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China's Early Agriculture

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(4) page(s): 10 - 12


There were different places where agriculture was known in early China. These were south of the Changjiang River, in the mid-region of the Yellow River, and on China's southeast coast. Ten thousand years ago, people living in one or all of these places did domesticate some grains. Remnants of this activity was found at Yuchanggong in the Hunan Province in times related to this time period. A thousand years later others were dated including carbonized rice husks attached to pieces of pottery. Documented two thousand years after this last find, were long-grain rice and agricultural implements.

One agricultural technique in use during these early times included weeding with clam shells. Later came irrigation ditches; some of these uncovered at Banpo Village. These are thought to pre-date 4,000 BCE. Even earlier are indications of ox-drawn ploughing; this thought to be before the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th centuries BCE).

These early finds make sense as searching for food had to be an essential occupation for men and women in these early times. They needed to catch and slaughter animals, gather nuts and seeds, even look for any missed from earlier seasons and those overlooked by roaming animals. Did they store some? In winter, fewer fruits and vegetables were available, and when cold outdoors, any killed or captured meats could stay fresh for some time. In warm weather, there were more fruits and vegetables to gather and consume.

With these food items, and with fishing, these foods could stave off hunger. They probably buried some food far underground or in vessels for later use; did they do this mimicking what they saw animals do?

Putting food away for their dead is ritual behavior the Chinese do, however, when they did so the first time is not known. What is known, is that in Shang burials and in those dated from the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BCE - 256 BCE) recent excavations of these times reveal some of these food items. Actually, from earlier times more drinking vessels were found while vessels for food have been found from later times. Why this is so is not known. The Ding vessel shown on this page is on display in the new food museum in Hangzhou; it opened in March 2012.

Before agriculture, people subsisted on foods from hunting, fishing, and gathering. They probably ate fish and other sea creatures, large and small animals, and items such as acorns, wild fruits including peaches and plums, and nuts and seeds. Some remnants of these foods were found believed from these three major activities.

There are indications that before Shang Dynasty times, monkeys were trapped, as were wild pigs, buffalo, sheep, deer, tigers, bears, weasels, otters, wild cats, fox, mice, and other animals. People then began growing things. Archeologists and anthropologists believe they began doing these activities probably nine thousand years ago. Sometime thereafter, historians conjecture that more than half of their diet was animal, forty or more percent wild vegetables and other growing things. Slowly in early agricultural times, these numbers changed to five percent of their diet coming from domesticated plants.

This behavior, about seven thousand years ago, was probably 34%, 52%, and 14% for foods animal, wild vegetable, and growing things, respectively. Five thousand years ago thoughts are it was 30%, 49%, and 20%; and a mere five hundred years ago, estimates are it was 17%, 8%, and 75%, respectively. The changes to more agriculture were slow because forests needed clearing, land ploughing, and animals domesticated.

We now know that the earliest staple foods were cereals in North China during the Shang period. These were varieties of millet. In China's south, there was rice, other cereals, and soybeans. It is interesting to note that soy beans probably began as food for the poor. In The Book of Poetry, also known as The Book of Odes, which dates back circa 900 BCE, sixty-four kinds of vegetables, most believed still growing wild at this time, are mentioned. This volume offers glimpses into the philosophical and structural world at that time, also the ordinary lives and emotions of its citizens. Historians believe before the use of fire, meat and vegetables were eaten raw. When fire became known and used, people ate more food as it was easier to digest. Grains were largely indigestible before fire.

The earliest cooking over fire was with meats cooked directly over the flames. Cooking was also done using hot stones. This was probably followed by cooking in wet leaves, and then in wet baskets made of bark.

In Taiwan, not only was cooking done in these ways, but early remains tell us it was also done in hollowed out sections of bamboo filled with water and rice. These bamboo tubes were sealed at both ends, probably with wet leaves to hold the food in creating steam. After this, there and on the mainland, there was use of bark and earthenware containers, some with hot stones in or around them. Some of these containers went directly on rocks, some were related to pots with legs.

Frying was not known at this time. Most meats and vegetables were cooked on the fire or in containers filled with some or lots of water. When they deemed the foods finished, sticks were used to remove the meats, fish, etc. These were the origin of chopsticks. When the liquid found in or with them cooled, some of it was consumed drinking them.

Earthenware containers came into use to hold or transport water, not as vessels to cook food; and they were first used, it is believed, some twelve thousand years ago. Steaming foods came next, and later still came containers made in two parts. The lower portion holding the water, the upper part with holes in its bottom for the the millet, rice, or other grain foods. It was not until the Warring States Period (403 - 221 BCE) that food from broken or ground grains are first mentioned. In Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 220 CE) there is the start of rice, millet, and wheat ground with grinding stones making flour cookery possible.

By or before this time, foods were also dried and pickled, some of these then boiled or steamed. A small amount of frying is believed begun during the Warring States times, and its use grew gradually as making oil by grinding oil seeds needed to come first. Just before these times, stoves came into being. This apparatus and fire and ashes made cooking safer because fire could be kept in a single contained space. An early stove, in miniature, can be seen here; it is at the Ontario Royal Historical Museum in Toronto, Canada.

