This is the final instalment of a series which considers the regional development of intellectual traditions, and their possible connexion to agricultural traditions. The introduction considered the relationship between geography, ecology and geopolitics, and summarised the main goal of this series. Part two traced the influence of underlying analytic and atomist paradigms on Western thought. In part three, I discussed the prevalence of monism and holism in Chinese philosophy.
In this post, I come at long last to the matter of agriculture, and how staple crops may have played a part in the evolution of cultural psyche.
Rice is a big deal. Today it’s the main food for 2.5 billion people, providing 20% of human caloric intake, and occupying around 10% of global arable land. For many, nourishment and survival are synonymous with rice.
In tracing the history of the crop and its impact on human societies, scholars have devised a number of competing narratives. Nevertheless, a consensus seems to be that rice was first domesticated around 7000 BC in China’s Pearl River basin. From there the domestication technology spread, primarily through river transport networks, throughout China and south-east Asia, to India, and finally to Africa.
In today’s China, traditional (i.e. non-industrialised) planting and harvesting techniques are still widespead. And though the techniques of each region will vary according to local history, rice varieties and environmental / topographical conditions, the process is generically to (1) plough the field to break up the soil; (2) flatten it to allow hand sowing of pre-germinated rice grains from the last harvest; and (3) flood it with water to a depth of several centimetres.
This last step – the flooding – is unique to rice, which is the only cereal which can grow while submerged. Indeed, because it is descended from a marsh grass, it is extremely sensitive to water shortages, and flooding the field is the only viable way of growing it. (That said, over the centuries a huge number of varieties have been developed, as this fascinating and informative video demonstrates (Black forbidden rice! Pinipig!), and some of these are more tolerant of water scarcity)a liitle less thirsty).
There are a suite of side benefits to this method, and I’ll mention a few. In heavy rains, flooding risk for downstream villages and cities is markedly reduced, because each rice field acts as a miniature reservoir which regulates peak flows. Flooding paddies is a fantastic method of weed control, since very few terrestrial plants thrive in waterlogged conditions.
The rice paddy also provides habitats for insects, fish, aquatic plants, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs, and crustaceans. Some of these can be caught or farmed for supplemental food and medicine; yet others are important for the control of insect pests which might harm the crops or humans.
And perhaps most importantly in the long term, the prolonged flooding acts to conserve soil organic matter and also receive free input of nitrogen from anaerobic bacteria, which means they need little or no nitrogen fertiliser to retain yields. Flooding has further benefits for soil acidity, and for mineral availability, so seems to be a great way to pursue sustainable land management.
I mentioned above that traditional methods of rice cultivation have survived the agricultural revolution to a greater extent than other crops and livestock, even within China. Why should this be? I'm not qualified to talk about peasant poverty in China, or the social systems put in place by Mao and his followers; but I can think of three simpler possible contributors which would make the industrial staples of fertiliser, pesticide and machinery less viable for rice paddies.
Flooded conditions protects the soil in the fields from pluvial erosion, and encourages some species of microorganisms to produce necessary minerals like nitrogen. This means that paddies can retain their health and productivity, even when workedintensivelyy for generations. Inorganic fertilisers will therefore be of less practical value.
We've already seen that plant weeds are much less of a problem in flooded fields, so herbicides are unnecessary. As for insecticides, they would disrupt the local ecosystems which are visibly of paramount importance to the rice farmer. If they are relying on fish in the irrigation ponds for additional nutrition, the last thing they'd want to do is poison them.
(This is yet another instance where biodiversity cannot be dismissed as some wishful aesthetic choice of the wealthy, but is essential to human well-being and to the livelihoods and cultural integrity of individuals and societies. Sadly, recent decades have witnessed increasing industrialisation of these farms and concomitant biodiversity loss.)
Finally, it is hard to get farm machinery to work in wet conditions, as tractors will just chew up the soil and get stuck. Every year, unexpected rains have undone the plans of farmers the world over, delaying by days or weeks their ploughing, spraying, and seeding schedules.
It’s no small feat to carry out the flooding. Streams must be diverted, dykes built, irrigation canals dug and maintained, water lifted into and out of fields to adjust to the optimum level. If your farm is on a slope, you have to carve terraces into the hill so your fields will hold their water and topsoil.
