What has made Chinese civilization the only uninterrupted and continuously evolving ancient civilization? Why is Chinese civilization so unique? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the significance and value of Chinese agricultural civilization to the long-term development of the civilization as a whole.
The development of Chinese civilization is strongly related to its agriculture. The Axial Age from 800 to 200 BCE was a breakthrough period for intellectual civilization. Great thinkers emerged in many civilizations and their thoughts shaped various cultural traditions that, from then on, have affected the social and cultural development of different peoples.
Ancient Chinese thinkers paid high attention to agricultural issues. Thinkers in the pre-Qin period (before 221 BCE) stressed, in various degree, the importance of agriculture. This contributed to the formation of a relatively rational and practical system of guiding ideas and basic principles in the initial development phase of Chinese agriculture.
The idea that “food is the principal concern of political life” can be found in the Book of History, which was written in about the fifth century BCE. The same book also contains the idea of “paying different kinds and quantities of tributes in accordance with the specific conditions of the land.” Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals edited by Lü Buwei (292–235 BCE) contains four chapters about agriculture. In his Essentials for the People’s Welfare (completed between 533–544), Jia Sixie summarized the agricultural ideas expressed in Lü’s book. Jia suggested that the core agricultural idea of Lü’s book was that “If one complies with the seasonal changes of the weather and climate, and makes full use of the advantages of the land, he will succeed in gaining a lot with little labor.” In Lü’s book, it is stated that “as for the crops, human beings grow them, the earth generates them and heaven nurtures them.” This saying gives a scientific and accurate account of the relationship among humanity, the earth and heaven in agricultural production. Chinese civilization made no disruptive mistakes during agricultural development because Chinese people did not view the relationship between humanity and nature as one between the conqueror and the conquered.
Agricultural society in China was based on basic production units that were formed based on blood ties. This contributed to the great structural similarities between the nation and the family. That is how Chinese rite and music civilization differentiated itself from its Western counterparts. The well-field system (one large square of land divided into nine smaller ones, the eight outer ones being allocated to serfs who had to cultivate the central one for the landowner), the enfeoffment system and the patriarchal clan system in the pre-Qin period formed a normative system imposing order and morality in an agricultural society. Various thinkers during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) laid the theoretical foundations for Chinese agricultural civilization. The centralization system and the prefecture-county administrative system formed in the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (202 BCE–220 CE) dynasties provided institutional and organizational support to the development of Chinese agricultural civilization. And the imperial examination system formed in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907) provided China with human resources for agricultural and academic studies.
During its long process of agricultural development, China established an industrial structure that stressed agriculture as its foundation and formed a view of agriculture that regarded it as the top priority of political affairs. China also highlighted the collectivist idea of sharing gains and losses, as well as the idea of the harmony between humanity and nature. In addition, the tradition of organic agriculture, the technological system in agricultural production supporting intensive and meticulous cultivation, and the unique silk and tea agriculture enriched Chinese agricultural civilization.
In this sense, such fundamental principles as the following were highly valued in Chinese agricultural civilization: complying with seasonal changes, cultivating in accordance with the conditions of the land, following the code of proper agricultural production, and pursuing the harmony between humanity and nature. These principles formed not only a unique theoretical and technological system, but also cultural ideas and values cherished by the Chinese people.
This article was edited and translated from People’s Daily. Fan Zhimin is a professor from Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University.