Guo Yu Commentary on National Events notes by gM9zk03g



                                                      PENG, Shijiang
                            Dept. of Agricultural History, Guangzhou, Guangdong, PR China
      (History of Chinese Agriculture 2000(19-3):86-90. Trans/interpr. by Dr. W. Tsao, 04/28/02. Ed. by B. Gordon.)

           Three types of agricultural effects concern China’s historic environment:
           plundering, recycling (traditional) and investing. I feel traditional precise
           cultivation and organic fertilizer protects it and recycles material, aiding food
           production. Future agriculture should be based on modern high technology and
           traditional agriculture, unconfined to food production but also purifying and
           beautifying the environment.

   Human existence and growth faces seriously damaged forest, environment, natural resources
and food & water supply. Agricultural and industrial growth degrades the environment, the
world’s hottest topic, making historic comparison useful in coordinating future agricultural
growth and environmental protection.

    The environment changed in human evolution. Palaeolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers minimally
disturbed it, but Neolithic farmers altered it. A brief review of Chinese agricultural growth based
on plundering, recycling and investment type follows:

1. Plundering type (primitive agriculture)

     Primitive agriculture began 12,000 years ago by burning forest, so-called “slash-and-burn” or
dao geng huo zhong (dao=knife, geng=plough, huo=fire, zhong=planting), creating virgin land
for a year. Zuo Zhuan (Commentary on Spring and Autumn Annals) says early farmers or
legendery lie shan si (lie=burning, shan=mountain, si=family) continuously sought forest: “Zhu,
Lie Shan Si’s descendant, grew millet and was worshipped to Xia Dynasty(1)” (pre-1818 BC).
Guo Yu (Commentary on National Events) notes: “Lie Shan Si was China’s master, his
descendant Zhu growing various grains and vegetables” (2). This 10,000 year-old agriculture is
still popular in isolated mountains, especially aboriginal, Qing Dynasty’s Xia Hu describing it as:
“farmers without buffalo, plough or hoe, cut and burn trees on designated fields, and dig holes
with bamboo sticks to plant corn. Oat and millet are sowed on the ground, smoothed with
bamboo rakes and grown naturally. Different crops are grown each year under slash-and-burn
until nearby land is exhausted, when farmers leave. After laying fallow for 8-10 years under new
grass and brush it is replowed(3)”. While Xia Hu describes totally different tools, crops and yield,
the basic working model resembles primitive agriculture.

    Primitive agriculture gave true meaning to its age by changing humans from
nature-dependent to wealth-creative. Agriculture brought labor division, settled villages, towns
& cities and cultural growth, but also environmental destruction which became serious with
increased population and improved tools. Destruction became rampant in legendary rulers Huang
Di (ca. 2697-2597 BC), Shun (ca. 2255-2205 BC) and Yu (2205-1818 BC Xia Dynasty

    The author is indebted to Prof. Lou Simin and Prof. Liao Zongwen for checking manuscript accuracy.

founder?), when China changed from “barbarian” to “cultural”, especially in the agriculturally
developed lower Yellow Basin. Spring and Autumn Period politician Guan Zhong says in Guan
Zi: “When Huang Di ruled all China...(he) burned forests, destroyed wilderness, drained marsh
and banished game, all done supposedly to benefit people (4)”…“Emperors You Yu rules by
draining ponds and cutting forest and Xia Hou by burning wilderness and draining ponds, as they
do not benefit the people”. Guan Zhong said: “Only ignorant emperors do this because they
benefit people(5)”. Politicians like Guan Zhong criticized anyone damaging environment in the
Spring and Autumn Annals (722-484 BC). Reflecting this people’s wish and conserving water
and soil is the prayer in the Book of Rites: ”Return soil and water to their rightful place, let
insects and plants grow in their natural habitat(6)”. Two legendary grain deities are the above Lie
Shan Si’s descendant Zhu and Zhou family founder Qi who was “worshipped after Shang
Dynasty (post-1766 BC)(7)”. Both deities may represent two agricultural stages or farm methods,
the former “burning mountain” family name representing slash-and-burn; the latter a change
from tree-cutting to chu geng (chu=hoe, geng=to till), signifying forest and biological
conservation. But continuous slash-and-burn in the mountains in Qi period did not conserve
water and soil, resulting in “floods and landslides; high banks becoming valleys and deep valleys
becoming mounds(8)”, likely resulting in the legend of Dayu levels the earth’s configuration(9)”.
Environmental destruction may have caused frequent dynastic change, as seen in Historical Zhou
Dynasty Records: “When Yi and Lou Rivers dried, Xia Dynasty ended; when Yellow River
dried, Shang Dynasty ended”. Historians believe rivers destroyed both, the reason why some
modern authors suggest Shang people “rarely settle in one place” and Zhou family move
frequently in the Yellow Basin(10). Old records show agriculture no longer protected the
environment and society and were replaced by advanced traditional agriculture.

