tax collected from all fields, and not just the yields of one single plot. The word gongtian 公田 might be identical to the term "large field" (datian), as in the Shijing ode of the same name, where it is said that "May it rain first on our public fields, And then come to our private!" (yu wo gong tian, sui ji wo si 雨我公田、遂及我私). Yet the word wo 我 "we/our" might not refer to the peasants, but to the land owners, namely the grand masters or other functionaries. Also the first passage of the Mengzi text shows that ownership was in the hands of officials (qing 卿 and lower).

The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Diguan 地官, ch. Xiao situ 小司徒) explains that an area of 900 mu of land was worked by nine families—leaving no space for any "communal or public field". This did not necessarily mean that the fields were arranged like the character 井, which is just one form of 'pictogram' for 'field'. Four jing 井 units constituted one settlement (yi 邑). The border between jing units was called chou 疇 (Zhou 2000: 592).

Apart from the well-field system, there were quite a few other regulations, like the "six [interior]districts" (liu xiang 六鄉) and "six exterior districts" (liu sui 六遂) in the royal domain, and the "three suburban districts" (san jiao 三郊) and "three exterior districts" (san jiao 三遂) in the domains of the regional rulers. Fields located in the exterior districts, being under the guidance of the supervisor of exterior districts (suiren 遂人), are interpreted as communal fields owned by a local community and distributed to individual farmers. Yet the status, work, and products of individual farmers might be divergent (Zhou 2000:598-599). Mengzi's ideal of the well-field system might have been based on such a model, yet the owner of the land was still a nobleman, and not a 'free' community, as Marxist historians believe.

In Marxist eyes, the 'privatization' of fields began with the custom of the Zhou kings to present land (ci tian 錫[=賜]田, jia tian 加田) to dignitaries outside of the custom of giving them salary land (ci cai 錫[=賜]采, shang di 賞地). Such transfers of land ownership are attested in mid- and late Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, like those of the Yong Yu 永盂 bowl (Jicheng 10322), the Wu gui 敔簋 pot (Jicheng 4166), or the Da ke ding 大克鼎 tripod (Jicheng 2836). While the size of salary land was a marker for the status of a functionary, the size of presented land was not. Moreover, "salary land" also included the work force of the farmers living on the soil, while "presented land" only gave rights over the land, and not the workforce on it (Zhou 2000: 605).

From the mid-Western Zhou period on, owners of land began to sell or exchange plots. The inscription of the Mao gui 卯簋 pot (Jicheng 4327) reports how the Earl of Rong 榮伯 presented land to a dignitary called Mao 卯. The inscription on the Wei he 衛盉 can (Jicheng 9456) records that Qiu Wei 裘衛 obtained land with a size of "ten fields" (shi tian 十田) from the Earl of Ju 矩伯 at a price of jade plates (jinzhang 瑾璋) worth 80 cowry strings (peng 朋), as well as three fields at a price of jade and leather objects with a value of 20 cowry strings. The inscription of the Wu si wei ding 五祀衛鼎 tripod (Jicheng 2832) shows that the sales of land was actually forbidden, and violation was sanctioned.

Quotation 2. The price of illegally sold fields in the Western Zhou
矩白庶人取堇章于裘衛,才(=財)八十朋,厥賈其舍(=捨)田十田。矩或取赤虎兩、麀𠦪兩、𠦪韐一,才廿朋,其舍田三田。 The subordinates of the Elder of Ju 矩白 took possession of royal audience jades from Qiu Wei 裘衛, worth eighty strings of cowries (peng 朋), in appropriately assessed return for which the Elder of Ju relinquished to Qiu Wei ten fields. Ju also received two vermillion tiger-shaped jade pendants, two deerskin aprons, and a decorated apron, in total worth twenty strings of cowries, in return for which Ju Bo relinquished to Qiu Wei three fields.
[君厲]曰:「余舍女(=汝)田五田。」正廼(=乃)訊厲曰:「女賈田不。」厲廼許曰:「余審賈田五田。」井白(=伯)、白邑父、定白、𣄴白、白俗父,廼顜,事厲誓。 [Lord Li 君厲] said, "I relinquish to you five fields." Officials then interrogated Li, asking, "Did you sell the fields or not?" Lord Li then admitted this, saying "I sold all five fields." The Elder of Jing 井白, Elder Yifu 白邑父, the Elder of Ding 定白, the Elder of Liang 𣄴白, and Elder Sufu 白俗父 then reached a verdict, and made Li swear an oath [not to do this once more].
Inscriptions of Wei he 衛盉, and Wu si wei ding 五祀衛鼎. Translation by Cook & Goldin 2016: 89-90.

