Module 7: Ancient Chinese Agriculture & Livestock

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Digging deep into the history of Chinese food culture is difficult since most archaeological sites within China have been severely disturbed through millennia of agriculture, flooding, and tomb digging, which have confused the archaeological record of these sites.

Pigs were domesticated at Zengpiyan in Guangxi nearly 7,600-9,000 years ago. The East Asian pig, however, had independent domestication. Prior to 6,000 BCE, larger agrarian societies that produced an abundance of domesticated rice were mostly settled in the Yangzi Valley. Chinese cabbages, dogs, pigs, sheep and chickens were found all across China by 4,000 BCE. Native to southern China and Southeast Asia is the chicken. However, the first archaeological presence of the chicken, indicated by older bones of wild chicken or pheasant-type birds, were found near Xian, and it may have been native to the area. Another possibility is that the chicken was domesticated in the south and spread to the north. It is also possible that sheep were domesticated independently in China and near eastern areas. By 4,000 BCE, the Neolithic cultures of China developed drastically. Large agricultural sites can be found in the modern provinces of China, as well as the surrounding areas. Modernly, China has 22 provinces, but traditionally, it only had 18 provinces. From this point, agriculture spread quickly to Southeast Asia and farmers settled in Taiwan, where the pig became the most common livestock. Around 3,000 BCE, Taiwan began supplying 90% of the meat and does still to this day.

Goats were not found as a wild species anywhere near or in China, but somehow also cropped up in the area around this time as well. Water buffaloes, which were likely domesticated in or near the Yangzi Valley and independently in India, may have been available at this time as well however, the archaeological evidence has been unable to confirm. It is also likely that other varieties of cattle arrived in China from the near East around this time. Although the exact timeline of animal domestication is unclear, it is also probable that the horse arrived in China by 2,000 BCE, which was originally domesticated in the steppes of Ukraine and western Russia by 4,500-4,000 BCE.


Peanuts are a New World crop that was brought to China between the 16th and 17th centuries, and archaeologists only know this, likely due to seed-burying rodents at archaeological sites within the Han dynasty. Although written records became available by 1,500 BCE, but these records only really speak about grains and livestock. In the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1,000 BCE-221 BCE), Chinese plant domestication became evident, due to the Book of Songs, which was a compilation of Zhou poetry that contains a record of dozens of plants. The book includes 305 songs that speak of more plants than were mentioned throughout the entire Bible, as well as 88 animal species, with some being mythical. Since the book was written in northern China, its songs reflect societies that are wholly dependent on millets, with wheat being mentioned briefly, in passing. The book mentions cabbages, beans, gourds, melons, and many other varieties of fruits and vegetables. At this time, China was still heavily dependent on fish and game, but pigs and chickens were considered animals of daily use. The Book of Songs was actually edited to its final form by Confucius in the 5th century BCE. The book mentions 44 vegetables and herbs, including Chinese cabbage and celery, plums, apricots, bamboo, peaches, hazelnuts and pine.


The dawn of agriculture was only able to occur in Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, as a result of their heavy reliance on the Euphrates, Tigris, and the Nile river. Aside from the ancient world’s other ancient agrarian societies, China is essentially the originating source of most of the modern world’s agriculture. The Chinese invented irrigation by building canals and taking advantage of sloped lands to develop agriculture, as well as other methods and farming techniques. And although the agricultural society of Ban Po was reliant on the Huang He or Yellow River, China was the first ancient society to develop irrigation techniques for agrarian societies that were not strictly based on the banks of rivers or other water sources.

Botanists suggest apples arose in central and southern China. This field is home to around twenty species of Malus, whose seeds steadily disperse throughout the Northern Hemisphere through birds. Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) on the western China-Kazakh frontier is the progenitor of all current apple cultivars. These Tian Shan forests were isolated around 4.5 million years ago by biological and climatic shifts and developed in isolation. Juniper theorizes that when bears and wild pigs, horses and donkeys eventually started to inhabit the field and consume the most prominent and sweetest fruits, they helped pick bigger, sweeter fruits naturally. Since apples do not breed "true to type" from seed, these scattered seed wild plantings eventually led to various apple varieties from this one species. Later, around ten thousand years ago, people started to migrate through the region, consuming these fruits and taking them westward. China is the world's biggest apple producer.


Cabbage and kale spread from Europe and the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and Egypt. These crops subsequently dispersed throughout the Old World along trade routes, ultimately reaching China, where distinctive kale and broccoli varieties contrasted with B. rapa cabbages.


