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Nongsang jiyao 農桑輯要

May 31, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Nongsang jiyao 農桑輯要 "Collection of important matters of agriculture and sericulture" is an agricultural treatise written by an official team of compilers during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368). The 7-juan-long book was compiled on order of the Supervisor of the National Granaries (sinong si 司農司), the highest central institution of agricultural politics of the Yuan empire, probably under the supervision of Chang Shiwen 暢師文 (1238-1309), Meng Qi 孟祺 (1230-1281) or Miao Haoqian 苗好謙 (c. 1240-c. 1312年). Die Institution had been established with the purpose to raise the agricultural output of the Yuan empire.

In the preface of the Nongsang jiyao, Wang Pan 王磐 (c. 1470-1530), author of Yecaipu 野菜譜, says that only a few years after its creation large amounts of lands had been reclaimed and cultivated. In order to continue and intensify this success the institution decided to search ancient texts that provided information about better ways of farming and silkworm breeding. The book was finished in 1273 and instantly distributed in the whole empire. It is divided into ten chapters that cover practically all aspects of farming, from field crops to the breeding of domestic animals (including bees and fishes) and sericulture (silk production). Particularly worth mentioning is the production of textile materials like cotton and hemp that became more widespread under the Yuan dynasty. The authors claim that human invention and struggle could overcome the restrictions by nature and make it possible that plants like cotton can be cultivated in all parts of China. This had been proven in earlier times, when crops like walnuts, water melons, sugar cane and tea were disseminated from their "natural" place in the northwest and southwest respectively, to other regions.

The first, introductory chapter of the Nongsang jiyao quotes from numerous ancient books of all genres on agriculture in general and sericulture as a specific sideline industry of farming. Other chapters quote from very widespread and transmitted texts like Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術, Simin yueling 四民月令 or Sishi zuanyao 四時纂要, but also from books that have only survived as fragments, like the Fan Shengzhi shu 汜勝之書, Zhongshi zhishuo 種蒔直說, Hanshi zhishuo 韓氏直説, Shinong biyong 士農必用 or Wuben xinshu 務本新書. Yet the compilers also added new material to the text with matters information about which could not be found in earlier sources (marked with the words xintian 新添 "newly added"). The book is enriched by an appendix called Suiyong zashi 歲用雜事 in which miscellaneous activities through the seasons in northern China are explained.

The text is concise and focuses on the most important aspects, so that it was in fact of great help for the reconstruction of the economy in the Yuan empire after many decades of war.

Between the first publication and 1332 it was republished six times, allegedly in more than ten thousand copies. It continued to be used as a standard book after the downfall of the Yuan dynasty. During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), it was included in many series like the Gezhi congshu 格致叢書. It is also to be found in the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 with a version based on the edition in the Ming-period encyclopedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典, and, as a print with moveable letters, among the Wuyingdian juzhenban shu 武英殿聚珍版書. It is also included in the Republican collection Congshu jicheng 叢書集成. In 1979, the Shanghai Library 上海圖書館 published a large-character edition based on a Yuan-period print that proved that a lot of errors had crept in in later editions. In 1982 the Nongye Press 農業出版社 published a modern, annotated edition, and in a new version in 1988 under the title Yuanke Nongsang jiyao jiaoshi 元刻農桑輯要校釋, with the commentary of Liao Qiyu 繆啟愉.

Table 1. Contents of the Nongsang jiyao 農桑輯要
1. 典訓 Introduction and evidence from ancient sources
2. 耕墾 Ploughing methods and opening of fields
3. 播種 The art of propagation
4. 栽桑 The cultivation of mulberry trees
5. 養蠶 Breeding silkworms
6. 瓜菜 Melons and vegetables
7. 果實 Fruits
8. 竹木 Bamboos and trees
9. 藥草 Medical plants (including tea and plants for dyeing)
10. 孳畜 Cattle breeding
(附) 歲用雜事 Miscellaneous matters through the year
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