The price of fields cannot be assessed from such statements, because neither the size of fields, nor their quality is known.

Occasionally, land owners exchanged plots of land. Such cases are recorded in the inscriptions of the Hu ding 曶鼎 tripod (Jicheng 2838) and the San shi pan 散氏盤 plate (Jicheng 10176). Not being able to pay a debt of ten zi 秭 (weight measure) of grain, a certain Kuang Ji 匡季 was forced to repay his debt to Hu 曶 by offering him seven fields and five men as labour force (Cook & Goldin 2016: 134). In case of the San family, they were paid out a deed of lands by the Ze 夨 family because the latter had unjustly attacked the estate of the San. Altogether fifteen men demarcated the boundary of the lands that Ze ceded to San, and the first part of the inscription painstakingly notes down the boundaries and location of the fields to be ceded. The cessation was concluded by a contract and an oath (Cook & Goldin 2016: 170).

Quotation 3. Cessation of land according to Western-Zhou period inscriptions
眉自󱨉涉厶南,至于大沽一封,厶陟二封,至于邊柳。 The boundary of these lands, setting out from Mei 眉, crosses the river Xian 󱨉, goes south to the earthen boundary marker (feng 封) at Great Salt March 大沽. Climbing, it follows two markers on the rising ground and then [down] to the Willow Fringe 邊柳...
夨卑鮮、且、󱨑。、誓,曰:「有爽,實余有散氏心賊,則鞭千罰千,傳棄之。」… 厥受圖夨王于豆新宫東廷。 Ze 夨 directed Xian, Ju, 󱨑, and Lü to pledge an oath, swearing, "If we renege on our agreement, we will have robbed the San 散 family of their trust and will be fined one thousand [huan 鍰], receive a thousand lashes, and be exiled." [...] They made a map for the King of Ze (?) in the east court of the New Palace (Xingong 新宫) at Dou 豆.
Inscription of San shi pan 散氏盤. Translation by Cook & Goldin 2016: 170.

"Large fields" (datian, also called futian, gongtian, or jietian 藉田), where the main source of income of the royal household and those of the regional rulers. Some sources hold that the "large fields" of the king encompassed just 1,000 mu, those of the regional rulers only 100 (Zhou 2000: 622). Some scholars are therefore of the opinion that the term jie 藉 referred to the plot which was ceremonially ploughed by the sovereign at the beginning of each year. Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200), commenting on the office of master of the hinterland (dianshi 甸師; Zhouli, part Tianguan 天官) asserts that the Son of Heaven ceremonially ploughed three furrows, the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) five, the regional rulers and their ministers nine, and commoners the rest of the 1,000 or 100 mu, respectively.

Transmitted sources and bronze inscriptions mention quite a few locations and fields which were lying outside of the putative area of 1,000 mu. Some commentators, like Zheng Xuan, held that dian fields 甸 were located outside the suburbs (yuanjiao zhi wai 遠郊之外) or in the "wilderness" (ye 野), in the case of the king of Zhou, south of the residence, and in the case of the regional rulers, north of it (Zhou 2000: 628). Yet bronze inscriptions cannot substantiate this assumption, as it must have been possible to reach the "large fields" within one day, which means they were located in the vicinity of the capital (an area called guo 國).

The peasants working as serfs on the domains of the nobility were supervised by officials (maoshi 髦士, tianjun 田畯) who resided in public buildings (jie 介, lu 廬) (Zhou 2000: 632). The farmers were called shuren 庶人, shumin 庶民 "commoners", zhongren 眾人 "the masses", min 民 "the people", nongren 農人, or nongfu 農夫 "peasants", in bronze inscriptions renli 人鬲 or li 鬲, and sometimes also tu 徒, a term used for convict labourers. Peasants working the fields of the royal or ducal domains might quite probably be war captives. In any case, it seems that the workers on the datian fields did not possess private plots. Moreover, not only was the workforce 'part of the field'. Cases like the San shi pan inscription show that the handover of fields also included tools, and probably also draft animals. For this reason, the landowners or officials ordered the peasants each spring to repair and fix the tools.

