An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Nongshuo 農說

Jun 7, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Nongshuo 農說 “Explanations to farming” is a treatise on agriculture written by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Ma Yilong 馬一龍 (1490-1562), courtesy name Futu 負圖 or Yingtu 應圖, style Menghe 孟河. He hailed from Liyang 溧陽, Jiangsu, and obtained the jinshi degree in 1547. His highest office was that of director of studies (siye 司業) of the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監). After his retirement he lived as a peasant and so personally experienced the hardships of the common people.

Ma was convinced that farmers could not be instructed by the philosophical arguments of the literati class, and the latter had no idea of practical farming, and thus decided to write a text to combine both strengths. His texts is decidedly academic, but Ma added commentaries on it to elucidate its meaning to less well-educated persons.

The text is relatively short, and mostly theoretical, influenced by the Neo-Confucian background of its author. This kind of writing style is rare in agricultural texts.

On the practical level, Ma explained that knowing the right time was more important than knowledge about the soil. "Whoever knows what is appropriate, will make use of what is indispensable, and will avoid things not useful." In that way, the good farmer's "strength will be sufficient to vanquish the sky (i.e. meteorological obstacles)" (li zu yi sheng tian yi 力足以勝天矣). The book is the first book in the history of Chinese agricultural texts that provides figures on the planting of rice shoots. Ma says, in a normal pattern, 7,200 shoots are planted per mu 畝 of land, while this number can be increased to 10,000 in a dense pattern.

He stressed that it was important to plant in straight rows. With the help of rakes (ba 耙), the mud around the rice shoots was to be piled up around the plant in order to balance temperature and humidity close to the root of the plant, and thus give it strength to grow. A large rake (tang 耥) would not just weed out grass, but also stabilize the shoots and allow suspended matters to sediment which would give the core of the plant more strength. On the other hand, the excessive use of rakes would "cut off the floating roots and take away sideline leaves", take out the vital forces of the mud and dry out the plants.

As to fertilization, the text speaks of "richness" (zi 滋), which could either be increased manually by irrigation, howing and harrowing, or by adding manure (nifen 泥糞), ash or vegetable fertilizer (bingfei 餅肥), ash (hui 灰) or stalks of hay or straw (gaohui 稿卉).

On the other hand, the philosophical background of the book is only of limited help. Ma says, for instance that "ancestral ether" (zuqi 祖氣) was located in the stalks of rice, while the ears contained a "maternal embryo" (mutai 母胎). The lack of the first resulted in an emaciation of the "embryo", and eventually the harvest in the year thereafter. Ma used the theory of Yin and Yang to explain cycles of growth and decay, warmth and coldness, activity and rest, and so on.

The book was very widespread and is to be found in numerous series, like Jujia bibei 居家必備, Baoyantang miji 寶顏堂秘笈, Guang baichuan xuehai 廣百川學海, Shuofu xu 說郛續, Ershi'erzi quanshu 二十二子全書, Wushiwanjuanlou jiucang 五十萬卷樓舊藏 and Congshu jicheng chubian 叢書集成初編.

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