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History of diet provides insight into Chinese agricultural civilization

Author  :  LI XINSHENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-11-07

One of a series of drawings titled “Farming and Weaving” by the Qing artist Chen Mei Photo: FILE

In recent years, academia has paid much attention to historical crop introductions from abroad. Particularly after the groundbreaking "Columbian Exchange" theory was put forward by the American environmental historian Alfred W. Crosby (1931-2018) in 1972, there have been innumerable relevant studies at home and abroad.

Alien crops and native crops

One of the focuses of the Columbian Exchange is on the crops developed in the Americas. The American crops were introduced into China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Before the Ming era, various foreign crops, particularly food crops (wheat, sorghum), oil crops (sesame), fiber crops (Asiatic cotton), and vegetable crops, had been introduced into China during the Pre-Qin Period (before 221 BCE), Han and Jin dynasties (206 BCE-420 CE), and Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). They profoundly influenced China's growth.

There are several reasons why studies of American crops are so remarkable. First, the Age of Discovery became globalization's debut, and the American crops, as a leading protagonist for globalization, connected the history of food, cross-cultural communications, and the global market together. This is a perfect topic for global history studies. A second reason for its significance is the timeframe, the first introduction of American crops to the Old World was approximately 500 years ago. Compared to other crops, more information about American crops is available for research. Crops native to the Americas spread around the world in diverse ways, but most of them were transferred through new maritime routes. This was also a time when imperial China's maritime trade reached its peak, and Western countries rose as maritime powers. This means that "American crops" is an umbrella term which includes all crops native to the New World. There are no other crops in any period of history that could be categorized as one group in this way. Therefore, it is easier to find commonalities among the American crops, which is the fourth reason this research is important.

To some extent, the introduction of these crops laid the groundwork for today's agricultural landscape. The strength of China's agricultural civilization is the result of intensive farming and diversity. However, there is a tendency within Chinese agriculture to attach too much importance to alien crops while ignoring the value of the Chinese native crops, such as 'American crop determinism.'

Even crops that arrived at China much later, such as cauliflower, endive, coffee, strawberry, celery, broccoli, and apple trees, have a history of over 100 years. It is foreseeable that alien crops will play a more important role in the future. Advocators of ideas such as 'American crop determinism' believe that alien crops gained a significant position a short time after they were introduced into China. For example, they believe that the American crops not only contributed to the population explosion in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but also played a part in causing the Ming Dynasty's downfall, because the crops were not widely cultivated in time. But they are wrong.

Farming systems and food culture

In ancient China, it usually took a long time to disperse anything new. To some extent, "diffusion of technology" is more important than "technological invention." This article introduces a theory, that it usually takes a long time for Chinese people to accept and adapt to an alien crop because of the differences in technology, tastes, and culture. This theory is called the "Super Stable Diet Structure." Under this diet structure, the advantages of alien crops were initially overlooked. There were hundreds or even thousands of years before Chinese people became aware of the impact of alien crops. Among all alien crops to China, the latest arrival exerted little influence on this country up until the founding of the PRC in 1949.

The Super Stable Diet Structure is based on China's agrarian-based culture. In this country, well developed traditional agriculture systems consistently had high and stable yields of traditional crops, which were easily cooked and accepted as food, and produced cultural resonance. Farming systems and food cultures are key in this process.

Farming systems refer to a relatively stable farming arrangement. As late as the Wei and Jin periods (220-420), a set of mature dryland farming systems had been well established in north China. South China also developed advanced farming systems on paddy fields by the time of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). The status of dominant crops was basically established. The advent of Qimin Yaoshu, the most completely preserved ancient Chinese agricultural texts, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), marked the maturity of farming operations practiced in north China, known as "geng (plowing)-ba (using a harrow to break up the earth)-mo (leveling the land)."

Since the Six Dynasties period (222-589), south China accelerated its progress towards the Huaxia civilization (a historical concept representing the Chinese nation and civilization, originated from the self-awareness of a common cultural ancestry by the pre-Qin Han Chinese people). At that point, intensive farming was solidly established within traditional agricultural systems. North China adopted the pattern known as "triple cropping in two years" with a combination of wheat, soybean, and qiuza (foxtail and broomcorn millets, and other dryland crops). The cotton-cereal rotation and cereal-grass rotation were both practiced widely in the north. The paddy-upland rotation dominated the farming system in south China. Farming systems in north and south China left almost no space for the addition of alien crops.

Food culture also decides to which extent alien crops could be accepted by local people. A variety of foods with different flavors and textures are prepared in different regions of China. A typical example is that northern Chinese prefer to eat noodles, dumplings, and other wheat-based food whereas southern Chinese eat more rice-based food. The domestication of wheat, which was the first alien crop adopted into the Chinese farming system, took approximately 2,000 years. Wheat became north China's major crop by the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Population growth during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) stimulated the cultivation of wheat. However, without the advancement of wheat flour fermentation and processing methods, which occurred after the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), it would be difficult to replace su (foxtail millet, which used to be the major crop in north China).

The waves of migration from north China to the south starting from the Reign of Yongjia at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty (266-316) created a huge demand for wheat in the south, driving the spread of wheat to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Wheat-producing areas first appeared in paddy fields in south China. Most of the alien crops, in the early period directly after being introduced to China, were treated as ornamental or medicinal plants. Only a few of them were consumed, out of curiosity. Advocators of 'American crops determinism' value corn, sweet potato and potato very much. These were the food crops included in the alien plant specimens. However, the consumption scale and planted regions for these crops in China don't qualify them for the title of food crops.

The corn and sweet potato yields in the middle-19th-century China could feed a population of 24.73-27.98 million (out of the total population of 430 million). This indicates that these crops didn't play a primary role in promoting the population growth. China didn't see the influence of these foods until modern times. Since modern times, corn and sweet potato have been mainly used to support upland populations. The crops missed the population surge. Moreover, the reason why American crops have a limited impact on China is because they are not as productive as expected. Even after a long distribution period in China, they have been treated as a desperation crop rather than a culinary delight, planted in an attempt to stave off starvation of the underclass.

Because of the "uper Stable Diet Structure," the alien crops should be viewed more objectively. Some alien crops, though becoming significant crops in China later, didn't seem to be popular when they were brought to China for the first time. After the founding of the PRC, the remarkable achievements of alien crops became tied to the upgrading of food consumption, the structural transformation of agriculture, and food supply in the context of global trade.


Li Xinsheng is an associate professor from the Institution of Chinese Agricultural Civilization at Nanjing Agricultural University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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