Chinese scholars discern from the (putative) well-field system a system called "distribution fields" (shoutian zhi 授田制) which was used in the royal and ducal domains as well as the "exterior districts". The word jiao 郊 (usually translated as "suburbs") denotes the surroundings of the royal 'capital' as well as the border between these 'suburbs' (guo 國) and the "wilderness" (ye 野). The area outside the capital was divided into six districts (liu xiang), while the area of the "wilderness" was divided into six external districts (liu sui). The inhabitants of the six districts were called guoren 國人, those living outside were yeren 野人 or mang 甿. There might be the possibility that yeren were war captives or former subjects of the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) (Zhou 2000: 698). The system of the six districts is sometimes related to the six armies (liujun).

The expression baixing 百姓 "hundred family names", today referring to the "common folks", meant during the Zhou period the nobility, namely those who had a family name (Zhou 2000: 734).

Fields were distributed according to the number of adult male persons (zhengfu 正夫) per household, with 100 mu of arable land and 50 mu of fallow land (lai 萊). The amount of fallow land grew with the sinking quality of soil. Some scholars believe that "supernumerary males" (yufu 餘夫) were only given 25 mu of land (Zhou 2000: 712).

The fields given in this way were by no means private, but the size served to determine the yields a family could live off and submit the remainders to the authorities. The way of farming was collective and the work was supervised by state officials under the supervision of grand masters of external districts (sui dafu 遂大夫), namely township rectifiers (xianzheng 縣正), precinct heads (zanzhang 酇長), village heads (lizai 里宰), and other functionaries.

Depending on the quality of the soil, households were given 100, 200, or 300 mu of land. Soil of good quality could be used every year, while middle-quality soil was to rest for one year, and low-quality soil for two years (san nian yi huan tu 三年一換土; Hanshu, ch. Shihuo zhi 食貨志 A). This system was applied in the region of external districts, when lands were distributed to farming families. It is similar to, but not identical with the Spring and Autumn practice in the state of Jin 晉 (yuantian 爰田) and that of the Qin 秦 reformer Shang Yang 商鞅 (yuantian 轅田) according to which lands were given to the nobility, and not to and private farmer families (Zhou 2000: 696).

The Zhouli discerns between "distribution fields" in the interior (liu xiang) and the exterior districts (liu sui). The former were fields bestowed to high dignitaries at the royal court or the courts of the regional rulers, or to relatives of the sovereigns. The fields were known generally as dubi 都鄙, with individual designations dian 甸, shao 稍, xian 縣, du, and bi.

The supervisor of exterior districts (suiren) was responsible for the fields outside the domains, recruitment of persons for corvée, husbandry, local administration, the maintenance of roads, and caring for the people (zuo ye min 作野民). All these types of field did not have a 'common' or 'public' plot, and can thus not be counted to the well-field area. The land was cultivated by individual farming families who cannot be counted as serfs of the government, functionaries, or the nobility. Accordingly, the functionaries under the suiren had only the right of supervision, not of commanding peasants for labour (Zhou 2000: 753). The size of their fields, allotted by the government, was adjusted to the size of the households, with three categories. Such a system is described in the chapter Xiao situ in the Zhouli, but also approved in the Tianfa regulations found in Yinqueshan. The chapter Wangzhi in the Liji knows five categories of soil. Because each family was only given 100 mu of land, fertile land could nourish nine persons, but meagre soil only five. State officials (up to the regional rulers) were given "distribution fields" according to their rank.

