An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

quannong wen 勸農文, texts for the promotion of agriculture

Jan 28, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

"Announcements encouraging farmers" (quannong wen 勸農文) were types of texts used by local administrators to promote agricultural activities or to formally announce the beginning of the farming season. The "farming announcements" usually emphasised the importance of farming for the national economy and urged farmers not to neglect their duties as dictated by the calendric and meteorological circumstances.

The custom can be seen as a mirroring of the emperor’s annual activities during the suburban offerings or public announcements to engage in farming (quannong zhao 勸農詔) as proclaimed from the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) on. This was formalized during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) and widely used during the Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279), but thereafter declined.

A poem called Quannong 勸農 (sometimes called Quannong shi 勸農詩) was written by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365-427). It consists of six stanzas of eight four-syllable verses. One stanza says:

The people’s life rests on carefulness;
With carefulness there will not be want.
If one lives in ease and idleness,
At the year’s end what may one expect?
Where bushels of grain are not stored,
Hunger and cold will come together.
When one looks at one’s comrades,
How should one not feel ashamed?
Transl. A. R. Davis (1983), T’ao Yüan-ming (AD 365-427): His Works and Their Meaning (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press).

The genre remained popular, and Song-period writers compiled "songs encouraging farmers", with famous representatives like Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072), Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101), Su Zhe 蘇轍 (1039-1112), Yang Wanli 楊萬里 (1127-1206), Zhao Fan 趙蕃 (1143-1229) or Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊 (1187-1269).

Among the most famous prose texts encouraging farmers are Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) Quannong wen texts from 1179 (as head of Nankang military prefecture 南康軍, today in Jiangxi province) and 1193 (as head of Longyan district 龍巖縣, today in Fujian), Huang Zhen's 黃震 (1213-1281) Quannong wen from 1272 (as prefect of Fuzhou 撫州, today in Jiangxi), Gao Side's 高斯得 (jinshi degree 1229) announcement (as prefect of Ningguo 寧國, today in Anhui) or Cheng Bi's 程泌 announcement (as prefect of Fuyang 富陽, today in Zhejiang). In all cases, the spring announcements were related to local conditions, geared to the practicability of measures, the reference to all important aspects of farming, and the details. Quannong wen texts are therefore valuable supplements to general books on agriculture. The texts highlight also rewards for success and punishment for negligence.

One of Zhu Xi's texts stresses the planting of rice seedlings and the elimination of barnyard grass or millet (bai 稗) sprouts:

秧苗既長,便須及時趁早栽插,莫令遲緩,過卻時節。禾苗既長,稗草亦生,須是放干田水,仔細辨認,逐一拔出,踏在泥里,以培禾根。其塍畔斜生茅草之屬,亦須節次芟削,取令凈盡,免得分耗土力,侵害田苗。 As long as the [rice] seedlings are long enough, they must be planted [in their final place] as soon as possible, and without missing the right moment. When the [rice] plants grow higher, the barnyard grass likewise grows, the water on the fields must be drained away, and [the barnyard shoots] must carefully be told apart [from the rice], pulled out one by one, [and the farmers must] tread into the mud [in order] to bank up with dirt the roots [of the rice]. The thatch that grows obliquely on the banks of the fields must also be cut regularly, and verythings should be cleaned up, so as not to waste the energy of the soil which might harm the seedlings in the fields.

Gao Side's exhortation to farmers talks about the importance of the many steps of rice cultivation, and Cheng Mi's announcement to persuade farmers speaks, among others, of the importance of fertilization. As these texts were directed towards the common populace, the language of farming announcements was easy to understand and included quite a few colloquial expressions. Zhu Xi, for example, says in simple language:

其桑木,每遇秋冬,即將旁生拳曲小枝,盡行斬削,務令大枝氣脈全盛,自然生葉厚大,喂蠶有力。 The mulberry trees, every autumn and winter, will produce nodes and small twigs, which are to be cut away as much as possible, so that the larger branches will be full of energy, and the leaves obtain natural thickness and largeness, and thus be beneficial for the feeding of silkworms.

This description is much more detailed than the related paragraphs in the book Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術 or Chen Fu's 陳旉 Nongshu 農書. Moreover, the quannong texts, as closely related to local conditions, provide information not found in general texts. Zhu Xi’s announcement in Longyan declares:

本州管內,荒田頗多,蓋緣官司有俵寄之擾,象獸有踏食之患,是致人戶不敢開墾……如有人戶殺得象者,前來請賞,即時支給。庶幾去除災害,民樂耕耘。 Within the jurisdiction of this prefecture, there are a lot of deserted fields. This is because lawsuits have cattered family assets, and because elephants and wild beasts (? or wild elephants) harm the crops by treading on it. Farmers therefore are unwilling to clear new fields... if anyone kills the elephants and appears before the authorities to receive their reward, they will be paid out in time. The disasters will be removed, and the people rejoice to cultivate their fields.

The passage gives evidence that elephants still lived in the region of modern Fujian province during the 11th century.

The above-mentioned announcements persuading farmers have been preserved as part of each person’s individual writings, and not in official collections. In 1983, a farming announcement incised into a stone tablet, dated 1149, was found on the site of the ancient yamen of the district of Yangxian 洋縣, Shaanxi. This demonstrates that regularly pronounced farming encouragements were not just filed away, but were sometimes remembered in a particular way.

Yuan Huang 袁黄 (1533-1606) wrote a book called Quannongshu 勸農書, which is a comprehensive treatise on many aspects of farming, and has actually nothing to do with the ceremonial or administrative "encouragement of farmers".

The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) had already created a special office entrusted with the encouragement for farming, namely the agricultural development commission (quannongsi 勸農司) from which agricultural development commissioners (quannongshi 勸農使), with vice commissioners (quannong fushi 勸農副使) were dispatched.

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