Ming Learning and Development
Otherwise, agriculture continued to develop, slowly but surely, in Ming. (For standard histories, see Brook 2010; Li Bozhong 1998; Mote 1999; Mote and Twitchett 1988; Twitchett 2001.) Suzhou in Ming focused on high-quality rice, trading it widely. The people who grew it had to sell it to buy cheaper rice, as did farmers in Hong Kong in the last century, when low-yield, salt-tolerant, excellent-flavored rice grew in the outer New Territories. The Suzhou gazetteer (a local guidebook with a local-products list) in Ming reported "seventeen varieties of nonglutinous and twelve varieties of glutinous rice, six strains of wheat and six types of beans ... nine kinds of fruit in addition to eleven different tangerines and twelve varieties of plums ... thirteen types of vegetables and six of melon" (Marme 2005: 23), as well as many fish, water plants, medicinal herbs, and so on. The fishermen were bo at-dwellers, as in early modern south China generally.
According to a Ming account, it was in Suzhou that the merchants began avoiding the old word for chopsticks, zhu, because it sounded too much like "to block"—as in blocking ones shipments. So they started to call them kuai, "fast," to counteract the bad luck (Brook 2010: 112). Chopsticks are kuaizi, "little quick ones," to this day. "Chop" was "pidgin" English for "fast," hence the English word.
Both the end of Yuan and the end of Ming (like the end of Tang) coincided very closely with dramatic decreases in the strength of the monsoon, associated with the Little Ice Age. It appears almost certain that famine and unrest associated with these events helped bring down the dynasties (P. Zhang et al. 2008). All these climatic problems coincided with dry or cold periods elsewhere in the world.
Scholars in China have been accused in Western stereotypy of being otherworldly, concerned only with ancient philosophy. Chinese scholars often had their practical side and connected with the "real world." A notable event— notable to people then, not just to modern researchers—was the publication in 1406 of the JiuhuangBencao (Basic herbal for famines; Read 1946). This was a book intended for local distribution and use; the victims of famines could not read it, but it was well illustrated, and local scholars and officials were expected to explain it. It was published under the patronage and official editorship of imperial prince Zhu Xiao (1380-1425). The actual lead author was Zhou Dingwang (1382-1425). A later, enlarged edition appeared in 1559. It described 414 plants, all edible but not usual foods; most were wild greens of a coarse nature and bitter or tasteless. Several wild fruits and grains were mentioned.
Bernard Read (1946) compiled modern identifications for the plants. He also looked into their nutritional value and found it substantial; the Chinese scholars knew what they were doing. Nothing could be farther from the stereotype of the "Chinese mandarin" than an imperial prince compiling a genuinely excellent and well-targeted work for use by the poor in hard times. Nothing comparable existed in Europe at that point. The book was widely distributed, though apparently not as widely as intended; its effects were less than had been hoped, but similar works of utilitarian knowledge appeared in large numbers in Ming.
Chinas greatest single intellectual achievement in the practical side of literary endeavor may be the Bencao Gangmu of Li Shizhen (2003 ; Métailié 1989; Nappi 2009). It is finally available in English, running to six huge volumes. It was the climax of Chinas long herbal tradition. It describes almost 1,900 medicinal items, including many from Europe, the Near East, India, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Li summarized and evaluated everything that had gone before and added his own observations—many of them shrewd and perceptive and based on his own experience. It must be admitted that many other data were credulous and speculative and based on hearsay, though he did sharply dismiss a great deal of truly ridiculous lore that had accumulated over the centuries (see Nappi 2009 for detailed discussion). He managed to hear and include the story of the vegetable lamb, in almost exactly the same terms as Europeans of the time (2009: 111). Since this story of live lambs growing on plants derived from an early report of cotton, and since the Chinese had had cotton a long time, the story must have reached China from the west via Central Asia. He also has many tales of wild folk, cannibalism, dragons, and other wonders. The vast majority of his entries, however, are solid, reasonable, pragmatic medical lore. Much of it is wrong or dubious by modern biomedical standards, but so much of it is correct and empirically successful that the book continues as the major reference for modern Chinese herbalists.
He includes at least 67 Western medicináis. This figure is a minimum, since I do not count the varieties and subvarieties of plants or any of the minerals—minerals being universal, though the uses Li describes were often Western derived. Li includes at least 31 plants and animals from India and Southeast Asia, but only four from the New World, including maize and squash. Li was quite conservative and tended not to list Western or New
World items unless they were well established in the old herbáis. He did not deal with several of the plants in the Huihui Yaofang. He missed tobacco and chile, both probably well established in China in his time. Li mentions some 203 of the medicináis in the HHYF, including about 46 of the Western ones and 15 from India and Southeast Asia. He generally ignored minor Western and south Asian items; the overlap is extensive in regard to widespread medicináis. His book does describe local equivalents or congenerics for many west Eurasian herbs, but the uses tend to be different.
This can be compared with the final count on introduced food plants in China, as found in Shiu-ying Hus comprehensive Food Plants of China (2005). This book lists 79 introductions from western Eurasia, as well as 40 from south and Southeast Asia, 10 from Africa, and 60 or more from the New World. (These are not complete lists. I am aware of at least one further, very recent, introduction that is not in Hu.) These are only food plants, not animals and medicines.