Quotation 4. Sizes of distribution fields depending from soil quality
農田百畝。百畝之分:上農夫食九人,其次食八人,其次食七人,其次食六人;下農夫食五人。 The fields of the husbandmen were in portions of a hundred mu. According to the different qualities of those acres, when they were of the highest quality, a farmer supported nine individuals; where they were of the next, eight; and so on, seven, six, and five.
諸侯之下士視上農夫。祿足以代其耕也。中士倍下士,上士倍中士,下大夫倍上士;卿,四大夫祿;君,十卿祿。 The servicmen of the lowest grade (xiashi 下士) in the regional states had an emolument equal to that of the husbandmen whose fields were of the highest quality; equal to what they would have made by tilling the fields. Those of the middle grade (zhongshi 中士) had double that of the lowest grade; and those of the highest grade (shangshi 上士) double that of the middle. A grand master of the lowest grade (xia dafu 下大夫) had double that of a serviceman of the highest. A minister (qing 卿) had four times that of a grand master; and the regional ruler (jun 君) had ten times that of a high minister.
Liji 禮記, ch. Wangzhi 王制. Translation according to Legge (1885).

Free peasants could nonetheless be recruited for the army, and for labour services to the public. The grouping of households into regular units shows the basic military character of administration. The Zhouli chapter Xiao situ says that each family had to provide one soldier in case of need, while the chapter Da sima adds the information that for labour service, up to three people could be drafted. The chapter Xiang dafu 鄉大夫 explains that the minimum body height of recruits was 7 chi 尺 (c. 160cm).

Physical labour for the public might be used to construct city walls or palaces, but some odes of the Shijing (like Hongyan 鴻雁 or Baoyu 鴇羽) narrate situations when peasants were sent far away to do labour.

Agricultural practice

The high number of offices involved in agriculture shows how important the management of fields was for the Zhou government. Beginning with Hou Ji 后稷, the "supervisor of grain" (who transformed into the figure of the mythological ancestor of the Zhou) to 'ministers' like situ 司土 "supervisor of land" (later called situ 司徒 "supervisor of the masses") or sinong 司農 "supervisor of agriculture", to mid-level officials like nong dafu 農大夫 "grand master of agriculture" or nongzheng 農正 "rectifier of agriculture" to lesser offices like tianjun 田畯, dianren 甸人, dianshi 甸師, nongshi 農師, or baojie 保介.

Concerning the number of peasants working on the fields, scholar usually refer to two odes of the Shijing, namely Zaishan 載芟, and Yixi 噫嘻, where it is said that "In thousands of pairs they remove the roots," (qian ou qi yun 千耦其耘), and "ten thousand men all in pairs" (shi qian wei ou 十千維耦), yet it is not sure whether these verses can be taken literally, or are just expressions of "many people".

There were different types of peasants, namely such having been subject to the Zhou prior to the conquest of the Shang; such having been subjects of the Shang; and such being subject to tributary states (fuguo 服國) of the Zhou (binfu 賓服, yaofu 要服). The Zhou peasants, also called xiaomin 小民, wanmin 萬民, or limin 黎民, served as peasants, and also as foot soldiers in case of need, like during the conquest of the Shang or when the Duke of Lu waged war against the Huaiyi tribes. The war captives from the conquest of the Shang were either peasants or craftsmen (potters, metal workers, fence makers, standard makers or harness makers) forced to resettle around Luoyang, Song, or other regions, and work for the Zhou.

While some scholars argue that the low technical level of agriculture of the Western Zhou did not allow individual farming, others hold that individual farming was the base of Western Zhou agriculture. Ploughshares were made of stone, shell, wood, or bronze, the latter constituting not a small part of the tools discovered to date. Iron was not used for agricultural tools, as the technique or working iron only appeared in the late Western Zhou period.

There were two types of 'ploughs', namely lei 耒, and si 耜. Both characters are often used as a single word, leisi 耒耜, which does not just mean 'plough', but agricultural tools in general. The lei tool was not really a plough in the modern sense, as it did not have a single share, but instead two flat and sharp protrusions at the front, and thus resembled rather a fork or a 'double-spade'. The long handle was at the lower end equipped with a cross-piece which served to tread upon to sink the blade into the soil (an action called ju zhi 舉趾 in ancient texts). The double-head end (ci 庛) was either straight to break open hard soil by pressing, or curved, in order to work softer types of soil by pushing.

