An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Zhongyi biyong buyi 種藝必用補遺

Jan 17, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhongyi biyong 種藝必用 "Important matters of the art of cultivation" is a practical handbook on agriculture written during the 13th century. It is only preserved in fragments quoted in the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) encyclopaedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典, from which it was extracted for the compilation of the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

The Zhongyi biyong is not quoted in the book Nongsang jiyao 農桑輯要, which was compiled on imperial order during the Yuan period. A book with a similar title, Shinong biyong 士農必用, also written during the time, was likewise not very widespread. A modern edition of the Zhongyi biyong was published in 1963 by the Nongye Chubanshe press 農業出版社, edited by Hu Daojing 胡道靜. The Yongle dadian names a certain Wu Zan 吳欑 as the author of the book, while two fragments mention a writer called Wu Yi 吳懌. The fragments include an appendix to the book (Buyi 補遺) compiled by Zhang Fu 張福 during the Yuan period. For this reason, the book is also known with the title Zhongyi biyong buyi 種藝必用補遺.

The reconstructed text does not show traces of logical arrangement according to content, nor is it divided into fascicles or chapters. Most phrases are relatively brief. Quotations from other books are scarce, and the writings style is quite different to older texts like Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術 or Nongsang jiyao. The most importance textual source is the book Sishi zuanyao 四時纂要, as well as the chapter Nongyi 農藝門 in Wen Ge's 溫革 (1006-1076) biji-style essay collection Femnen suocui lu 分門瑣碎錄.

The themes covered in the Zhongyi biyong are the cultivation of various field crops, staple food, mulberry tree cultivation, legumes, fruit trees, medical plants, and useful grasses. Even if this range is not wide compared to other books, the Zhongy biyong provides information on plants not mentioned in other texts, namely foreign legumes and melons like spinach (boleng 菠棱, bocai 菠菜), lettuce (woju 萵苣) or towel gourd (sigua 絲瓜), or tropical plants like lychee or the white olive (ganlan 橄欖). It gives detailed information on the cultivation of and specifics of certain rare bamboos, and explains grafting (jiajiefa 嫁接法) and propagation methods (zaipeifa 栽培法).

From the fragments of the Zhongyi biyong it can be seen that some information on the cultivation of trees was recorded earlier than believed, and that Yu Zhenmu's 俞貞木 (1332-1401) book Zhongshushu 種樹書 from the early Ming period owed much knowledge to the Zhongyi biyong and its supplement.

Unlike Jia Sixie's 賈思勰 (fl. 544) Qimin yaoshu, the Zhongyi biyong includes the cultivation of flowers into the scope of general agriculture. The texts thus describes garden planting (yuanpuzai 園圃栽), potted planting (penzai 盆栽), and the creation of decorative flower vases (pinggong 瓶供). Examples for potted plants are pomegranade (shiliu 石榴) or lotus (hehua 荷花). The paragraphs on Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus, shichangpu 石菖蒲) and finger bananas (xiao bajiao 小芭蕉) are the earliest surviving texts on "potted landscapes" (penjing 盆景).

While the books Qimin yaoshu or Nongsang jiyao were planned for exclusive use of district magistrates "encouraging agriculture" (quan nong 勸農), the Zhongyi biyong seems to have circulated among the common populace.

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