In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agricultural Technologies and Soil Sciences

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Soil in General Histories of Agriculture, Soil Science, and Environment
  • Journals
  • Annotated Editions of Traditional Soil-Related Sources
  • Western Translations of Traditional Soil-Related Sources
  • Development of Modern Soil Sciences in China
  • Agricultural Land
  • Soil Degradation
  • Soil Conservation

Chinese Studies Agricultural Technologies and Soil Sciences
Jörg Henning Hüsemann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0198


Ever since humans transitioned from foraging to farming in what is now China about 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, soil has been the basis for food production and later for the state’s tax revenues. Throughout Chinese history, environmental, social, cultural, and political conditions fostered the development of a variety of specific regional forms of land use and agriculture and gave rise to a deeper knowledge of different soils and their properties. The earliest classifications of soils are found in ancient Chinese sources such as the Zhouli 周禮 (Rites of the Zhou), the Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 (Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals), and the Guanzi 管子 (Master Guan) and remained fundamental throughout imperial China. These classifications were based on the physical properties of the soil, such as color, texture, density, temperature, or consistency. Agronomists paid particular attention to these properties, according to which appropriate tillage methods, fertilizers, and crops had to be selected. The growing knowledge of soil chemistry that developed in the West in the nineteenth century was brought to China by missionaries toward the end of the century. Slowly, the traditional understanding of soil was replaced by modern soil science. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Western scientists, together with their Chinese colleagues, conducted the first detailed nationwide soil surveys, which led to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of Chinese soils and contributed to the development of soil sciences (turangxue 土壤學) as a modern academic discipline in China. Throughout Chinese history, soil sciences have always been closely related to agriculture, and modern soil studies are also often aimed at finding the right methods to improve the soil’s output and maintain the productivity of agricultural land. With about one-fifth of the world’s population being fed by only 7 percent of the world’s arable land, soil degradation has become an increasing problem in modern China, and the government has begun to make efforts to prevent further loss of arable land and to develop strategies and methods for soil conservation.

General Overview

So far, no overall study of the historical development of Chinese soil sciences exists, and most studies focus on a specific period of Chinese history. A comprehensive survey and still a standard work, covering soil sciences from its beginnings to the Qing 清 dynasty (1644–1911), is Wang 1980. Hara 2005 gives a short overview of traditional soil sciences, followed by a more detailed account of the development of modern soil sciences. A thorough overview of different soil-related topics, such as soil classification, management, and utilization, is provided by Lin 1996. Zhong 2014 examines political and philosophical thinking about soil from the earliest times to the late twentieth century. One of the few Western accounts that provide a long-term perspective on Chinese soil knowledge is Kolb 1997. Other studies in Western languages often analyze soil from an economic perspective, such as Chao 1986.

  • Chao, Kang. Man and Land in Chinese History: An Economic Analysis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

    As the title suggests, a study that focuses on the economic aspects of agricultural use of land and the relationship between humans and land. On the foundation of a wide range of historical sources, Kang Chao analyzes topics such as the development of man-land ratios and land distribution as well as their impact on social and economic life throughout history.

  • Hara Motoko 原宗子. “Nōhon” shugi to “ōdo” no hassei: Kodai Chūgoku no kaikatsu to kankyō 2 (農本」主義と「黄土」の発生: 古代中国の開発と環境2). Tokyo: Genbun Shuppan (Yamamoto Shoten Shuppanbu), 2005.

    In this study on the role of agriculture and loess soil, the author provides an overview of the history of soil sciences in China as well (pp. 18–50). While the early history of soil sciences is only discussed briefly, the account contains many details on the development during the twentieth century.

  • Kolb, Raimund Theodor. “Der Umgang mit Böden im vormodernen China.” In Handbuch der Bodenkunde. Edited by Hans-Peter Blume, Peter Felix-Henningsen, Walter R. Fischer, Hans Georg Frede, Rainer Horn, and Karl Stahr, 7 pages (looseleaf collection). Landsberg, Germany: ecomed, 1997.

    A brief yet thorough article that provides an introduction to the development of soil science in Chinese history. Kolb discusses the classification and use of soils from the earliest times to the end of imperial China. The bibliography, which includes both Western- and Chinese-language titles on soils, is of great value for further studies.

  • Lin Putian 林蒲田. Zhongguo gudai turang fenlei he tudi liyong (中国古代土壤分类和土地利用). Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1996.

    A comprehensive overview of many soil-related topics, such as the foundations of soil differentiation, utilization, and cultivation from the Zhou 周 dynasty (1045–221 BCE) to late Qing 清 (1644–1911) China. Much space is devoted to a thorough study of the development of soil differentiation and classification, based on a variety of primary sources. In addition, Lin compares Chinese systems of soil differentiation with those of several European and East and Southeast Asian countries.

  • Wang Yunsen 王云森. Zhongguo gudai turang kexue (中国古代土壤科学). Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1980.

    Wang Yunsen (b. 1896–d. 2002) began this study in 1955 and invested about ten years of scholarly work in it. He was only able to publish this monograph in 1980 after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). It paved the way for further studies on China’s historical soil knowledge and covers the history of soil science from predynastic times to the end of the Qing 清 dynasty (1644–1911), with a focus on the earlier periods.

  • Zhong Xiangcai 钟祥财. Zhongguo tudi sixiang shigao (中国土地思想史稿). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2014.

    A collection and study of accounts on soil from the Zhou 周 dynasty (1045–221 BCE) to the 1940s, based on a variety of sources such as historiographical writings, poems, or political discussions. Although agriculture forms the background for many of the accounts, Zhong focuses on theoretical discussions and almost completely neglects agricultural writings. The strength of the monograph, its broad approach, is also its weakness, as it often remains a piecemeal work.

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