Ancient History & Civilisation


1. In the Fields

The poverty of the peasant—Methods of husbandry—Crops—Tea—Food—The stoicism of the village

All the varied literature of that language, all the subtleties of Chinese thought and the luxuries of Chinese life, rested in the last analysis on the fertility of the fields. Or rather on the toil of men—for fertile fields are not born but made. Through many centuries the early inhabitants of China must have fought against jungle and forest, beast and insect, drought and flood, saltpetre and frost to turn this vast wilderness into fruitful soil. And the victory had to be periodically rewon; a century of careless timbercutting left a desert,* and a few years of neglect allowed the jungle to return. The struggle was bitter and perilous; at any moment the barbarians might rush in, and seize the slow growths of the cleared earth. Therefore the peasants, for their protection, lived not in isolated homesteads but in small communities, surrounded their villages with walls, went out together to plant and cultivate the soil, and often slept through the night on guard in their fields.

Their methods were simple, and yet they did not differ much from what they are today. Sometimes they used ploughs—first of wood, then of stone, then of iron; but more often they turned up their little plots patiently with the hoe. They helped the soil with any natural fertilizer they could find, and did not disdain to collect for this purpose the offal of dogs and men. From the earliest times they dug innumerable canals to bring the water of their many rivers to rice paddies or millet fields; deep channels were cut through miles of solid rock to tap some elusive stream, or to divert its course into a desiccated plain. Without rotation of crops or artificial manures, and often without draft animals of any kind, the Chinese have wrung two or three crops annually from at least half their soil, and have won more nourishment from the earth than any other people in history.34

The cereals they grew were chiefly millet and rice, with wheat and barley as lesser crops. The rice was turned into wine as well as food, but the peasant never drank too much of it. His favorite drink, and next to rice his largest crop, was tea. Used first as a medicine, it grew in popularity until, in the days of the T’angs, it entered the realms of export and poetry. By the fifteenth century all the Far East was esthetically intoxicated with the ceremony of drinking tea; epicures searched for new varieties, and drinking tournaments were held to determine whose tea was the best.35Added to these products were delicious vegetables, sustaining legumes like the soy bean and its sprouts, doughty condiments like garlic and the onion, and a thousand varieties of berries and fruits.36Least of all products of rural toil was meat; now and then oxen and buffalos were used for ploughing, but stock-raising for food was confined to pigs and fowl.37 A large part of the population lived by snaring fish from the streams and the sea.

Dry rice, macaroni, vermicelli, a few vegetables, and a little fish formed the diet of the poor; the well-to-do added pork and chicken, and the rich indulged a passion for duck; the most pretentious of Peking dinners consisted of a hundred courses of duck.38 Cow’s milk was rare and eggs were few and old, but the soy bean provided wholesome milk and cheese. Cooking was developed into a fine art, and made use of everything; grasses and seaweeds were plucked and birds’ nests ravished to make tasty soups; dainty dishes were concocted out of sharks’ fins and fish intestines, locusts and grasshoppers, grubs and silkworms, horses and mules, rats and water-snakes, cats and dogs.40 The Chinese loved to eat; it was not unusual for a rich man’s dinner to have forty courses, and to require three or four hours of gentlemanly absorption.

The poor man did not need so much time for his two meals a day. With all his toil the peasant, with exceptions here and there, was never secure from starvation until he was dead. The strong and clever accumulated large estates, and concentrated the wealth of the country into a few hands; occasionally, as under Shih Huang-ti, the soil was redivided among the population, but the natural inequality of men soon concentrated wealth again.41 The majority of the peasants owned land, but as the population increased faster than the area under cultivation, the average holding became smaller with every century. The result was a poverty equaled only by destitute India: the typical family earned but $83 a year, many men lived on two cents a day, and millions died of hunger in each year.42 For twenty centuries China has had an average of one famine annually;43 partly because the peasant was exploited to the verge of subsistence, partly be’ cause reproduction outran the fertility of the soil, and partly because transport was so undeveloped that one region might starve while another had more than it required. Finally, flood might destroy what the landlord and the tax-collector had left; the Hoang-ho—which the people called “China’s Sorrow”—might change its course, swamp a thousand villages, and leave another thousand with desiccated land.

The peasants bore these evils with stolid fortitude. “All that a man needs in this transitory life,” said one of their proverbs, “is a hat and a bowl of rice.’44 They worked hard, but not fast; no complex machine hurried them, or racked their nerves with its noise, its danger and its speed. There were no weekends and no Sundays, but there were many holidays; periodically some festival, like the Feast of the New Year, or the Feast of the Lanterns, gave the worker some rest from his toil, and brightened with myth and drama the duller seasons of the year. When the winter turned away its scowling face, and the snow-nourished earth softened under the spring rains, the peasants went out once more to plant their narrow fields, and sang with good cheer the hopeful songs that had come down to them from the immemorial past.

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