For this reason, among others, rice is a particularly labour-intensive enterprise, and its various engineering challenges demand collective cooperation. Water management must also be organised collectively, for efficiency and to ensure that everyone benefits from the irrigation projects: water and crop calendars are devised to allow farmers to schedule all the other agricultural work like land preparation, transplantation and harvesting.
Irrigation systems were not restricted to small-scale local projects. Chinese engineers from before Confucius' time (6th century BC) were developing improvements to irrigation, including dam projects. Notable and formative during the Qin dynasty was the enormous Du Jiang Yan Irrigation System (256 BC), which today still prevents flooding in the Chengdu region, and provides water to 5000 square kilometres of agricultural land.
The irrigation requirements of traditional Western staples – wheat, barley, rye and oats – are very different. All of them originated as land grasses in the Fertile Crescent, a region extending from modern-day Iran to eastern Turkey and Northern Egypt, and commonly held to be the cradle of Western civilisation.
Different varieties adapted to different climates, but the dominant model has always been one of small rain-fed monocultures. Though all four of the crops need a good deal of water to produce healthy seeds (the grains we eat), none of the can survive long-termwater-logging. Barley especially is sensitive to wet conditions, while oats tend to be the most resistant to wet and cold.
Crucially, in contrast to the communal efforts required for rice, wheat fields could be entirely managed in family groups. This is perhaps responsible for the prevalence of feudal systems across Europe and Russia, where aristocratic landowners parcelled off their land to peasant families, either in exchange for a percentage of their produce or their labour. Though this is speculation and I have no idea.
Having lavished attention on geohistorical determinism, underlying attitudes in Western and Chinese thought, and rice farming, I come finally to some sort of synthesis. The various mental frameworks with which people perceive and structure the world around them all developed (and continue to develop) within pervasive material circumstances. I argue that regionally dominant forms of agriculture, and the different social interactions that they entail, may exert long-lasting influences on cultural psyche.
Rice, the staple crop of the East, requires farmers to co-operate on labour-intensive engineering and agricultural projects, like extensive hill terracing, or digging systems of irrigation canals. This plausibly fosters a collectivist outlook: the prospects of each individual cannot be separated from those of everyone else. As we found in part three, a more abstract and philosophically-adorned version of this tenet is the core of Confucian cosmology.
By contrast, a historical Western farming family would typically be more independent and isolated from their neighbours. Of course, they would socialise, and perhaps exchange seeds, or loan one another some equipment or an ox; but these kinds of interactions are more individualistic than the common projects of the Chinese rice farmers (who also would have also done all of the above). Western farmers did not rely on one another to build infrastructure for the benefit of their farms: they relied on their lone selves and on a capricious nature beyond their control, praying foremost for rain and sun and the last hard frost of winter, an end to scourges, the clemency of their overlords.
In such a position of independence, who would not atomise the world around them? In such a position of powerlessness, who would not turn to omnipotent gods?
Back in China, the teeming of the rice paddies themselves may also have promoted the holistic perspectives evident in Confucianism and Taoism, since the interdependencies of the local ecosystem are particularly apparent. No living thing, be it rice or otherwise, can survive for long with its ecosystem stripped away (a fact which is increasingly acknowledged by farmers the world over, who, having been seduced by the promises of large-scale monoculture, have since discovered that their degraded soils and collapsing local ecosystems demand ever more exorbitant use of fertilisers and pesticides). Whereas a Western farmer may have worried about the health of his crop, a Chinese farmer would be more inclined to look at life on the field as a whole.
Now I’ll admit that this last part is a bit of a stretch. My conception of Western farming practices is doubtless coloured by modern developments, while my conception of Eastern is romanticised by ignorance. One must not forget that techniques of intercropping, rotation, and companion planting have a long history in parts of Europe and the Near East. Such practices demonstrate a degree of systems-level thinking. Nevertheless, I maintain that the semi-aquatic microcosm of rice paddies is particularly fertile for a holistic view. This is only enhanced when the endless labour of weed control is minimised, as in rice fields: a slightly less combative relationship with living nature can only free one’s mind to appreciate her gifts.