2. Recycling type (traditional agriculture)

    Traditional agriculture profitted from precise cultivation using fertilizer, increasing harvest
size and number and maintaining continuous growth via recycling.

    Cultivation began in the Neolithic with hoe and plough, evolving into field rotation for
continuity. Er Ya (the oldest Chinese character book) explains the West Zhou (1122-320 BC)
term zi xing zai as: “1st year field is zi, 2nd year new field xing and 3rd year mature field zai”.
Actually, farmers weed but not cultivate in 1st year, plant in this (new) field in 2nd year and again
in the same (mature) field in 3rd year, i.e., fallow every 2 years. This system increases soil use
and decreases forest destruction, doubtless a more advanced method of developing barren land.
When field rotation is unable to meet food needs from population growth, fertilizer use is
brought to farmers’ attention.

    No definite answer exists when artificial fertilizer was first used, but some think the first
example is the Liangzhu record of qian bu (qian=1000, bu=bamboo container), using Nan River
mud(11)”. Others suggest its use in Yin-Shang period (1766-1154 BC), based on research in
Jiaguwen (12), while the Book of Rites says “burning summer grass not only rids weeds, but
vitalizes soil”. The Spring and Autumn Annals (ca 722-488 BC) says farmers knew how to weed,
fertilize(13) and field-rotate(14) (18), but fertilizer was unpopular. Its use in Warring States Period
(403-221 BC) in Lao Zi(15) (Book of Daoism), Han Fei Zi(16) by Han Fei, a 3rd century BC legal
philosopher, “Xun Zi”(17), etc., show its popularity. Its main source was human and livestock

dung, but added other waste. Qing Dynasty Yang Xiu’s Zhiben Tigang categorized 10 types -
human & animal waste, compost of grass, burnt matter, mud, bonemeal and shell ash, plus
composts of sprouts, common waste, black beans, fur and leather. Farmers “changed
deterioration to growth and evil to beauty(19)”, “converting human and animal waste to cloth and
food(20)”, plus soybean planting to fix nitrogen, paving the way for continuous farming. Zhou Li
(Book of Zhou Dynasty Rites) says some Zhou Dynasty farmland was cultivated year round (21).

    Fertilizer not only prolonged traditional agriculture, but protected the environment. It
changed “forest burning” to “precise cultivation”, highly benefitting natural resources and
conservation. It also recycled waste and helped solve pollution. To solve Yin-Shang period
pollution, one regulation said “those who dump ashes on the ground will be punished by having
their hands severed”(22). When garbage became a problem in Warring States highly populated
areas, a similar regulation occurred (23), and became redundant with fertilizer. This situation kept
farmland “continuously revitalized” in long agricultural practice and uninterrupted population
growth. Fertilizer used in traditional agriculture, labor problems, time requirements, hygiene and
improved modern scientific technique, are worth further study.

    Early farmers practiced small-scale agro-ecology. Ming Dynasty brothers Tan and Xiao Zao
of Jiangsu province bought deserted lakeside fields in 1522-1566 very cheaply, “hiring villagers
to circle fields with dikes, converting lowland to fishponds, planting fruit trees and keeping
chickens and ducks on dikes, with all harvest sold (24)”. Similar eco-production occurred in Ming
and Qing Dynasty Zhu Delta (25), a possible preamble to the internationally famous “eco-village”.

    Traditional agriculture records many other practices in environmental and pollution
protection: natural and biological resource regulations; programs on different beneficial and
repelling biota; biological control of weeds and insects; rotation of nitrogen-fixing crops; dam
building for water conservation, etc., topics discussed in previous papers(26) and unrepeated here.

3. Investment type (modern agriculture)

     Low yield, no outside resource input and high labor and time input made traditional
agriculture incapable of matching rising living standards and state growth, so it was recently
replaced by modern agriculture. Chemical fertilizer, agricultural techniques, plant breeding, etc.,
now allow China to support 22% of world population on 7% of the land. Naive suggestions like
“farms moving to mountain tops”, “transplanting rice to lake centers”, “brave people have higher
productivity”, etc., created conservation problems(27), resulting in recent Yellow River drying
and 1998 Yangtze River floods. Engels explained the results of these suggestions (28). Modern
agriculture uses heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide, stopping recycling and fully or partly
ignoring traditional organic fertilizer, increasing water and soil pollution, decreasing organic
matter and soil quality, and raising environmental pollution by human waste and garbage(29).
Fertilizer and pesticide made from decreasing petroleum, will be unable to support modern
agriculture without natural recycling. When chemical additives also rise, investment and output
fall. Statistically, 1 cal. of food needs 9.8 cal. of petroleum in the US, not only economically
wasteful but an environmental pollutant. Facing so many problems in modern agriculture, the
current task is to explore agricultural practices that cope with environmental needs.