Rice-fishing agriculture has a long tradition in China and may have originated from pond culture. Numerous eggs develop in a successful year with adequate rainfall and mild conditions. The ricefield fish could have grown better than those in the rivers, and the tradition of growing ricefield fish emerged. The archaeological and written documents do speak on the almost 2000-year-old rice-fish culture. In 1964-65, Mid-Eastern Han Dynasty tombs excavated near Hanzhong City, in Shanxi Province unearthed two clay models: a pond model and a ricefield model. Discovered in an Eastern Han Dynasty brick tomb in 1977, in Emei County, Sichuan, was a stone carving of a pond and ricefield model. Half the stone carved into a pond containing frogs, fish and ducks. The other half, carved into a ricefield with an inlet and outlet, with two farmers employed on one side and two manure heaps on the other. In 1978, Mian City, Shanxi Province excavated four mid-Han Dynasty tombs with 200 relics. One of the intact relics was a model of 18 pottery miniatures of marine plants and animals: sculptured snakes, eels, spiral eggs, crucian carp, grass carp, common carp, and turtles. Another winter ricefield showed farmland with a pond containing trout.


These artifacts indicate that rice-fish culture emerged close to Hanzhong and Mian Counties in Shanxi Province and Emei County in Sichuan Province and was prominent at least 1700 years ago. The ricefield fish species were common carp, crucian carp, grass carp, silver carp. The bamboo fish trap and sluice gate built at the inlet and outlet suggest that a primitive rice-fish community model existed at the time. Recipes for Four Seasons, published in the Wei Dynasty (220-265 AD), is the oldest written record of rice-fish culture: a tiny fish with yellow scales and a red tail grown in the ricefields of Pi County northeast of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, may be used to create a sauce.


The next written document identified was during the Tang Dynasty's latter half. Liu Xun (about 889-904 AD) wrote about in the Wonders in Southern China: As spring rains arrive, water pools around houses in fields. Introduced to the flooded fields are Grass carp fingerlings. One or two years later, once the fish mature, they consume the plot's grassroots. Not only does this fertilize the fields, but it also produces more fish. With this method, rice is grown without weeds.


Rice-fish culture evolved rapidly after establishing the People's Republic of China in 1949. In 1954, the fourth National Aquaculture Meeting suggested establishing country-wide rice-fish culture. From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, many causes, including the intensification of rice processing and the large-scale usage of chemical insecticides, impeded rice-fish farming. The trend has now extended to all rice-growing areas in China by modifying rice-fish techniques to meet local agroecological conditions.


The modern idea of mutualism in rice-fish culture, which is different from traditional methods, increases rice production by encouraging herbivorous fish to eradicate weeds that interfere with sunlight, fertilizer, and space for growing rice plants. Simultaneously, ricefield fish feed on weeds, plankton, and benthos, creating an ideal ecological structure that supports both fish and rice. Traditionally, the plan was to grow fish alongside rice as an additional food supply. The definition now involves mutualisms for both fish and rice species. Rice-fish farming has two primary methods: rotating rice and fish crops and growing fish and rice together. Rice-fish rotation requires the rice to grow from one season to the next. Farmers often use this method for winter ricefields, water-conserving regions, and low-lying areas in Sichuan Province. The fish raised are mostly adult or larger fish varieties.


By allowing fair use of rice and fish's reciprocal advantages, the latest paradigm offers a modern biological strategy to improve China's agriculture. The focus is on increasing rice, and fish's job is to enhance rice plant development. However, the overall aim is to improve rice and fish production in rice-growing areas. Farming rice fish has many advantages: fish can increase rice yields, fish feed on weeds and worms and loosen soil, fish sustain and enrich the soil and water fertility, eradicate insects and pests, consume mosquito larvae. In ancient times, ricefields stored fish species were: common carp, crucian carp, grass carp, silver carp, bighead carp.


The rice-fish culture practiced in shallow-water ricefields, deep-water rice fields and wild rice fields, but in brackish waters along coastal reclamation zones, they use a rotational method; rice crop develops one year, and mullet grows the next. Rice-fish culture is a common way for people to cultivate fresh fish supplies in mountainous regions. Farmers in these areas conduct rice-fish culture to collect fish for personal use, but it needs intensive maintenance and produces a weak yield.


Because of China's huge population and scarce agricultural space, agriculture is heading towards the intensification of traditional rice-fish culture. It is an efficient way to improve ricefield production by growing rice and fish simultaneously and is the optimal method of improving ricefield economic productivity, allowing farmers to increase profits.


Rice-fish farming is an ecological process combining rice processing and aquaculture that enhances rice and fish growth, maximizes the use of field and water supplies, and effectively increases harvests. Several scientific and technical advances have occurred due to Chinese rice-fish techniques.


