Ancient Chinese Civilization
The Chinese have a vast land with features ranging from mountains to desert. Surviving in China more than two thousand years ago required extensive hard work and determination. The Chinese accomplished this feat miraculously and developed into one of the most productive cultures in history. Ancient China consisted of a vast and anything but uniform area that extended down from present day Siberia to the equator and from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the center of the Eurasian continent. Starting in the south-western area, there were high mountains and vast plateaus formed by the folds of the Himalayas. This area stretched into the prairies which were suddenly intercepted by the deserts. A detailed map of China is shown below, which indicates the main geographic features, as well as the various provinces of the Chinese empire.
These deserts cover the area between the Siberian forests and the cultivated regions of North China. These fertile plains in North China were formed by the deposits of great rivers such as the Sangari and Liao basins and the Red River basin. Islands and peninsulas are also scattered along the entire coastline of China. The climate had a huge impact on this land. The eastern and southern regions were subject to the influence of the monsoon, and the interior had a dry, continental climate. The weather of China was also extremely affected by its northern latitute, which brings to much of the empire Siberian cold and harsh winters in addition to damp, heavy tropical heat in the summers.(Gernet 3-4).
Agricultural Myth and Legend
The Chinese were, without a doubt, an agricultural people. Raising crops was essential to their survival and was celebrated in their myths and legends.
Legends tell a story of a time when men were ignorant of the art of sowing and planting. They lived in the bush with great difficulty. Before man could settle on the fertile soil, which was overran by tall and rough plants, he had to "join together...in order to root out and destroy the weeds that covered the land (they must) cut down the flea-bane, the mug-wort, the false-hemp, the star-thistle"(Granet 139). It was difficult to maintain this rich soil because of the great rains of the spring equinox and mid-summer. The rains brought along numerous weeds and insects which in turn destroyed the crops. Therefore the ancients called upon the god of the field, Shen-nung, to come and cleanse the land. He taught them how to use the plow and hoe. He also bore the name Flaming Sovereign, for the the god of agriculture was also the god of fire.
One of the practical challenges of Chinese agriculture was to clear the ground of terrible weeds and bush, which required using both fire and water. In his book, Granet states:
The farmers must first burn the weeds and brushwood, then pour water and plant rice: the weeds and the rice grow together: when they were 7 or 8 inches high the whole was cut down and water poured again: the weeds died and only the rice grew: this is what was called the clearing of the brushwood by fire and hoeing by water(Granet 140).
Granet goes on to explain how the Ancient Chinese also developed agriculture on hillsides with terraces. In order to do so, they built canals and trenches for drainage. This required an enormous amount of labor and common habits of organization and work, which in turn provided some of the impetus for the distinctive organization and efficiency of the Chinese empire.
Agriculture and Custom
The people lived in villages or small towns and their cottages were set up along the hillsides. They built walls around their cottages for two reasons. One, to keep their homes out of the reach of floods, and two, to prevent assault and robbery from the barbarous people who lived in the forests and the brushwoods of the marshes. The houses themselves were extremely simple structures. Many of the Chinese lived in oven-shaped caves. Others lived in huts made of branches and shaped like little cubes, covered by thatch. Heat and rain almost destroyed these fragile little homes, so before each winter they had to stop up holes with straw. There was one narrow door cut into the south wall, and it was not passed without religious terror. This superstitious outlook on the front door is also expressed in todays culture, great emphasis is put on the front door of a home. When crossing the threshold the Chinese peasants should not step directly on it, and they should also lower their eyes when passing through it. Also, before entering, they were supposed to remove their shoes(Granet 142-148).
The Chinese, using their physical labor, obtained a great harvest. In ancient times everything was done in a complementary fashion. Granet states that millet, which grew well in dry soil, was planted next to rice, which required an abundance of water. To make the cultivation complete, the crops were grown going up the hill in terraces in order of importance. The most important crops, which were usually grown in a private garden, were nearest to the house; next to the garden were the orchards, and beyond them the first fields, used for textile plants, usually hemp. Below this were the fields devoted to the dry vegetables, then the fields of cereal, and finally, at the bottom of the hill, were the squares of land reserved for rice.
The Ancient Chinese did not build granaries, so if it were not for hard work and dedication, famine would have been inevitable. Their variety of crops and their understanding of the seasons was truly amazing. The agricultural year began with the first month of spring. This was when the hibernating animals and the fish began to appear. In the second month, the month of the equinox, they knew the rains were coming and they began to plow the fields. The appearance of the sow-whistles in bloom marked the first month of summer. The heat of summer was admired, but equally feared for its droughts and great storms. Heavy rains were the sign of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. The grain was reaped and threshed during these months. The agricultural year ended in the tenth month. The soil, hardened by the cold, was no longer fertile(Granet 143-151). The beginning of the winter thus ended the struggle with the land. To deal with the cold and the snow must have been such a relief for these people. Another year had ended and many things had to be done in preparation for the next.
Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Granet, Marcel. Chinese Civilization. Kegan Paul,Trench, Trabuer & Company, LTD, 1930.