In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Origins of Agriculture

  • Introduction
  • Research History
  • General Overviews
  • Archaeological Reports
  • Databases and Indexes
  • The Natural Context
  • The Transition to Agriculture
  • The Origin of Animal Domestication
  • The Consequences of Agriculture

Chinese Studies Origins of Agriculture
Tracey L-D Lu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0085


Generally speaking, agriculture is defined as a subsistence strategy consisting of systematic cultivations of domesticated plants and the husbandry of domesticated animals. The origin of agriculture in China is an important issue of prehistory, archaeology, agricultural history, and the history and evolution of domesticated plants and animals not only in China, but also in Asia and the world, and the topic has attracted much academic attention since the 19th century. Between the 1860s and the 1970s some scholars argued for an indigenous origin of agriculture in mainland China, while others proposed that prehistoric agriculture in China was a result of cultural expansion from the West. Much more archaeological data have been discovered and multidisciplinary studies have been carried out since the 1970s, and it is a general consensus today that broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), foxtail millet (Setaria sativa), and domesticated Asian rice (Oryza sativa) were indigenously cultivated by approximately 9,000 to 8,000 years ago and eventually domesticated in northern China (including part of the Yellow River valley) and the Yangzi River valley, respectively. The pig was probably domesticated in the southern part of the lower Yellow River valley by 8,200 years ago, while the domestication of water buffalo and chicken is still under debate. However, many questions remain unsolved on why and how agriculture originated and developed in the early to middle Holocene, whether one or two independent centers of cereal farming arose, whether cultural dynamics between northern China and the Yangzi River valley existed, and, if yes, in what aspect(s) the cultural dynamics contributed to the origin and development of prehistoric agriculture in the two regions. Nevertheless, the origin and development of agriculture has produced enormous and irreversible impacts on the cultural and environmental changes in mainland China since then, and agriculture has been the foundation of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. Agriculture has also expanded from the Yellow River and the Yangzi River basins to other areas in East and Southeast Asia, and it has induced significant cultural changes.

Research History

The history of research on the origin and development of agriculture can be traced back to the 19th century, but the majority of research has been carried out since the 1920s. Ding 1983 records hypotheses proposed by Chinese biologists Zhou Shilu and Ding Ying in the 1920s in arguing that mainland China was the center of the origin of rice farming, and it is informative for studying the research history of the origin of agriculture. Lü 2013 provides a summary of the history of research on the origin of agriculture and points out that the discovery of rice husks on the Yangshao Neolithic potsherds by Swedish researcher Johan Gunnar Andersson in the middle Yellow River valley in 1927 marked the beginning of archaeological research on the origin of agriculture in China. Though a bit dated, Ho 1975 is an important work on the research history of the origin of agriculture in China as it rejects the idea that agriculture was introduced from western Asia into China and argues for an indigenous domestication of foxtail and broomcorn millets in the Yellow River valley, and the argument has been validated by archaeological discoveries made since the 1970s. An 1982 summarizes important archaeological discoveries made between the 1970s and the early 1980s, particularly the discovery of prehistoric farming societies in the Yangzi River valley. Phytolith analysis has been applied to study the origin and development of agriculture in mainland China since the 1990s, which provides significant and novel data for the issue, and Gu, et al. 2013 is a systematic study of the phytolith morphology of wild and domesticated rice and provides a guideline for applying this research method. Collaborations between Chinese and overseas scholars after the 1990s have also contributed significantly to the study of the origin and expansion of agriculture within and outside China, and Madsen, et al. 2007 (cited under the Natural Context) is an example of international collaboration. Based on rice remains found in in the middle and lower Yangzi River valley dated from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago, Yan 2000 argues that China constituted an independent center with regard to the domestication of Asian rice, and the author hypothesizes the impetus for the origin of rice farming in the prehistoric Yangzi River valley. Today, study of the origin of agriculture in mainland China follows a multidisciplinary approach. Zhao 2010 reviews the history and the practice of paleoethnobotany in mainland China since the 1990s, which has led to the discovery of unprecedentedly rich plant remains in many archaeological sites and the consequent establishment of a database for studying the origin and development of agriculture in mainland China. Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2010 summarizes the application of scientific research methods ranging from the application of floatation and pollen and phytolith analyses to the uses of staple isotopic analysis and physical anthropological and zooarchaeological methods in Chinese archaeology in order to understand where and when millet and Asian rice were cultivated and domesticated, and why, how, and by whom agriculture was initiated.

  • An Zhimin 安志敏. “Zhongguo shiqian zhi nongye 中国史前之农业.” In Zhongguo xinshiqi shidai lunwenji 中国新石器时代论文集. Edited by An Zhimin, 256–271. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1982.

    Written in 1949, this article reviews the archaeological data found up to the 1940s and argues that agriculture must have occurred in the prehistoric era in China, and millet and rice must be the early cultivars. It also discusses tools used in prehistoric agriculture.

  • Ding Ying 丁颖. Ding Ying Daozuo lunwen xuanji (丁颖稻作论文选集). Beijing: Nongye Chubanshe, 1983.

    The book consists of articles by Ding Ying, a pioneer agronomist studying the origin of rice farming in China from the 1920s to the 1960s, who proposes that China constituted an indigenous center of rice agriculture in the world. This proposal has been validated by archaeological discoveries since the 1970s.

  • Gu, Yansheng, Zhijiun Zhao, and Deborah M. Pearsall. “Plytolith Morphology Research on Wild and Domesticated Rice Species in East Asia.” Quaternary International 287 (2013): 141–148.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2012.02.013

    The authors discuss the phytolith morphology and classification of wild and domesticated rice in East Asia and provide a useful technical guideline for scholars using phytolith analysis to study the origin of rice agriculture.

  • Ho, Ping-ti. The Cradle of the East. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1975.

    This book challenges the diffusion hypothesis of China as a secondary center of prehistoric agriculture and argues for an independent origin of millet farming in the Yellow River valley, though recent archaeological findings indicate that millet farming originated in the landmass from Inner Mongolia to the Yellow River valley.

  • Lü Liedan 吕烈丹 (Tracey L. D. Lu). Daozuo yu shiqian wenhua Yanbian (稻作与史前文化演变). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 2013.

    The volume focuses on the origin and development of rice farming and cultural and environmental changes in the Yangzi Basin and adjacent areas from the late Paleolithic to the Neolithic and reviews the research history on the origin of agriculture in China from the late 19th century to the present.

  • Yan Wenming 严文明. Nongye fasheng yu wenming qiyuan (农业发生与文明起源). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 2000.

    The author discusses the origin of rice and millet farming and its impact on the occurrence of Chinese civilizations in the Yellow Basin and the Yangzi Basin and proposes that the seasonal insufficiency of food in temperate zones might have been a major impetus for the origin of agriculture in China.

  • Zhao Zhijun 赵志军. Zhiwu Kaoguxue: Lilun, Fangfa yu Shijian (植物考古学: 理论,方法与实践). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 2010.

    The author discusses the objectives, subjects, theories, field methods, and practices of collecting macro- and micro-plant remains from archaeological sites and reports plant remains found in twelve important archaeological sites in mainland China dated from approximately 12,000 to 2,000 years ago.

  • Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo中国社会科学院考古研究所, ed. Zhongguo Kaoguxue - Xinshiqi Shidai Juan (中国考古学-新石器时代卷). Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Chubanshe, 2010.

    The book summarizes the climatic and natural contexts from the terminal Pleistocene to the Holocene in mainland China by regions and reports major archaeological data, research methods, and outcomes related to the origin and development of prehistoric agriculture in China.

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