Historical documents indicate that Chinese farmers began fishing in ricefields about 1700 years ago. Nevertheless, rice-fish culture has not advanced for several years, and feudal ties have hindered its growth. Farmers grew ricefield fish to augment their meals.

Under the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the rice-fish culture eventually evolved into a significant rural practice. However, it did become a structured methodology due to certain constraints. Fields were scattered, and little knowledge was available; thus, approaches and yields differed considerably in various regions. Yields were low, the size of the operations remained small, and techniques did not advance.


Before the People's Republic of China, the Kuoming-Dang Government's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry encouraged rice-fish culture production by stocking fingerlings in Sichuan ricefields. The Rice Experiment Station in Shong Jiang District also offered technological guidance to local farmers. These activities encouraged rice-fish culture locally, but prohibitions restricted its effects on the rest of the country.


During the early People's Republic of China, rice-fish farming flourished as these aids restored agricultural production. Farmers traded information about their rice-fish culture, and more districts started implementing the methodology. By 1959, small-scale fish harvested with conventional tall rice varieties was grown on level land without pesticides. A few farmers dug fish ditches, which occupied just 1% of the field. Fish were not fed, with only weeds available. Despite modern innovations, rice-fish culture stayed conventional. The rice cultivation scheme was reformed in later years, utilizing vast amounts of manure and poisonous pesticides. The rice-fish culture declined, and modern methods only became established after 1978.


Guizhou has conducted rice-fish farming for over 1000 years. It is most common in eastern Guizhou (bordering Hunan and Guangxi provinces), where national minority communities reside. The most widely grown species are common carp "Gaopo," common carp "river." Farmers catch and hatch fish eggs from wetlands, ricefields, and waterways. Because of climatic factors, most regions have just two crops a year and one rice harvest. Usually, fields do not get drained, and farmers in south-east Guizhou also raise fish in winter water fields. Rice-fishing has been in Chongqing Region for over 1000 years.


However, long-term fish yields were low and unpredictable for a long time due to intensive cultivation, conventional techniques, and other restricting circumstances. Advances in science and technology, fish industry growth, improvements like rural economies, and a rise in the market led citizens to explore new ways to exploit the water supply. They pursued innovations that transformed the conventional rice-fish culture structure, creating economic, social and ecological benefits. In eastern Sichuan Province, Hongqing has a subtropical monsoon environment with ample heat and rainfall during the warm season. These conditions are ideal for fishing. Chongqing, situated in Sichuan Basin's hills and low mountain regions, has broadly scattered ricefields and varying natural conditions. Several rice-fishing methods evolved to suit local conditions. Rice-fish farming is a successful way to optimize ricefield profits by simultaneously producing freshwater fish to augment the food supply and profits.


Rice-fish culture provides impressive advantages: it does not need other land and water sources, it provides a quick crop cycle, needs minimal capitalization, produces rapid returns and profits, is easy to operate and utilizes basic technologies. It also entirely exploits the potential of the ricefield's water capacity.


Substantial advances in rice-fish farming occurred in Jiangsu Province, and the farmers are getting more acquainted with the latest practices. Integrated rice-fish production provides commercial, social and ecological benefits. It has been an effective way to raise household revenue, diversify single-product economies in rural areas, and provide animal protein.


Sunflower, corn and soybean augmented conventional oilseed, oil cabbage. Historically, vegetables were often tiny. In winter, there was nothing except Beijing's cabbage—the cylindrical-headed type of Chinese cabbage, with pale leaves and broad, crisp leaf bases. Recently, deliberate attempts to diversify the winter vegetable supply have occurred. Melons were prevalent in summer for their cooling and diuretic qualities as well as their sweet taste. Their seeds became a common snack, to the extent where certain watermelon varieties were raised only for seeds, many large seeds and very little meat. Peaches and jujubes were abundant when they were in season. Walnuts, lotus seeds, fruits and nuts became luxurious products. The pig was the principal meat source, as in most inland China, but beef and lamb (or mutton) were frequent, particularly in Hui neighbourhoods, which are extensive and renowned for their food. Chicken and duck were popular, but only on exceptional occasions.

Wherever practical, fish and poultry are sold alive, as well as some larger animals. A fresh load of vegetables or fruit demands a high price that may slip by the hour if the sun weeps the crop.


Restaurants in China tend to specialize in one form of cuisine, usually focusing on a specific province or ethnic group's cuisine. Several classic Beijing dishes are so intricate and famous that restaurants solely depend on them. The most popular was and is Beijing duck. Ducks originated as a domesticated species in northern China, and the "white Pekin" remains the most famous variety globally.