4. Prediction and expectation in future agriculture

    The above seems to say primitive agriculture and environment were unbalanced and
uncoordinated. Under low population pressure and productivity soil remained fertile, with human
waste and garbage minor. At the traditional agricultural stage, pollution and soil exhaustion were
solved by recycling waste into fertilizer, balancing agriculture and the environment. Industrial
and human waste in the modern (petroleum) agricultural stage not only surged but concentrated
in cities unable to handle them by traditional recycling. Buried, burnt or stored waste was not
expected to last but upset resources, environment and new agricultural practice. How to solve?
Traditional agriculture of “everything from the soil returns to it” ensures continued raw material
and protects the environment. Much historic discussion has ensued; e.g., the Book of Guanzi said
“the world has many species, all living a balanced life under the law of living”. The Book of
Zhouli says “natural things are limited, but without any law governing their continuity, they are
promptly consumed, with nothing left for survival, mandating waste control legislation”. The
Book of Mencius says “With care, everything grows; without care, everything expires” (30), while
the Book of Lushi Chunqiu says “we can catch fish by draining the pond, but none remain; we
can hunt game by burning the forest, but none stay” (31). As people now suffer from pollution,
resource shortage and frequent disaster, a review of Chinese classics on environmental protection
will benefit all.

    We must now mend our interrupted recycling, treat human, animal and industrial waste with
new technology and recycle it commercially, improving the ecosystem, decreasing
environmental pollution and increasing profit. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels suggested
similarly a century ago(32,33). Scientists now suggest some algae purify wetland, beautify the
environment and recycle water. Shandong Yiean Bioengineering Co. use biotechnology to
convert liquid poultry waste to granular fertilizer, enabling farmers to mix it directly into soil(34).
The South China Agricultural University Department of Soil Science recently made an
organic-inorganic fertilizer of steel dregs, coal dust, sieved mud, poultry waste, etc., usable on
foliage and improving soil. Non-polluting chemical fertilizer and pesticide, time-release fertilizer
and plant-origin pesticide are now part of modern recycling.

   As we have the industry to do this large scale, we must convert the vast amount of human
environmental waste into re-usable resources. Fig. 1 suggests one route.

Figure 1. Material in the recycling system of converting wastes into resources
(modified from Prof. Liao Zonwen)

    Some South China University of Agriculture scholars suggest organic fertilizer links
industrial    and      agricultural    recycling    via     industry----waste----environmental
protection----fertilizer----agriculture, where much industrial waste is converted to agricultural
use by commercially entering the system and regenerating soil’s purifying role(35). Chinese
Academy of Science Fellow Liu Genling said “production of useful organic fertilizer is an
important social property by guaranteeing nutritional recycling and resolving the basic problem
of continuous agricultural production(36)”. It is not a simple rebirth of traditional recycling
because it extends plundering----recycling----investing to new recycling. It links recycling to
agriculture and industry, city and rural, water and land, and production and living. It provides
safe products and is responsible for digesting and absorbing human and industrial waste,

purifying the environment, protecting resources and raising the value of waste. It can be easily
predicted that future agriculture is not only the main source to sustain human life but to purify
and beautify the world. It will also coordinate with environmental growth and provide a new
green civilization for humans.


1. Zuo Zhuan, Zhao Gong 29th year.
2. Guo Yu, Lu Yu
3. Xia Hu, Qing Dynasty, Detailed story on Lu Qiu aboriginal territory
4. The Book of Guanzi
5. See 4
6. The Book of Rites
7. See 1
8. The Book of Odes
9. Shang Su
10. Lu Wenyue, Chinese Civilization and Qin Dynasty Lifestyle, 1998
11. Chen Guoxian, “New study on plowing by fire and weeding by water”. Chinese Agricultural
    History 1999(1)
12. Hu Housuan, “Yin Dynasty Agricultural Fertilizer”. Historic Research 1955(1)
13. Liang Jiamian et al, “Historic articles of Chinese scientific technology in agriculture”,
    Agricultural Pub. Ltd. 1989(120)
14. Zhou Li
15. Lao Zi
16. Han Feizi
17. Xun Zi
18. See 14
19. Yang Xiu, Qing Dynasty, Zhi Ben Ti Gang
20. Addendum to Nong Su (Book of Agriculture)
21. See 14
22. See 16
23. Shi Ji (Historical Records)
24. Combined Topography of Chang and Zao of Guang Xu, Qing Dynasty
25. Gaoming Couty Topography, Qing Dyasnty
26. Chinese Agricultural Science 1983(1)
27. Statistics from unknown source
28. Articles from Marx and Engels
29. Guangzhou Daily, April 23, 1999
30. The Book of Mencius
31. Lu Shi Shun Qiu
32. See 28
33. F. Engels, People’s Pub., 1974:325
34. Dwng Yintao et al, Reconstruction of China 1999
35. Liao Zongwen, Theory, technology and practicality of converting industrial waste to
    agricultural resources in China 1996

36. Liu Genling, “Recycling of nutritional elements and continuous agricultural growth”, Soil
    Reports 1992,29(3):251-256


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