An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書

Jul 6, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書 "Book of Fan Shengzhi" is the oldest surviving agricultural treatise of China. It was written during the late Former Han 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) period. The oldest bibliographical records of China talk of a book Fan Shengzhi of 18 chapters. The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) scholar Lu Deming 陸德明 (c. 550-630), mentioning this book in his commentary Erya shiwen 爾雅釋文, calls it Fan Shengzhi zhongzhi shu 氾勝之種植書, while the commentator Li Shan 李善 (630-689), compiler of the commentary Wenxua zhu 文選注, speaks of it as Fan Shengzhi tiannong shu 氾勝之田農書.

Fan Shengzhi 氾勝之(or Fan Sheng 氾勝, sometimes written 汜勝之) was originally called Fan Sheng 凡勝, but he adopted the family name Fan 氾, which is actually the name of a river to whose banks he had to flee during the disturbances in the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE). He probably hailed from the region of Shandong and was an official court gentleman for consultation (yilang 議郎), then agricultural development commissioner (quannongshi 勸農使) and *Commissioner of charioteers (qingche shizhe 輕車使者). In these tasks he was entrusted with the revenue of the region of Guanzhong 關中 around the capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). He had therefore practical experience in agriculture and wrote down what he knew about the basics of agriculture, like ploughing, sewing, the observance of time and weather, growing, harvest, and processing of the crops. Later on he rose to the office of Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史).

His treatise includes information about many field crops, not only grains. The preparation of "compartment" fields (qutianfa 區田法 or quzhongfa 區種法; deep-ploughing and planting in square compartments which enabled plants to better resist drought) plays a very important part in the whole book. From the descriptions it can be seen which agricultural methods were used during the Former Han period, and which crops were cultivated in northern China, and how they were raised and processed. For all crops described, the time of ploughing and field preparation is given, the type of soil and how it can be ameliorated, the type of manure used for this (soutianfa 溲種法), how irrigation worked, by which methods weeds were cut out, and how harvest worked. The Fan Shengzhi shu provided an exact description of the deep-ploughing method developed at that time and by which the soil was enabled to preserve moisture and fertility. At the same time the "compartment method" allowed higher yields per acre.

Fan Shengzhi also describes crop rotation (daitianfa 代田法). He says that it was best to six time change the crop, beginning with wheat (mai 麥). When the turn came to millet (shu 黍) these seeds were to be combined with that of mulberry (sang 桑). Sown together in the field in equal amounts, the mulberry shoots had the same height as millet when it was ripe. Both crops were cut and the mulberry shoots dried and burnt. The ash was used to dung the field, from which a year later very productive mulberry trees can grow, to provide leaves for silkworms. Similarly, melons (gua 瓜) were to be mixed with small beans (xiaodou 小豆), whose shoots and young leaves would make a very delicate salad.

Fan Shengzhi also advocated a complete use of field crops without discarding any part of them. While the flesh of gourds (hu 瓠) could be eaten, the seeds could be used as fodder or as fuel. Because each farm was a production unit, it was necessary to calculate the amount of labour to be invested, and what yields a field would produce. He exemplifies such a calculation with the help of gourds, and explains how much a farmer would earn from a field of a certain size.

The Fan Shengzhi shu was lost in its original form and is only preserved in quotations in the Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術 from the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534), and in various encyclopaedias from the Tang and Song period 宋 (960-1279) like Beitang shuchao 北堂書鈔, Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚 and Taiping yulan 太平御覽.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊 (1765-1837) collected surviving quotations to reconstruct the Fan Shengzhi shu as far as possible. In his 2-juan long collection, not all paragraphs are without doubt parts of the original text. Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (1794-1857) collected 16 paragraphs from the Qimin yaoshu and 18 from other sources that are to be found in his series Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書 . A third collection of fragments was compiled by Zong Baohua 宗葆華.

Two modern commentaries have been written, namely Shi Shenghan's 石聲漢 (1907-1971) Fan Shengzhi shu jinshi 氾勝之書今釋 and Wan Guoding's 萬國鼎 (1897-1963) Fan Shengzhi shu jishi 氾勝之書輯釋.

There is an English study and translation by Shih Sheng-han (1959), On Fan Shêng-chih Shu: An Agriculturist Book of China Written in the First Century B. C. (Peking: Science Press).

Table 1. Contents of the Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書
1. 耕田 Gengtian Ploughing the fields
2. 收種 Shouzhong Harvesting
3. 溲種法 Souzhongfa Irrigation
4. 區田法 Qutianfa Field compartments
5. He Grain on the stalk
6. Shu Millet
7. Mai Wheat
8. Dou Rice
9. Bai Barnyard grass (Echinochloa)
10. 大豆 Dadou Great beans
11. 小豆 Xiaodou Small beans
12. Xi Nettle-hemp
13. Ma Hemp
14. Gua Melons
15. Hu Gourds
16. Yu Taros
17. Sang Mulberries
18. 雜項 Zaxiang Miscellaneous items
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996), Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe, vol. 2, p. 1645.
Lin Qitan 林其錟 (1994). "Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書", in: Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Jingji 經濟, Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, p. 62.
Luo Zhicheng 羅志成 (1990). "Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Nongye 農業, Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe, vol. 1, p. 222.
Wu Shuping 吳樹平 (1992). "Fan Shengzhi shu 氾勝之書", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 1, pp. 209-210. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.