Producers feed Beijing ducks to allow the perfect amount of fat and meat taste, and they are treated carefully from the moment they hatch. After being slaughtered in its third month of life, Beijing ducks are hanged and inflated to detach the skin and meat. Preparation is simple: seasoned and grilled. As with ducks and marinated pork slabs in the rest of China, Beijing duck is hung on a roasting hook so that both sides cook equally. The flesh and skin are cut into small chunks, rolled into wheat pancakes with fermented sauce and slivered scallions. Some epicures would only eat the skin, leaving meat for servants.


From afar come dishes like Hebei's sweet-sour fish. Made from freshwater fish, usually a carp species, it is considered China's best variant of the dish. Shandong restaurants serve the province's top dumplings and fish dishes.


Starting from 135 B.C.E., during the founding of Min Yue state in Fujian province, ancient Fujianese cuisine developed food origins with ancient Hakka refugees from northern regions, native tribes, and local Han communities. Only 10% of the land in these regions was farmable, so the remaining heavily planted areas produced a fair amount of corn, wheat and sweet potatoes. They also grow fruits, soybeans, peanuts, and other oil seeds and people eat these crops year-round, including fruits, since they are skilled in drying and storing them. Sweet potatoes were not an essential dietary ingredient until they helped relieve famine in Sung times (960–1280 C.E.) and the late 1500s. A lack of rice sparked curiosity in this tuber, shredded and called "sweet potato rice." Wheat foods have replaced rice and are now significant dietary components in China. Roasted, cooked, and dried sweet potatoes are used as snacks and meal ingredients and made into flour. They are consumed in proportions comparable to rice and used to make pasta, pancakes, dumplings and other items. Wheat and sweet potatoes can transform noodles into any conceivable form. Wheat and sweet potato consumption are higher in this area than in any other Chinese province, but they are mostly served in soups once their solid material is exhausted. Noodles are eaten plain in stir-fried dishes and stews and turned into batters called "swallow skin," consisting of thin poured noodle batter. The batter, or kuopien, is baked in a wok, incorporating soup while creating a soft crust. Swallowskins can be plain, contain powdered pork or wine lees, or used as wrappers for dumplings and fried foods. Some batters are just egg whites, called kao li.


Other favourite Fujianese foods are fish balls, turtle meat, and a broad range of mushrooms, including black or silver cloud ears called mo-er or yin-er. They make dishes with coagulated pig or chicken blood, seafood, chicken, pork, duck, and goose. Unlike other provinces but similar to the practices in Guangzhou, tea is popular at meals. They sweeten local dishes with sugar cane produced in the south, vegetables harvested anywhere they can be grown, and animals raised where crops do not flourish.

Fuzhou was established in 202 B.C.E. meaning "happy city," and this provincial capital on the Min River has over a hundred distinct freshwater fish varieties. Citizens love Fujianese and Fuzhou dishes fried with fermented red wine lees, dumplings covered in swallow skin, noodles made with powdered pork, and dishes including both meat and fish, sometimes dishes that contain one ball in a soup made with meat-filled fish balls.


The Zhou texts also suggest that China, like other ancient cultures, was dedicated to killing and consuming livestock. Elites appear to have run across pigs, goats, sheep, wolves, and even horses. Pig, sheep, and cattle trinity appears to have been prevalent in sacrifice, suggesting a possible indirect association with the Romans and their suovetaurilia. Chickens and ducks weren't overlooked. Older people were honoured with fatty, readily digestible meat cuts, and respected gods and ancestors received the same favours. Li Ji has lengthy passages on cultivation and conservation. New crops, especially grapes, came from West Asia. Broad regional types have long been consequential—meat-eating northwest, for example, contrasted with fish-eating east and south—but now each town and several towns have established distinctive dishes and food specialties.


Away from the coast, pork is the staple meat, with poultry reserved for festivities and other meats being relatively uncommon. Dogs, cats, and game species are consumed, although not regularly. The most plentiful vegetables are Chinese cabbages and the onion kin, containing five species: onions, green onions, garlic, garlic chives, and Chinese leeks. Lettuce, tomatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, bamboo shoots and other food products are also essential. Freshness, tenderness and delicate tastes are virtues. Relatively young species are preferred over elderly ones, as well as fresh products. Not only are fish kept alive when feasible; it is preferred they are kept alive in clean ocean water rather than tanks and often brought quickly to the kitchen, not missing a moment outside of the water. Traditionally, poultry is raised on a high-quality diet.


