Agriculture is a vital industry in China, employing over 300 million farmers.
China ranks first in worldwide farm output, primarily producing rice, wheat, potatoes, tomato, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed and soybeans.
The development of farming over the course of China's history has played a key role in supporting the growth of what is now the largest population in the world. Analysis of stone tools by Professor Liu Li and others has shown that the origins of Chinese agriculture is rooted in the pre-agricultural Paleolithic. During this time, hunter-gatherers harvested wild plants with the same tools that would later be used for millet and rice.
Due to China's status as a developing country and its severe shortage of arable land, farming in China has always been very labor-intensive. However, throughout its history, various methods have been developed or imported that enabled greater farming production and efficiency. They also utilized the seed drill to help improve on row farming.
During the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 BC), two revolutionary improvements in farming technology took place. One was the use of cast iron tools and beasts of burden to pull plows, and the other was the large-scale harnessing of rivers and development of water conservation projects. The engineer Sunshu Ao of the 6th century BC and Ximen Bao of the 5th century BC are two of the oldest hydraulic engineers from China, and their works were focused upon improving irrigation systems. These developments were widely spread during the ensuing Warring States period (403–221 BC), culminating in the enormous Du Jiang Yan Irrigation System engineered by Li Bing by 256 BC for the State of Qin in ancient Sichuan.
For agricultural purposes the Chinese had invented the hydraulic-powered trip hammer by the 1st century BC, during the ancient Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Although it found other purposes, its main function was to pound, decorticate, and polish grain that otherwise would have been done manually. The Chinese also innovated the square-pallet chain pump by the 1st century AD, powered by a waterwheel or oxen pulling on a system of mechanical wheels. Although the chain pump found use in public works of providing water for urban and palatial pipe systems, it was used largely to lift water from a lower to higher elevation in filling irrigation canals and channels for farmland.
During the Eastern Jin (317–420) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589), the Silk Road and other international trade routes further spread farming technology throughout China. Political stability and a growing labor force led to economic growth, and people opened up large areas of wasteland and built irrigation works for expanded agricultural use. As land-use became more intensive and efficient, rice was grown twice a year and cattle began to be used for plowing and fertilization. By the Tang Dynasty (618–907), China had become a unified feudal agricultural society. Improvements in farming machinery during this era included the moldboard plow and watermill. Later during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), cotton planting and weaving technology were extensively adopted and improved. While around 750, 75% of China's population lived north of the river Yangtze, by 1250, 75% of the population lived south of the river. Such large-scale internal migration was possible due to the introduction of quick-ripening strains of rice from Vietnam suitable for multi-cropping. The Qing, Ming and Yuan dynasties had seen the rise of collective help organizations between farmers. In 1909 US Professor of Agriculture Franklin Hiram King made an extensive tour of China (as well as Japan and briefly Korea) and he described contemporary agricultural practices. He favourably described the farming of China as 'permanent agriculture' and his book 'Farmers of Forty Centuries', published posthumously in 1911, has become an agricultural classic and has been a favoured reference source for organic farming advocates. The book has inspired many community-supported agriculture farmers in China to conduct ecological farming.
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