Finds from the Neolithic period show that the horns of larger lei types were about 20cm long and had a distance of 8cm. The handle of this type of plough was 6-7 chi long (c. 1.5m). The si-type plough did not have 'teeth', but consisted of a single blade of 5 cun of width (10-15cm) and thus resembled a spade. While the two 'teeth' of the lei were pure wood, the single blade of a si were more often reinforced by metal, stone, bone, or shell.

Moreover, there were different other farming tools, mainly spades (qian 錢, chan 剗, chan 鏟, qiu 鍬, cha 鍤), hoes (bo 鎛, bo 鑮, chu 鋤, nou 耨), or sickles (zhi 銍, lian 鐮, lian 鎌), as well as knives (dao 刀), cutters (xiao 削), saws (ju 鋸), chisels (zao 鑿), drills (chui 錐), tweezers (zhan 鉆), files (cuo 銼, also written 錯) and axes (fu 斧). The word for 'money' (qian) is derived from the spade-shaped coins (by numismatists called bubi 布幣) used in the royal domain and the state of Jin (see currency).

The Zhouli chapter Da situ enumerates five types of soil, namely hill forests (shanlin 山林), river (banks) and swamps (chuanze 川澤), hills (qiuling 丘陵), fertile plains (fenyan 墳衍), and moist plains (yuanxi 原隰). The chapter Yugong 禹貢 of the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" discerns the soil types "whitish and mellow" (bairang 白壤), "blackish and rich" (heifen 黑墳), "whitish and rich" (baifen 白墳), "red, clayey, and rich" (chi zhi fen 赤埴墳), "miry" (tuni 塗泥), "mellow, rich, dark and thin" (rang fen lu 壤墳壚), and "greenish and light" (qingli 青黎), and "yellow and mellow" (huangrang 黄壤).

The state of Chu 楚 knew during the Spring and Autumn period nine grades of quality or types of soil (Zuozhuan 左傳, Xianggong 襄公 25), namely

Quotation 3. Types of soil in Chu, according to Zuozhuan
蒍掩書土、田:度山林,鳩藪澤,辨京陵,表淳鹵,數疆潦,規偃豬,町原防,牧隰皋,井衍沃,量入脩賦,賦車、籍馬,賦車兵、徒兵、甲楯之數。 Wei Yan 蒍掩 [supervisor of the military (sima 司馬) in Chu] recorded the conditions of resources and lands: he measured the timber of ① mountain forests, examined ② wetlands and marshes, made distinctions between ③ high altitudes and lesser mounds, marked out ④ saline fields with trees, defined districts with ⑤ dense soil liable to flooding, drew boundaries for ⑥ reservoirs, divided lands up into ⑦ small parcels for cultivation, used ⑧ wetlands for pastures, and established subdivisions for ⑨ flat, fertile lands; he calculated the domain’s revenues and regularized levies, and determined the contribution of chariots, of horses, and of the weapons for chariot drivers and foot soldiers, as well as the number of armour suits and shields.
Zuozhuan, Xianggong 25. Translation according to Durrant, Li, Schaberg 2016: 1155, slightly changed.

With the growth of the population, more wild land was cleared and made cultivable. Yet this does not mean that the agricultural landscape of China consisted of coherent tracts of land. It must rather be imagined as a puzzle of fields, heathland, meadows, marshes, and forest, with many uninhabited and uncultivated regions in-between (Zhou 2000: 779). Mark Elvin interprets the archaic Chinese character for farming as "activity being carried out in the midst of trees" (Elvin 2004: 44).

The most important crops of the Western Zhou period were the "hundred grains" (baigu 百榖), pulses (dou 豆, shu 菽), and hemp (ma 麻). The Shijing is an important source to reconstruct the variety of field crops cultivated and consumed by the Zhou people.

