An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書

Jul 6, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書 "Book of Fan Shengzhi", also called Han Fan Shengzhi yishu 漢氾勝之遺書, is the oldest surviving agricultural treatise of China. It was written during the late Former Han 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) period. The oldest bibliographical records of China talk of a book Fan Shengzhi of 18 chapters. The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) scholar Lu Deming 陸德明 (c. 550-630), mentioning this book in his commentary Erya shiwen 爾雅釋文, calls it Fan Shengzhi zhongzhi shu 氾勝之種植書, while the commentator Li Shan 李善 (630-689), compiler of the commentary Wenxua zhu 文選注, speaks of it as Fan Shengzhi tiannong shu 氾勝之田農書.

Fan Shengzhi 氾勝之(or Fan Sheng 氾勝, sometimes written 汜勝之) was originally called Fan Sheng 凡勝, but he adopted the family name Fan 氾, which is actually the name of a river to whose banks he had to flee during the disturbances in the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE). He probably hailed from the region of Shandong and was an official court gentleman for consultation (yilang 議郎), then agricultural development commissioner (quannongshi 勸農使) and *Commissioner of charioteers (qingche shizhe 輕車使者). In these tasks he was entrusted with the revenue of the region of Guanzhong 關中 around the capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). He had therefore practical experience in agriculture and wrote down what he knew about the basics of agriculture, like ploughing, sewing, the observance of time and weather, growing, harvest, and processing of the crops. Later on he rose to the office of Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史).

His treatise includes information about many field crops, not only grains. The preparation of "compartment" fields (qutianfa 區田法 or quzhongfa 區種法; deep-ploughing and planting in square compartments which enabled plants to better resist drought) plays a very important part in the whole book. From the descriptions it can be seen which agricultural methods were used during the Former Han period, and which crops were cultivated in northern China, and how they were raised and processed. For all crops described, the time of ploughing and field preparation is given, the type of soil and how it can be ameliorated, the type of manure used for this (soutianfa 溲種法), how irrigation worked, by which methods weeds were cut out, and how harvest worked. The Fan Shengzhi shu provided an exact description of the deep-ploughing method developed at that time and by which the soil was enabled to preserve moisture and fertility. At the same time the "compartment method" allowed higher yields per acre.

Quotation 1. Shallow-pit compartment fields (qutian 區田)
區田以糞氣爲美,非必須良田也。諸山陵近邑高危傾阪及丘城上,皆可爲區田。 Cultivation in shallow pits depends mainly on the fertilising power of the soil, therefore, by principle it needs not good land to start with. Mountain, high cliff, steep places nearly villages and even the inside slopes of the citywall can all be used and shallow pits made thereupon.
區田不耕旁地,庶盡地力。凡區種,不先治地,便荒地爲之。 In planting the shallow pits, it is essential to concentrate the power of the soil, so the adjacent grounds should not be cultivated. Cultivation in shallow pits starts directly on the waste land, no need to begin with other preparatory work.
以畝爲率,令一畝之地,長十八丈,廣四丈八尺;當橫分十八丈作十五町;町間分十四道,以通人行…尺直橫鑿町作溝,溝一尺,深亦一尺。積壤於溝間,相去亦一尺。嘗悉以一尺地積壤,不相受,令弘作二尺地以積壤。 Take one mu (see weights and measures) as a standard: One mu is a piece of land 18 zhang long and 4 zhang and 8 chi wide. Divide the mu into 15 parcels, and leave 14 alleys in between as footpaths... Traverse the parcels with straight ditches across. Ditches are 1 chi wide, 1 chi deep and 1 chi apart. The loose earth [taken out in digging] is deposited between them. This deposit will form piles 1 chi wide. If the spaces left between the ditches cannot accommodate the loose earth, widen them to 2 chi.
種禾黍於溝間,夾溝爲兩行,去溝兩邊各二寸半,中央相去五寸,旁行相去亦五寸。一溝容四十四株。一畝合萬五千七百五十株。 To plant spiked and glutinous millet: Sow them in two rows along the flanks of a ditch. Individual plants are 5 cun apart, and rows 5 cun apart and 2.5 cun away from the ditch. One ditch thus takes up 44 individual plants, and the whole mu now takes up 15,750 plants altogether.
種禾黍,令上有一寸土,不可令過一寸,亦不可令減一寸… After sowing the millet seeds, cover with 1 cun of earth—neither must the layer be more nor less than 1 cun.
區種,天旱常溉之,一畝常收百斛。 With this system of cultivation in shallow pits, one must always see to watering of his crop in days of draught. A yield of 100 hu per mu may be expected.
Translation according to Shih 1959: 31-33.

Fan Shengzhi also describes crop rotation (daitianfa 代田法). He says that it was best to six time change the crop, beginning with wheat (mai 麥). When the turn came to millet (shu 黍) these seeds were to be combined with that of mulberry (sang 桑). Sown together in the field in equal amounts, the mulberry shoots had the same height as millet when it was ripe. Both crops were cut and the mulberry shoots dried and burnt. The ash was used to dung the field, from which a year later very productive mulberry trees can grow, to provide leaves for silkworms. Similarly, melons (gua 瓜) were to be mixed with small beans (xiaodou 小豆), whose shoots and young leaves would make a very delicate salad.

Fan Shengzhi also advocated a complete use of field crops without discarding any part of them. While the flesh of gourds (hu 瓠) could be eaten, the seeds could be used as fodder or as fuel. Because each farm was a production unit, it was necessary to calculate the amount of labour to be invested, and what yields a field would produce. He exemplifies such a calculation with the help of gourds, and explains how much a farmer would earn from a field of a certain size.

The Fan Shengzhi shu was lost in its original form and is only preserved in quotations in the Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術 from the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534), and in various encyclopaedias from the Tang and Song period 宋 (960-1279) like Beitang shuchao 北堂書鈔, Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚 and Taiping yulan 太平御覽.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊 (1765-1837) collected surviving quotations to reconstruct the Fan Shengzhi shu as far as possible. In his 2-juan long collection, not all paragraphs are without doubt parts of the original text. Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (1794-1857) collected 16 paragraphs from the Qimin yaoshu and 18 from other sources that are to be found in his series Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書 . A third collection of fragments was compiled by Zong Baohua 宗葆華.

Two modern commentaries have been written, namely Shi Shenghan's 石聲漢 (1907-1971) Fan Shengzhi shu jinshi 氾勝之書今釋 and Wan Guoding's 萬國鼎 (1897-1963) Fan Shengzhi shu jishi 氾勝之書輯釋.

There is an English study and translation by Shih Sheng-han (1959), On Fan Shêng-chih Shu: An Agriculturist Book of China Written in the First Century B. C. (Peking: Science Press).

Table 1. Contents of the Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書
1. 耕田 Gengtian Ploughing the fields, basic principles of farming
2. 收種 Shouzhong Harvesting
3. 溲種法 Souzhongfa Irrigation
4. 區田法 Qutianfa Field compartments, cultivation in shallow pits
5. He Grain on the stalk
6. Shu Millet
7. Mai Wheat
8. Dou Rice
9. Bai Barnyard grass (Echinochloa)
10. 大豆 Dadou Great beans
11. 小豆 Xiaodou Small beans
12. Xi Nettle-hemp
13. Ma Hemp
14. Gua Melons
15. Hu Gourds
16. Yu Taros
17. Sang Mulberries
18. 雜項 Zaxiang Miscellaneous items
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