Many early fireplaces or fire pits were built at entrances to homes or caves. This kept animals out, and air for the embers to remain in a good place and getting warmed. One pottery stove located at the Hemudu site was recently dated as six thousand or so years old. Others found at an early Yangshao site at Puyang in the Henan Province is even older. Still others, some upright and more fuel efficient, were found placed against a wall, others found and thought to be used in the middle of a room. This central location did help keep the interior warm, and at its height, brought light inside when it was dark outside.

There are many descriptions of these and of the food in the Neize section of The Book of Rites. This volume was probably compiled during early Han times (207 BCE - 9 CE), and in this section of the book, more than twenty types of soup are mentioned as is information about preparing specific dishes. These dishes give notions of the range and deliciousness of ancient Chinese cooking. The following ten lines, selected at random, provide some ideas of foods during these times:

"Rice, broom-corn, early wheat, mixed with yellow millet were cooked in or on these stoves. The food, known from tested food remains, tasted bitter, salty, sour, hot and/or sweet." Dishes of all these flavors were found at the above mentioned sites.

The words that follow are translations of food discussed in this volume:

Ribs of the fatted ox cooked tender and succulent; Sour and bitter blended in the soup of Wu; Stewed turtle and roast kid, served up with yam sauce; Geese cooked in sour sauce, casseroled duck, fried flesh of the great crane; Braised chicken, seethed tortoise, high seasoned, but not to spoil the taste; Fried honey-cakes of rice flour and malt-sugar sweetmeats; Jade-like wine, honey-flavored, fills the winged cups; Ice-cooled liquor, strained of impurities, clear wine, cool and refreshing.

During these times, drink was probably as important as food, the simplest meal accompanied by a jug of water. Wine was an alternative beverage, but when it actually came into being is unsure. There is no mention of wine made from fruit in pre-Han times; is this because the Chinese rarely ate fruit? There is mention of it made from one or more grains.

Many different containers were found made for wines in Shang burials (circa 1600 - 1045 BCE), but food containers were more common later in Zhou Dynasty tombs (circa 1045 - 256 BCE). Wine was probably for entertaining guests and surely was for use in sacrifices to the spirits. In those days, wine was filtered, some also perfumed, and used as a medication, an anesthetic, a sterilizer, and a stimulant. The Chinese did experiment with wine while looking for an elixir for immortality; and so doing, distillation was discovered.

Ice was hewn and stored in ice-houses, used to keep food fresh, and to chill food and drink. Each type of food was stored, then served in a specific type of vessel, and many at different temperatures. There were dou or platters made of pottery, wood, or bamboo; various types of li or cauldrons, and dings or cooking pots on legs. The latter were used until Han times; and early stoves were on legs, too.

Many jue or wine vessels were for ritual purposes. They had long spouts, and most were made of bronze. Their traces of smoke told researchers they warmed their wines. Several were found at burial sites as were jue cups; and as it is thought that many were made of wood, if they were, they no longer exist.

The Qu Li section of The Book of Rites also provides guidelines for eating and drinking. Some of these include not bolting down one's food, not making noises when eating, not crunching bones with ones teeth, and not throwing bones to the dogs.

Chopsticks, a unique Chinese culinary tool, were mostly made of bamboo, bone, horn, etc. so finding them is less possible as these items do rot over time. A few made of bronze were found in Shang era tombs, but knowing when or how they were first used is unknown. They may have only been used to take food out of a pot, maybe they did put food into the mouth, or both. In The Book of Rites, it says one needs chopsticks for soup with vegetables, but that could be for either of these purposes. The few bronze items found were either eight or twelve inches long. There is a record of an emperor in Shang times using ivory ones. Also found were ladles, some with holes in them, others without; both could rescue foods from pots or large soup bowls.

Historians believe the use of chopsticks to garner food for the mouth probably began in late Warring States times. Several dozen were found with a plate in a tomb from that time, and these were about eight and a half inches long. What they were made of is not mentioned in the source we found.

In The Book of Rites, food, music, and dancing were important parts of offerings, but where and how is not known. When food was eaten, it was from a low table, all the people at it kneeling; we know this from stone carvings.

Rules for where dishes were placed at a banquet table, learned the same way. This includes that meat on bones was on the left, sliced meat on the right, rice on the left and on a mat, soup on the right, minced and roast meat on the outside, pickles and sauces inside, onions and drinks on the right, slices of dried meat folded and turned to the left, etc.

As to the foods themselves at such meals, they varied based upon rank of the one offering it and the one(s) invited to eat it. A lord offering a banquet to a top official could serve meat from oxen, sheep, pigs, deer, pheasants, hares, quail, fish, etc. along with millet and other cereals, and with some radishes, leeks, green vegetables, and other vegetables.

Foods from a Western Han tomb, that of the wife of a lord, found at Mawangdui, were discussed in an earlier article. Not mentioned anywhere were spices which at that time were believed to be, and in a few cases illustrated as cinnamon, coughgrass, galangal, peppers, magnolia buds, wild ginger, and more; though not necessarily all used at one banquet.

In these early times when or how often in a day people actually ate is hard to say. It is assumed there was a large meal during dashi which is said to have been from seven to nine in the morning, and a small one at xiaoshi which is reported to be from three to five in the afternoon. It is assumed royals ate two meals every day. Also, in the Yin Benji chapter of the Shi Ji, there is a report of the last Shang King giving one long banquet in an evening.

As more excavations are done, we assume more will be learned; and if any of our readers do know other reliable sources, we do hope they will alert us about them, and thus educate us.

                                                                                                                                                       
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