Among the grains, there was glutinous millet (shu 黍 ), foxtail millet (ji 稷, su 粟, zi 粢, general terms he 禾, gu 榖 "grain"), panicled millet (ji 穄, mi 糜, mei 𪎭, mei 穈), sorghum (liang 粱), black millet (ju 秬, pi 秠), white millet (qi 芑), wheat (mai 麥, lai 來, lai 麳), barley (mou 牟, mou 麰), rice (dao 稻), glutinous rice (yu 稌), non-glutinous rice (jing 稉, 粳), water oats (Zizania, gu 苽 or 菰), and pulses (shu 菽) like large beans (renshu 𦬰菽)

The chapter Zhifang shi 職方氏 of the Zhouli explains which types of grain were dominantly cultivated in which regions. This enumeration demonstrated that rice cultivation was not restricted to the Yangtze region, but was carried out practically in all regions of China (Zhou 2000: 782). Beans and other legumes were so important that the term "five grains" (wugu 五榖) usually includes beans—a food in the West not counted among the 'grains'.

Table . Production zones of various grains in Zhou-period China
黍 glutinous millet 稷 millet 麥 wheat 稻 rice 菽 pulses
Yangzhou 揚州 (Jiangsu), Jingzhou 荊州 (Hubei) x
Yuzhou 豫州 (Henan) x x x x x
Qingzhou 青州 (Shandong) x x
Yanzhou 兗州 (Anhui) x x x x
Youzhou 幽州 (Hebei) x x x
Bingzhou 並州 (Shanxi) x x x x x
Source: Zhouli, part Xiaguan 夏官, ch. Zhifang shi 職方氏.

Hemp (ma 麻) was widespread as a material for weaving hempen clothes (mabu 麻布), and because of its oil-rich seeds. The female hemp plant is called ju 苴, juma 苴麻, or zhuma 紵麻 (also written 苎), and the male one xi 枲 or muma 牧麻. While textiles made of the fibres of female hemp are of good quality, fibres of the male ones are dark and cannot be dyed. For this reason, they serve to make sack cloth used for funerals (see funeral clothes).

The Shijing also mentions several types of vegetables like melons (guadie 瓜瓞), Ixeris spec. or sowthistle (qicai 芑菜), or radish (lufu 蘆菔) grown in gardens (pu 圃).

Transmitted texts present three names for different types of fields, namely zi 菑, xin 新, and she 畬. Scholars commonly believe that the first term refers to newly opened fields, the word "new" (xin) to fields in their second year of use, and the last term to fields used in the third year, thus constituting three stages in a three-field crop rotation. Yet it cannot be known whether the first terms was applicable for a space used after first-time clearing of wild land (modern term shenghuang 生荒) or also for lands left fallow for a long time and then cleared again (shuhuang 熟荒).

The working method of ploughing (or rather, "shovelling" or "digging") in pairs (ougeng 耦耕) is often mentioned in the Classics and ancient texts. It is important to know that draft animals were still not used in agriculture. How "shovelling in pairs" was carried out, is not known. Through the ages, scholars tried to solve the riddle. Some were of the opinion, that two persons handled two si-type tools, perhaps working side by side or one behind the other; others interpreted the method as two persons handling one tool, one walking before, and the other after it (perhaps one drawing, and one steering), or two persons holding the tool, progressing side by side. Another interpretation is that one was treading on the tool to insert in into the earth, while the second person used a rope to lift if up again, together with a furrow slice. Cheng Yaotian 程瑤田 (1725-1814), author of Ougeng yishu 耦耕義述, advocated for the most probable option, namely the cooperation of two person holding two tools and working closely one behind the other (Zhou 2000: 792).

Fields were usually located south or east of settlements, in order to yield the most intensive sunlight and warmth. According to the local conditions, ditches drained the water or lead in moisture. Seeds were sown on ridges or into pits, depending on the need for moisture. The word mu, usually designating an area measure, also meant low ridges between fields, keeping the moisture and protecting the crops.

The multitude of works peasants had to do throughout the year is described in the Shijing air Qiyue 七月 (part Binfeng 豳風).