Typical food processing involves salt-curing fish and vegetables. Tiny shrimps, salted and self-digested, create a paste. Various pork sausages are prepared; the most common laap cheung, usually made with rose-flavoured alcohol. Pork, roasted and marinated in a tandoori-like clay oven, is unique to Cantonese cuisine. Usually cooked in a more western way, this dish now preserves the name ch'a siu, meaning "fork-roasted."


Regional varieties of Cantonese cuisine are often coterminous with Cantonese language dialects. For example, the T'ai Shan area is home to the Toisan dialect and such dishes as tsap seui, meaning "miscellaneous leftovers," which became the famed "chop suey" of the western world's Chinese restaurants, but it began life as a modest dish among the area's specialist vegetable farmers. They would stir-fry the tiny shoots, thinnings, and unsold vegetables leftover at the end of the day. Dramatic shifts have occurred in recent decades, however. Prosperity has reduced famine instances that forced many to survive on sweet potato plants, outer cabbage leaves, and small shellfish picked at low tide. There is a wider variety of foods that are more readily available now. Standardization has meant healthier, cleaner ingredients within processed foods. Meat is comparatively inexpensive and is now used more frequently. Alternatively, industrial development in agriculture and volume feeding in large restaurants and chains has been disparaging to the world of high-quality products. More sugar, oil and salt are used in cooking and food processing today than 40 years ago. Monosodium glutamate expanded to Cantonese cuisine through restaurants abroad and is now practically universal.


Several Tibetan-related ethnic groups in mountainous Sichuan express dairy avoidance, although some, mainly those close to Tibet who are reliant on herding, use dairy products heavily.


Vinegar is a Shanxi's specialty, which is Shaanxi's eastern neighbour. Central Asian influences were strong during the Tang Dynasty and are still noticeable, especially with the value of lamb, although the popularity of dairy products that was evident in texts between 400 and 900 C.E, has significantly declined. The western Chinese cuisine is that of the densely populated urban and agrarian areas of the middle and upper Yangzi River drainage and the plateau region south of Yunnan and Gueizhou. The Yangzi Valley, Dongting Lake region of Hunan and Hubei, Red Basin and Min River outwash plains of Sichuan are the most heavily populated and farming-rich. Culinary activists were the towns of Changsha in Hunan; Zhongqing and Chengdu in central Sichuan's Red Basin, named for its red sandstones; and, Kunming in Yunnan. Trade and communication have long united these regions.


Moreover, they have long-established links to the north. For thousands of years, passes from Sichuan to Shaanxi have been significant communication passages. Sichuan's centre was Shu's ancient independent state, and Hunan [hoo-nan] was part of Chu's great state. Chu, whose populace probably spoke mostly Thai languages, was one of the Warring States' most influential. Under the Han dynasty, it long-held significant municipal control. Han tombs show diets closer to those of the later periods, with maize, wheat goods, vegetables, and many fruits and nuts being consumed. Yunnan joined history as the Ancient state of Tian, perhaps a Tibetan-Burman society, with a lifestyle linked to China and Southeast Asia. Most of what is now Yunnan was Nanzhao's autonomous empire, a non-Chinese state with Thai and Tibeto-Burman inhabitants. Nanzhao peaked in the Tang dynasty.

Agriculture is widespread across the country, particularly in Hunan and Sichuan, around the Red Basin and surrounding mountain terraces. Potent fertilizer and compost usage have become typical, and sophisticated irrigation techniques are standard. The Yangzi region has acquired new crops from outside the area for a long time. Near-Eastern foods, including beans, sesame, and walnuts, were influential in medieval times. After New World food crops invaded China, the area's corn, white potatoes, and sweet potatoes exploded. White potatoes, brought by Catholic missionaries, grow better at higher elevations and are more critical in this area than in the rest of China.

Another characteristic flavour ingredient of Sichuan cuisine is dried tangerine peel, most commonly used in mixed stir-fried dishes with rich, complex sauces. The area is more pig-dependent than other Chinese provinces. Pork is the predominant meat. Yunnan produces hams that are considered the finest in China and are somewhat close to Spain's mountain (serrano) hams. Such hams' consistency is due to the cold, dry montane regions in which they are produced. Some Yunnan minority groups manufacture a cured pig commodity consisting of a whole fat hog with discarded meat, bones, and intestines, leaving just fat in the hide, and is sewn up. The pig wind-cures in the mountain air. Ducks and chickens are plentiful. Fish are present mainly in rivers and streams, abundant in Hunan, but comparatively less elsewhere. Sheep and goats are raised. Cows and buffaloes are typically working animals but uncommon as food.