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Shenshi nongshu 沈氏農書

May 31, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald
Shenshi nongshu 沈氏農書

Shenshi nongshu 沈氏農書 "Master Shen's Book on Agriculture", often shortly called Nongshu 農書, is a short agronomical text written by a certain Master Shen who lived during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). It must not be confused with Chen Fu's 陳旉 (1075-?) Nongshu (Chen Fu Nongshu 陳旉農書) and Wang Zheng's 王禎 (1271-1333) book of the same title (Wang Zhen Nongshu 王禎農書).

Master Shen hailed from Lianchuan 漣川 in the prefecture of Huzhou 湖州 (in the region around modern Wuxing 吳興, Zhejiang), but nothing is known about his real name and the circumstances of his life. The book is a general description of the agriculture in the region of Huzhou during the Chongzhen reign-period 崇禎 (1628-1644) of the late Ming era.

The book is divided into four parts. The first (Suiyue shiyi 逐月事宜) describes the seasonal activities and the "monthly commands" (yueling 月令) concerning the clearness of the sky, precipitations, various works and preparations in the course of the year. The second part (Yuntian difa 運田地法) explains the work in irrigated fields for different plants, but mainly rice and mulberry trees cultivated between the field compartments. The third part (Canwu 蠶務) is dedicated to sericulture, but also to six kinds of domestic animals like pigs, sheep and poultry. The last part (Jiachang riyong 家常日用) is a resume of useful knowledge for the daily life of peasants, especially the processing of foodstuff.

Master Shen's book covers all important aspects in agriculture during the late Ming and mentions a lot of important aspects not found in other books. For instance, he mentions the importance of the colour change of manure, or the transplantation of wheat shoots. The statements of the Shenshi nongshu are very reliable because the author was himself an experienced practitioner.

Master Shen stressed the importance of agriculture over all other business, and explained that the cultivator had to care for his fields with all his heart. This attitude had to be perpetuated to the next generations. A proper management would result in higher yields than a lean management. Successful management required that all agricultural activities were planned beforehand and had to take into consideration all eventualities. Owners of a larger estate might combine cattle breeding with cultivation and food processing (including textile business and liquor production), and so run a proto-industrialized form of agricultural enterprise. These three fields could also mutually profit from each other. Cattle breeding, for instance, enhanced the output of cultivation by its contribution of manure. As an entrepreneur, master Shen provided detailed calculations about the cost, output and profit of a farm. For such a calculation he established fix numeric relations (ding'e 定額) for field work (amount of work per person), consumption (leaves eaten by each silkworm) or output (amount of grain needed for each unit of wine).

The Shenshi nongshu criticizes errors made by a lot of peasants when believing common sayings. More manure or more intense labour, the book says, does not necessarily lead to a greater output. It was also not better to generally plant rice shoots very dense, but the distance from plant to plant depended on the velocity of the water current, the amount of manure, the depth of ploughing and finally, from the type of rice. Shen's detailed descriptions of their treatment and the rules for cutting and preparing mulberry trees surpass any statements found in older books.

The Shenshi nongshu was first included in Zhang Lüxiang's 張履祥 (1611-1674) collected works Yangyuan xiansheng quanji 楊園先生全集 (also called Yangyuan quanshu 楊園全書) from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) because Zhang had first published the book and written an appendix. It found later entrance into the series Zhaodai congshu 昭代叢書, Xuehai leibian 學海類編, Tongxuezhai congshu 通學齋叢書, Ranlige congshu 然藜閣叢書 and Congshu jicheng 叢書集成. Is is also referred to in the register of existing books that was compiled for the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書. In 1956 the Zhonghua Shuju Press 中華書局 published a joint edition of three nongshu 農書 books, among them the Shenshi nongshu. In 1959 the Shenshi nongshu was published separately by the Nongye Press 農業出版社, including the supplement by Zhang Lüxiang.

Sources:
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1648.
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Bu nongshu 補農書 "Supplement to the Book on Agriculture"

The Bu nongshu 補農書 "Supplement to the Book on Agriculture" is a supplement to the Shenshi nongshu 沈氏農書. It was compiled by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Zhang Lüxiang 張履祥 (1610-1674), who gave up his official career and lived the life of a peasant in his hometown. As a highly educated scholar he began writing down all he knew and had experienced as a landlord. The result of his notes was added to the book Shenshi nongshu that had been written by an unknown author in the 1630s in the region of Tongxiang 桐鄉, Zhejiang. Zhang's supplement was finished in 1658. It consists of 22 paragraphs that describe particular themes of farming. Of particular interest are his statements of the cultivation of red beans (meidou 梅豆 or 眉豆), hemp (dama 大麻), chamomile (ganju 甘菊) and taro (yunai 芋艿) in the region of Tongxiang.

Both texts became an inseparable unit, but because the authorship of the main text is unclear, the Shenshi nongshu is included in Zhang Lüxiang's collected works Yangyuan xiansheng quanji 楊園先生全集. In 1983, the Nongye Press 農業出版社 published an annotated separate version, the Bu nongshu jiaoshi 補農書校釋.

Sources:
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