Quotation. Agricultural work throughout the year
In the days of [our] third month, they take their ploughs in hand; / In the days of [our] fourth, they take their way to the fields. / Along with my wife and children, / I carry food to them in those south-lying acres. / The surveyor of the fields comes, and is glad.
The young women take their deep baskets, / And go along the small paths, / Looking for the tender [leaves of the] mulberry trees. / As the spring days lengthen out, / They gather in crowds the white southernwood.
In the silkworm month they strip the mulberry branches of their leaves, / And take their axes and hatchets, / To lop off those that are distant and high; / Only stripping the young trees of their leaves. / In the seventh month, the shrike is heard; / In the eighth month, they begin their spinning; / They make dark fabrics and yellow. / Our red manufacture is very brilliant, / It is for the lower robes of our young princes.
In the eighth, they reap. / In the tenth, the leaves fall. / In the days of [our] first month, they go after badgers, / And take foxes and wild cats, / To make furs for our young princes. / In the days of [our] second month, they have a general hunt, / And proceed to keep up the exercises of war. / The boars of one year are for themselves; / Those of three years are for our prince.
In the tenth month, the cricket / Enters under our beds. / Chinks are filled up, and rats are smoked out; / The windows that face [the north] are stopped up; / And the doors are plastered.
In the sixth month they eat the sparrow-plums and grapes; / In the seventh, they cook the Kui and pulse, / In the eighth, they knock down the dates; / In the tenth, they reap the rice; / And make the spirits for the spring, / For the benefit of the bushy eyebrows. / In the seventh month, they eat the melons; / In the eighth, they cut down the bottle-gourds; / In the ninth, they gather the hemp-seed; / They gather the sowthistle and make firewood of the Fetid tree; / To feed our husbandmen.
In the ninth month, they prepare the vegetable gardens for their stacks, / And in the tenth they convey the sheaves to them; / The millets, both the early sown and the late, / With other grain, the hemp, the pulse, and the wheat. / ' O my husbandmen, Our harvest is all collected. / Let us go to the town, and be at work on our houses. / In the day time collect the grass, / And at night twist it into ropes; / Then get up quickly on our roofs; / We shall have to recommence our sowing.
In the days of [our] second month, they hew out the ice with harmonious blows; / And in those of [our] third month, they convey it to the ice-houses, / [Which they open] in those of the fourth, early in the morning, / Having offered in sacrifice a lamb with scallions. / In the ninth month, it is cold, with frost; / In the tenth month, they sweep clean their stack-sites. / The two bottles of spirits are enjoyed, / And they say, ' Let us kill our lambs and sheep, / And go to the hall of our prince, / There raise the cup of rhinoceros horn, / And wish him long life, - that he may live for ever.
Translation: Legge 1871.

The work encompassed the preparation of tools, ploughing and sowing, constructing buildings, harvesting and bringing in the grain, collecting mulberry leaves and raising silkworm, spinning, reeling, dyeing and weaving, hunting, brewing, sacrifying, woodcutting, collecting fruits, etc. Weeding (biao 麃, biao 穮, yun 耘, nou 耨, zishan 芟) and removing tree trunks and roots (zuo 柞) was not just an activity to clear space for the cultivation of plants, but also to receive biomass useable as fertilizer for the coming seasons.

The fight against pests "eating the hearts, leaves, roots, and joints" (ming, teng, mao, zei 螟螣蟊賊) of the plants was arduous and difficult, as the ode Datian 大田 says. The building of reservoirs particularly for rice cultivation is attested in the air Zebei 澤陂, as well as the chapter on the paddy supervisor (Daoren 稻人) in the Zhouli, the chapter on monthly ordinances (Yueling 月令) in the Liji, and bronze inscriptions. Reservoirs were also discovered in Zhangjiapo 張家坡, Shaanxi, and Cixian 磁縣, Hebei.

The royal household employed supervisors of forestry and hunting (shanyu 山虞), forest measurers (linheng 林衡), guardians of the waterways (chuanheng 川衡), supervisors of marshes (zeyu 澤虞), animal keepers (yuren 囿人), gardeners (changren 場人), granary masters (linren 廩人), and granary managers (cangren 倉人), breeders of sacrificial animals (muren 牧人), cowherds (niuren 牛人), "fatteners" of sacrificial animals (chongren 充人), horse breeders (zouma 走馬, quma 趣馬), horse trainers (souren 廋人) and chief grooms (yushi 圉師). This enumeration shows that the royal household and that of the regional rulers depended on a large staff of persons responsible for the supervision and exploitation of natural resources, and the breeding of animals, be it for sacrifices, for hunting, or for the army.

Fishing and hunting also played a certain role in everyday life, as can be learnt from several songs in the Shijing.

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