Liangzhu culture and rice production

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YOU, Xiuling, Zhejiang University of Agriculture, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, PR CHINA.

(Collected Studies of Agricultural History 1999:1-8. Transl. by Jia Liu; interpr./ed. by B. Gordon)

Decades of excavation have clarified Liangzhu distribution, chronology, traits and ties to other Tai Lake ancient cultures, with stratigraphy showing it, Songze and Majiabang as three proximate Neolithic cultures, their continuity proven using stone tools, pottery and jade ware1. The overlying deposit with stamped pottery above the Liangzhu level may be post-Neolithic at Tai Lake. Analyses of Liangzhu traits show embryonic private ownership and civilization onset2, with strategic foresight about its N & S influence3.
Yangtze Neolithic agricultural cultures at Hemudu, Luojiajiao and Songze to Liangzhu lasted >3000 years, with rice persisting throughout and slowly shrinking fishing and gathering. Rice agriculture stratified primitive society, with unequal wealth distribution and private ownership. As its tools also changed, becoming the driving force of Liangzhu growth, this article discusses Liangzhu rice production.
Compared to Songze and Majiabang, Liangzhu rice production and tools greatly improved. Stone tools evolved to flat thin rectangular holed axes, adzes, sickles, etc., while outstanding new tools were fine-grained triangular ploughshares, toothed hoes and weeders (yuntianqi, like modern weeders). Bamboo containers qianbu resembled their modern counterpart, but pottery thinned from rough thick Majiabang pots. Liangzhu pots were finely patterned, hollowed or painted. Cooking pots changed from cauldron fu to tripod ding, a significant improvement from Majiabang. Excavated cooking pots in 47 Yuhang Neolithic sites include 18 ding (38.29%), a fu (2.12%), stemmed cups dou, and kettles and pots, all much bigger than fu4. Jade ware became more ornamental, including semi-round jade pendants huang, large rectangular jade cong, center-holed jade bi and jade battle-axe yue. Complex bamboo, linen and silk fabrics became common.
Pottery, cooking utensils, jade ware and fabric growth equate with tool growth, reflecting improved rice agriculture. The triangular plough and toothed hoe assumed many kinds, as seen in Mu Yongkang and Song Zhaolin’s classification and methods of use5, and were the departure from the Hemudu and Luojiajiao spade, with the Songze small plough in mid-process. Post-Liangzhu ploughs used animals. After citing several Liangzhu plows at a recent meeting, I convinced an American scholar that the plough did not come from Europe, and shows Liangzhu many-sided successes need popularizing abroad.
With more kinds of tools and higher technology and productivity, especially hoe and plough use, we analyze Liangzhu rice technology and production based on ancient agricultural growth of today’s Minorities.

Before hoe si or spade chu planting, agriculture began with slash & burn, which naturally fertilized soil by burning groundcover but planting without soil turning, farmers abandoning exhausted land every 1-2 years. As such, >7-8 times the area is needed for land revitalization in a circulating pattern, with a farmer burning a section 3-4 times in his lifetime6. Spading increased longevity because soil was turned, improving its structure and increasing fertility. The human plough raised efficiency because it continuously turned soil. The “wood buffalo” method or muniu persisted with the Dong Minority to the 1950’s. Song Zhaolin said a farmer spades 1 dan/daily, while two can plough 4 dans using a muniu, but one person and a water buffalo plough 14 dans (dan = 1.1111 acre)7. As this 1950’s data apply to the Liangzhu human plough it is very useful for research.

