Tools and methods

Modern archaeologists have unearthed Han iron farming tools throughout China, from Inner Mongolia in the north to Yunnan in the south. The spade, shovel, pick, and plow were used for tillage, the hoe for weeding, the rake for loosening the soil, and the sickle for harvesting crops. Depending on their size, Han plows were driven by either one ox or two oxen. Oxen were also used to pull the three-legged iron seed drill (invented in Han China by the 2nd century BCE), which enabled farmers to plant seeds in precise rows instead of casting them out by hand. While artwork of the Wei (220–265 CE) and Jin (265–420 CE) periods show use of the harrow for breaking up chunks of soil after plowing, it perhaps first appeared in China during the Eastern Han (25–220 CE). Irrigation works for agriculture included the use of water wells, artificial ponds and embankments, dams, canals, and sluice gates.

Above Picture: An Eastern-Han pottery model of a rice paddy field with farmers

Alternating fields

During Emperor Wu’s (r. 141–87 BCE) reign, the Grain Intendant Zhao Guo (趙過) invented the alternating fields system (daitianfa 代田法). For every mou of land—i.e. a thin but elongated strip of land measuring 1.38 m (4.5 ft) wide and 331 m (1,086 ft) long, or an area of roughly 457 m2 (0.113 acres) — three low-lying furrows (quan 甽) that were each 0.23 m (0.75 ft) wide were sowed in straight lines with crop seed. While weeding in the summer, the loose soil of the ridges (long 壟) on either side of the furrows would gradually fall into the furrows, covering the sprouting crops and protecting them from wind and drought.[35] Since the position of the furrows and ridges were reversed by the next year, this process was called the alternating fields system.

A Han-dynasty pottery model of a standing cow

This system allowed crops to grow in straight lines from sowing to harvest, conserved moisture in the soil, and provided a stable annual yield for harvested crops. Zhao Guo first experimented with this system right outside the capital Chang’an, and once it proved successful, he sent out instructions for it to every commandery administrator, who were then responsible for disseminating these to the heads of every county, district, and hamlet in their commanderies. Sadao Nishijima speculates that the Imperial Counselor Sang Hongyang (d. 80 BCE) perhaps had a role in promoting this new system.

Rich families who owned oxen and large heavy moldboard iron plows greatly benefited from this new system. However, poorer farmers who did not own oxen resorted to using teams of men to move a single plow, which was exhausting work. The author Cui Shi (催寔) (d. 170 CE) wrote in his Simin yueling (四民月令) that by the Eastern Han Era (25–220 CE) an improved plow was invented which needed only one man to control it, two oxen to pull it, had three plowshares, a seed box for the drills, a tool which turned down the soil, and could sow roughly 45,730 m2 (11.30 acres) of land in a single day.

Pit fields

A Western-Han pottery model of a sitting bull

During the reign of Emperor Cheng of Han (r. 33–7 BCE), Fan Shengzhi wrote a manual (i.e. the Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書) which described the pit field system (aotian 凹田). In this system, every mou of farmland was divided into 3,840 grids which each had a small pit that was dug 13.8 cm (5.4 in) deep and 13.8 cm (5.4 in) wide and had good quality manure mixed into the soil. Twenty seeds were sowed into each pit, which allegedly produced 0.6 L (20 oz) of harvested grain per pit, or roughly 2,000 L (67,630 oz) per mou. This system did not require oxen-driven plows or the most fertile land, since it could be employed even on sloping terrains where supplying water was difficult for other methods of farming. Although this farming method was favored by the poor, it did require intensive labor, thus only large families could maintain such a system.

Rice paddies

Han farmers in the Yangzi River region of southern China often maintained paddy fields for growing rice. Every year, they would burn the weeds in the paddy field, drench it in water, sow rice by hand, and around harvest time cut the surviving weeds and drown them a second time. In this system, the field lays fallow for much of the year and thus did not remain very fertile. However, Han rice farmers to the north around the Huai River practiced the more advanced system of transplantation. In this system, individual plants were given intensive care (perhaps in the same location as the paddy field), their offshoots separated so that more water could be conserved, and the field could be heavily fertilized since winter crops were grown while the rice seedlings were situated nearby in a plant nursery.



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