An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術

Jul 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術 "Important methods to condition the people's [living]" is one of the oldest agronomical treatises of China. It was written by Jia Sixie 賈思勰 (fl. 544), a scholar of the short Eastern Wei period 東魏 (534-550). Jia hailed from Yidu 益都, modern Shandong, and was governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Gaoyang 高陽. He had the opportunity to observe the farming activities in the regions of Jingxing 井陘, Huguan 壼關 and Shangdang 上黨 (all in modern Shanxi and Shaanxi) and was himself a sheep breeder.

The Qimin yaoshu comprises 92 chapters arranged in 10 juan. About the author virtually nothing is known but in his foreword he at least explains that he collected quotations from all types of books, especially from older agronomical treatises like the Fan Shengzhi shu 氾生之書 and the Simin yueling 四民月令 as well as interviews of experts on agronomy.

Jia Sixie does not only describe how to plant and rise different kinds of crops or how to breed cattle, but also describes the preparation and storage of some materials based on agronomical products, like wine, glue, oil, fibres, dyestuffs, ink, or cooking products processes (pickling) and products like yeast, sugar and soy sauce (juan 7 to 9). Besides staple food (juan 1-2) he explains the cultivation of vegetables (juan 3), fruits and mulberry trees (juan 4), the latter's leaves being used as fodder for silkworms. Juan 6 describes cattle breeding and fish-farming. In juan 10 he also describes plants not common in central China, and his book is thus a very important source for agriculture in early China. Jia Sixie quotes from more than 150 ancient books and thus preserved many fragments of texts that are otherwise lost (e.g. Fan Shengzhi shu, Simin yueling or Tao Zhugong's 陶朱公 Yangyujing 養魚經), and also many "country sayings" (geyao 歌謠).

The "Miscellaneous Chapter" (Zashuo 雜説) of the book and the chapter Huozhi 貨殖 "Trade" had been added later.

The Qimin yaoshu is the oldest completely surviving agricultural text of China. Jia Sixie stresses the importance of agriculture for the welfare of society and the whole state, and supports his argument by quotations from ancient masters like Ren Yan 任延, Wang Jing 王景, Huangfu Long 皇甫隆, Ci Chong 茨充, Cui Shi 崔寔, Huang Ba 黄霸, Gong Sui 龔遂 and Shao Xinchen 召信臣. Further proofs of this assumption come from the chapter Hongfan 洪範 of the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" and other Confucian Classics where the kings of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) are admonished to "appease, enrich and instruct the people".

Compared to older agronomical texts like the Fan Shenzhi shu from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), the scope of agricultural fields is widely enlarged in the Qimin yaoshu. It includes not only the cultivation of plants, but also cattle breeding, forestry and the processing of products. A successful farmer, Jia Sixie says, would not only mechanically do his work, but would critically observe the seasons, weather, and the quality of the soil, in order to adapt his work to these factors. Such a method would save labour and increase yields (yongli shao er chenggong duo 用力少而成功多). For the amelioration of the soil, better ploughing methods had been developed, in combination with the selection of better seeds. Jia Sixie therefore describes 86 types of various seeds in his book.

For the windy and dry spring season of northern China he recommended deep-ploughing for the first cultivation of a field, but a shallow reverting of the soil in autumn, and vice versa. Between phases of cultivation it was profitable for the preservation of moisture to level the ground and to weed out undesired grasses and herbs. Crop rotation, he says, also helps to keep the fertility of the soil. Green beans (lüdou 緑豆) planted first would enrich fertility, and had to be followed by small beans (xiaodou 小豆) or sesame (huma 胡麻). Besides methods of sowing the author also describes different methods of plant propagation like striking (qiancha 扦插), stolons (yatiao 壓條), division (fenzhu 分株) or propping (jiajie 嫁接). The author seems to not have highly estimated a kind of marketization of agricultural products, as advocated by the late Han-period scholar Cui Shi 崔寔 (d. 170 CE, author of Simin yueling), but he rather preferred a kind of self-subsisting farming for a single although large—household.

Quotation 1. Production of meat condiment
肉醬法:牛、羊、麞、鹿、兔肉皆得作。取良殺新肉,去脂,細剉。(陳肉乾者不任用。合脂令醬膩。) For meat condiment: beef, mutton, venison, hare [or meat of any game] will do; always use good, freshly slaughtered meat. Pick away fats, and mince finely. (Meat aged or dried is not good; fat makes the product over-unctuous.)
曬麴令燥,熟擣,絹簁。大率肉一斗,麴末五升,白鹽兩升半,黃蒸一升, (曝乾,熟擣,絹簁。) 盤上和令均調,內甕子中。 (有骨者,和訖先擣,然後盛之。骨多髓,既肥膩,醬亦然也。) 泥封,日曝。寒月作之。宜埋之於黍穰積中。 Dry some wine starter in sunshine, when very dry, pound fine and sift. Take 10 parts of finely-chopped meat, 5 of starter powder, 2.5 of white table salt, 1 of yellow mould (pounded fine when dry and sift). Mix well in a pan, then move into a pottery jar (Pound bony parts well before adding. Marrowy bones will make the condiment greasy.), seal with mud and bake in sunshine. If made in winter days, bury the jar in millet chaff [to keep warm].
二七日開看,醬出無麴氣,便熟矣。 Check the mixture after 27 days, and if no further gases from the starter are visible, the condiment is ready.
Example of one important aspect of domestic economy, namely the preparation of meat condiment. Shih (1974: 83-84) explains that in old times, meat condiments were more widespread than soybean condiments (soy sauce). Translation slightly altered and complemented.

The oldest surviving print of the Qimin yaoshu dates from the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126, printed by the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, Chongwenyuan 崇文院), but only 4 fascicles of this edition are preserved in Japan. The Qimin yaoshu is to be found in the series Siku quanshu 四庫全書, Sibu congkan 四部叢刊, Mice huihan 祕册彙函, Jindai mishu 津逮祕書, Sibu beiyao 四部備要, Wanyou wenku 萬有文庫, Xuejin taoyuan 學津討原 and Jianxi cunshe congkan 漸西村舍叢刊.

There are two 20th-century commentaries on the Qimin yaoshu, namely Shi Shenghan's 石聲漢 (1907-1971) Qimin yaoshu jinshi 齊民要術今釋 and Miao Qiyu's 繆啟愉 (1910-2003) Qimin yaoshu jiaoshi 齊民要術校釋. A study and partial translation has been produced by Shih, Sheng-han (1974), A Preliminary Survey of the Book Ch‘i Min Yao Shu: An Agricultural Encyclopaedia of the 6th Century (Peking: Science Press).

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