Liangzhu tools also include the yuntianqi (like modern weeder) and qianbu. Some papers state the yuntianqi was intermediate to weeding.
I think paddy rice was directly planted 4000 years ago, but is now transplanted so seedlings are clear for weeding. Transplanting began in Han Dynasty, as seen in a clay paddy models in Foshan, Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province8, and pictures on bricks in Xindu, Sichuan9. All show farmers extracting nursery seedlings by hand or prying with feet using long sticks for balance, but without weeders. As Hangjia Lake Ningshao farmers still use hands to extract seedlings, and some Jiangxi Province farmers still use feet and balance sticks like Han Dynasty, it is hard to imagine these began 4000 years ago. As Guangdong and Sichuan paddies were based on nursery seedlings, it is unlikely nurseries and paddies were separate 4000 years ago.
Direct planting includes broadcast and dibble (digging stick) seeding. Broadcast seeding does not have clear row spacing, so it is hard to use weeders, but dibble seeding allows clear row spacing for weeding, something impossible 4000 years ago; e.g., well-preserved Japanese Yayoi period paddies under volcanic ash have many ridges, channels, pools and plant remains, which are rare in China. I visited such paddies, the type site being Dairihaccho,Yahata City, Kyoto Prefecture, where small ridges circle large paddies, like today. Each paddy had several plant clusters, mappable by computer to calculate area and production. Clusters are very dense, irregularly separable by 10 to >50cm typical of ancient paddies and impossible for weeding or transplanting; i.e., weeders are absent in Late Yayoi, equal to China’s Three Kingdoms or Western Jin Dynasties. The Wuyue introduced Japanese rice planting before Qin and Han Dynasties, but 500 years later still had not standardized row spacing.
Southern farmers kill grass by flooding. W Jin Dynasty farmers in Yin County, Zhejiang Province, fired and flooded grass without weeding”10. If Liangzhu farmers used weeders, Yin County rice planting retrogressed.
Hainan Province Li Minority store water in lowland, trample grass into water by foot or buffalo and soften soil before planting rice without fertilizer or weeding. As any surviving grass is flooded11, Liangzhu yuntianqi may have been used for digging ditches, unlike today’s weeders.
Qianbu resemble modern bamboo containers while yuntianqi resembles weeders. Both are similarly misnamed because their past use differed. Qianbu may have been used to drain river mud for fertilizer in winter and spring. It contains a weak organic fertilizer for paddies and mulberry fields, as detailed in Agricultural Book of Shen (Shen Shi Jia Shu). Historic documents and knowledge of fertilizer prioritize fertilizer use. The first base fertilizers were human or domestic animal dung, then green and cake manure, followed by compost, grass ash and scorched mud ash and finally river mud. Draining big amounts of low quality mud needs the most labor, so it was used when fertilizer was limited, as seen in books since Song Dynasty. As higher southern population caused by exodus from northern wars needed more food from two crops and cloth from silkworm via mulberry leaves, mud began use as fertilizer only with Song Dynasty. 4000 year-old farmers never used fertilizer, but slash & burn. Mud may have been mixed with human and animal dung using Liangzhu’s qianbu.
Liangzhu rice output doubling or quadrupling when the plough and toothed hoe replaced the si is dual-facetted: (1) increased productivity may involve enlarged planting with no change per unit; or (2) higher unit quantity, but it would be quite slow in Liangzhu.
Ancient crop production was measured by volume not weight; e.g., N Black Sea farmers harvested 30 huoer (ca. 3.53 kl) per pulifuer (ca. 750m²), with 1 hectare yielding 1000 kl and the sowing:harvesting ratio is really high (1:6-7 for wheat & 1:5 for barley). Ancient Italian ratio was 1:4, but fertile Sicilian output was 1:12-1412. Out put of SW Chinese Minorities using slash & burn is 1:10 or ca. 50 kg/unit. But different technology makes fairly big differences; e.g., hoe & spade (si & chu) or human plough output is 1:15 or 75 kg and 1.5 x slash & burn13. Modern Minority outputs exceed ancient ones. The human plough improving fertility and getting 1.5 x slash & burn. The whole slash & burn period seldom exceeded 1:10 and possibly less due to plant disease, etc. Similarly, it was hard to maintain or exceed 1:15 in the spading and human plough periods, as fertilizer and extensive management were absent. These examples of European and SW Minorities have the same traits as Liangzhu production.
Yellow River crop output was stable long before Qin and Han Dynasties, while S rice output rapidly grew in unit and total production only after Tang and Song Dynasties. Han Dynasty’s Si Maqian described Jiangnan (S of Yangtze River) agriculture as “slash & burn and water weeding”, an extensive method but not backward because it suited human and ecological situations, with production correlating with population With slash & burn, spade-planting and human plough, Liangzhu sowing:harvesting ratio rose from 1:10 to 1:15. Farmers slowly expanded farms, improving overall production to serve more people, allowing craft specialization in pottery, jade ware and weaving. This in turn strengthened the rulers’ control over the kingdom and army and increased their wealth. They consolidated control by increasing sacrifices and building large sacrificial altars using much labor and material. They also built many graves and buried much jade ware, leading to its lopsided growth. Much elegant jade ware created a polished jade culture, but also increased waste and needed non-productive labor and material which might have been used to increase wealth instead of unlimited jade ware, sacrificial altars and graves. It increased the load on farmers and harvests, hindering agricultural growth. This did cause Liangzhu’s demise, but it weakened mobilization to combat flood, war and disaster and lowered competition.

1 Mu Yongkang, Wei Zhengjin. Majiabang culture and Liangzhu culture. Cultural Relics 1978(4):pp. 67-73.

2 Wu Ruzuo. Significance of Liangzhu site excavation. Liangzhu Culture 1987:1-13, ed. by Yuhang Historical Material Association.

3 Su Bingqi. Simple discussion about Neolithic in SE coastal China. Cultural Relics 1978(3):40-42.

4 Table of statistics of Yuhang Neolithic sites. Liangzhu Culture 1987, ed. by Yuhang Historical Material Association.

5 Mu Yongkang & Song Zhaolin. Jiangxi and Zhejiang Province stone plough and hoe—origin of Chinese plough weeding. Agricultural Archaeology 1981(2):75-84.

6 Li Genpan, Lu Xun. Ancient agricultural status of S China Minorities. Agriculture Publication 1987:90.

7 Song Zhaolin. Study of “wood cow” plough, Agricultural Archaeology 1984(1):53-56.

8 Guangdong Cultural Relics Management Commission. Excavation report of Han Dynasty grave in E Jiaolanshi, Foshan City, Guangdong Province. Archaeology 1964(9).

9 Yu Dezhang & Liu Wenjie. Han Dynasty pictures on bricks about Sichuan agriculture. Agricultural Archaeology 1983(1):132-135.

10 Lu Yun. Reply to Che Maoan (Da Che Mao An Shu). History from Xia Dynasty to Six Dynasties. The Jin Dynasty, Vol. 103.

11 Lu Xun. Agricultural method in Li Minority’s Hemu area. Research of Agricultural History 1983(1).

12 Blavatski, V. D. 1953. Agriculture near the ancient Mediterranean Sea, pp. 158-159.

13 Li Genpan & Lu Xun. Ancient agriculture status of S China Minorities. Agricultural Publication 1987:90.

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