When Bencao Gangmu was published in 1596, shortly after Lis death, it was probably the greatest herbal in the world, but already Western European botanists such as Leonard Fuchs and Rembert Dodoens were closely approaching Lis accomplishment. Within a few years, European herbáis such as those of Gerard (1975 ) and Parkinson (1976 ) challenged Lis herbal in scope and considerably surpassed it in scientific accuracy and value. Even more to the point, John Ray (1627-1705) developed the scientific taxonomy that was to climax in Linnaeuss system. Li standardized Chinese terminology in a quite similar way, typically using binomes comparable to Rays genus-species terminology. Li also had a sense of natural order, comparable to Rays idea of divine order. But Li did not parallel Rays awareness of plant anatomy and the importance of reproductive anatomy, and no Chinese Linnaeus stepped forward to create a full, formal, scientifically based taxonomy with reproductive systems as key (an extremely important foreshadowing of Darwinian evolutionary theory). In Chinese medicine today, Lis great herbal remains the standard. Chinese chemists have now found the active ingredients and begun testing the biomedical effectiveness of the remedies, but this literature is not widely circulating in current Chinese medical practice. Much of the testing is based on small samples and lacks full double-blind case/ control structure.
Another fascinating work, slightly later in time, was Song Yingxings Heavenly Work, Creating Things (Tiangong Kaiwu, Sung 1966, original ca. 1630; kai means "to open," and thus to originate, create, put forth). Song (1587-1666?) was a failed exam-taker who became a local teacher. Seeing the tragic decline of the dynasty, he sought ways to bring heavens will back into popular life. He became obsessed with crafts—with how people mined metals and coal, made sugar, spun and wove silk, and anything and everything else. He had an elaborate, highly rationalized version of qi theory, studied in detail by Dagmar Schafer (2010). Song saw qi as basic to everything, and yang and yin qi in particular as the creative forces; hence fire and water were vital in industrial processes. (Recall the cook Yi Yin saying something similar thousands of years before; early Chinese medicine also held that yang and yin qi were all-important.)
He started by explaining how grains are grown, especially rice, by that time the most important grain in the empire. His detailed and vivid accounts give one a good enough understanding that a reader, with some prior knowledge of farming, could go out and start gardening forthwith. The same cannot be said for most Chinese literary accounts.
Song believed the old Chinese idea that metals and coal would grow back in the earth if not exhausted by overexploitation (Schafer 2010:170). This was a reasonable view, in spite of its error, since the Chinese observed that crystals and speleothems often grew (slowly but surely) in caves and that alluvial deposits often replenished themselves as water carried more minerals downstream. He noted that silver prospectors looked for "heaps of surface stones that are 'slightly brown in color and scattered in such a way as to present the appearance of forked paths'" (Sung 1966: 238; see also Schafer 2010:171), that is, dikes, probably pegmatite, colored by oxidized iron—exactly what prospectors still seek.
He also knew the effects of lack of salt: "A man would not be unwell if he abstained for an entire year from either the acrid, sour, sweet or bitter; but deprive him of table salt... for a ten-day week and he will be too weak to tie up a chicken and feel utterly enervated" (Schafer 2010: 90; Sung, 1966: 109; Vogel 2009 205, cite the same passage, Vogel delightfully adding "or overcome a duck"). Indeed; and no one has ever said it better.
Song tells us a great deal about flour milling (Sung 1966: 94ff.) and vegetable oil making (2i4ff.). Oil was made of sesame, Chinese cabbage, soy, and Chinese radish seeds; a lesser but still good oil came from perilla and Chinese rapeseed; a rather inferior one from tea oil (from Thea sasanqua, closely related to tea for drinking). Other plants provided oil for lamps and the like; many of these oils were toxic and thus inedible. Song details the production processes, which were highly sophisticated. Perhaps the most interesting section to a food historian is that on yeasts and fermentation (289-94). Long and detailed recipes are provided for ordinary, medicinal, and red yeast preparations.
Similar books were becoming common Europe at the time. Songs life is amazingly parallel to that of Sir Hugh Plat (1552-1608), another less-than-brilliantly-successful individual who was fascinated, indeed obsessed, with everything technical (Thick 2010). But Plat was writing at the beginning of the scientific revolution and was followed by ever more accurate and detailed accounts, whereas Song wrote at the end of Ming and had no successors. There were countless Chinese books on crafts and industries, but they focused on just one topic, for example, cooking, printing, weaving, pottery, agriculture, or the like. Only Song seems to have been obsessed with understanding absolutely everything.
For the rich, food became ever more sophisticated. (See H. Huang 2000: 129 for a list of major culinary works; see Waley-Cohen 2007 for brief but very good history of gastronomy .) Novels of the period reflect an extremely sophisticated, diverse cuisine and provide the best picture available. Sarah Schneewind (2006) tells a hilarious story of an attempt to fool a Ming emperor into thinking an auspicious omen had appeared in the form of two melons growing on one stalk. In Imperial times, bearers of such good omens were liberally rewarded by emperors—if the emperors believed the omens to be genuine. This particular emperor was not fooled.
Connoisseurship flourished in horticulture:
When someone in antiquity who was gripped by an obsession for flowers heard speak of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go to it. Even in the freezing cold and the blazing heat, even if his skin were cracked and peeling or caked with mud and sweat, he would be oblivious. When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would go from budding to blooming to fading. Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave.... This is what is called a genuine love of flowers. (Yuan Hongdao 1568-1610; in Zeitlin 1991: 3)
Garden art reveals the extreme wealth and sophistication of the agricultural sector in imperial China (Clunas 1996, and, for a more personal view, see the great novel The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin, 1973-86 [Chinese original, eighteenth century]). Chinas gardens reached heights of lavishness and beauty. Chinese had a major love of the environment, shown not only in travels and nature writing (Elvin 2004 and Strassberg 1994 give examples) but also in art—notably the miniature gardens that captured the beauty and spiritual power of the wild for city-bound people (Stein 1990). Of course, loving natural beauty does not often stop exploitation. However, behind the aesthetic appreciation lay a genuinely religious bond with the landscape, and this did serve to save forests, wetlands, brush, and mountain environments.