Rice in Chinese history
This scene of ploughing comes from the Gengzhi tu (Ploughing and Weaving Illustrated), an album of 45 paintings, with poems, created by the magistrate Lou Shu in around 1140. The album shows the main tasks of rice-farming and sericulture as practised in the lower Yangzi region of China at the time. Reproduced many times over the centuries, in media ranging from woodblock New Year prints to designs on precious jades or porcelains, the scenes from the Gengzhi tu became a familiar visual motif in everyday life, high and low.
The Gengzhi tu celebrated the contributions of peasant families to supporting the state and the social order. Because the illustrations are so rich in technical detail, the Gengzhi tu has also become an important source for reconstructing everyday technologies in imperial China.
©Trustees of the British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
This is me being taught to plough and harrow rice paddies in Kelantan, Malaysia in 1976. I was told I must wear a turban ‘so as not to frighten the buffalo’, but as you can see the buffalo remained calm while I was terrified: the teeth of the wood and bamboo harrow, hidden below the mud, were made of razor-sharp pandanus spines. If I lost my footing I was also likely to lose a foot!
I spent a year in Kelantan learning from farmers about how to grow rice, and how to survive as a rice farmer. A big irrigation project had just been built as part of Malaysia’s Green Revolution efforts, so I was given an insider view of coping with development on the ground. This got me thinking about how well Western-centred theories of modern development or of historical dynamics apply to small-scale, skill-intensive systems like Asian rice-farming. I published my first book on rice and history, The Rice Economies, in 1986.
Monkeys gathering tea
From about 1700 till 1880, Britain was by far the biggest market for Chinese export teas. This image dates from the 1810s, when the millions of pounds of tea imported yearly into Britain – green teas and black, Singlos, Congous and Boheas – all came from China. These Chinese teas were a source of mystery: fantastical tales abounded of tea-trees so tall the leaves could only be harvested by monkeys, of different species yielding green and black teas, or of Chinese tea-makers meticulously twisting each leaf separately between their fingers to produce the characteristic twist. But the British had no accurate knowledge of the tea plant itself, of how it was cultivated in China, or by what mysterious sequence of manipulations a fresh green leaf was transformed into the dry, crisp, fine twists that magically unfurled in hot water to produce a fragrant beverage. Only when they began growing tea themselves, in India in about 1840, did they begin to grasp the real facts of tea-production.
Westerners were happy to swallow tall tales about all kinds of exotic practices in the Orient. This coloured etching of monkeys scaling a cliff to pick tea for their master was drawn by the London-based artist Andrea Freschi in about 1812.
Wellcome Library no. 25253i
Technology and gender: the ten tasks of women
Chinese New Year woodblock print showing reeling, spinning and weaving, the iconic tasks of a virtuous wife and mother in imperial China.
One fundamental way in which gender is expressed in every society is through technology. Technical skills and domains of expertise are divided between and within the sexes, shaping masculinities and feminities. Maybe the iconic womanly skill is basket-making while men should excel at hunting; or boys must learn to clean their fathers' tools to get a feel for grease before they are taught to use them; or poor women raise silkworms and sell the cocoons to rich households where the mistress organizes the tasks of reeling, spinning and weaving among her servants; or boys huddle round the computer screen practising hacking skills, while girls develop new communication codes using emoticons.
In my research I look at what the gendering of technology tells us not just about female and male roles, but also about how material culture encodes value systems, cosmologies and systems of power, in today’s world and in the past. This approach brings new perspectives to writing the history of technology, and to writing history through technology.
The world in a grain of rice
Rice today is food to half the world’s population. Its history is inextricably entangled with the emergence of colonialism, the global networks of industrial capitalism and the modern world economy. In Rice: Global Networks and New Histories we propose a history of rice and its place in the rise of capitalism from a global, comparative perspective. The fifteen contributions cast new light on the significant roles of rice as crop, food and commodity, tracing how it shaped historical trajectories and interregional linkages in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia.
This innovative approach to crops in history prompted a new collaborative project, Moving Crops and the Scales of History, illustrated in the project on Cropscapes in this website.