Advances Are Made in Chinese Agricultural Technology Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The short-lived Qin Dynasty and the following four-hundred-year Han Dynasty brought significant technological advancements and government policies relating to agriculture that affected China for two thousand years.

Summary of Event

The period preceding the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.) in China was called the Chan-kuo (Ch’an K’uo), or Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). All Chan-kuo states used iron for implements and weapons and irrigated and fertilized crops. These iron implements were crude but vastly superior for clearing and tilling land than their stone and wooden predecessors. The largest irrigation systems were found in the state of Qin, but extensive irrigation projects were not widespread until the Qin Dynasty and Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). During the Chan-kuo period, suitable crops were matched to the soil and seasons, and rice was grown only in the southern region, which had naturally flooded fields. Shi Huangdi Liu Bang Wang Mang

Social and political reforms instituted by the ruler of the state of Qin, under the guidance of his adviser, Shang Yang (d. c. 337 b.c.e.), proved to be powerful catalysts for its eventual supremacy, which ended the Warring States Period. Allowing the private ownership of land made small family farmers economically important and transformed a feudalistic society into a strong, centralized monarchy. Qin military power was enhanced by giving public lands to immigrants so that they could create small farms, which allowed citizen and immigrant farmers the time to enhance their social status through military service. In 221 b.c.e., Qin prevailed over the other Chan Kuo states and established the Qin Dynasty, China’s first unified empire. Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, extended the reforms of the state of Qin to the entire country. The effective strategy of using the productivity of free land-owning small farmers, who could advance economically and socially, to support the centralized imperial administration was adopted by the ensuing Han Dynasty and used for generations.

Liu Bang, a peasant warrior, defeated the Qin Dynasty in 206 b.c.e. and established the Han Dynasty, renaming himself Gaozu. This empire endured for more than four hundred years, interrupted briefly by the Xin (Hsin) Dynasty from 9 through 23 c.e. After seven disruptive years of civil war, the masses of dislocated citizens were encouraged to return to their areas of origin. The emperor proclaimed that their land and homes would be returned to them and that other citizens of merit would be given land and homes. Then the slow process of increasing agricultural productivity to prewar levels began.

The Han Dynasty was divided into the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.) and the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 c.e.). The population at least doubled, and possibly quadrupled, during the Western Han period. Early in this period, population growth-related pressures prompted influential citizens to petition the government to enact policy initiatives designed to increase agricultural productivity. These entreaties were mostly ignored by Han emperors for more than a hundred years. Farmers were moving to cities in large numbers to pursue more lucrative occupations, which had the effect of slowing the pace of agricultural improvements. When the government did force the relocation of masses of urban dwellers back to farms starting in 178 b.c.e., when land was still available in all parts of the empire, the people were moved to the northern and northwestern frontiers for defense purposes rather than to the south, where their farms would have been more productive. By 140 b.c.e., available arable land was scarce, and the government opened up public land to farmers, which bore positive results for some time, but by the end of the Western Han Dynasty, this land was exhausted.

Farming in the Han Dynasty was initially based on the Qin Dynasty model, which emphasized mostly small farms that used some irrigation and fertilization but more often matched crops to natural soil conditions and employed crudely made iron implements and relatively primitive methods of tilling and sowing fields with a limited number of crops. Throughout the two Han Dynasties, new crops were added, providing Han farmers with several cereals, including beans, rice, barley, oats, wheat, and millet; a number of vegetables; and cash crops such as hemp, indigo, sesame, mulberries, and gourds. These farms became increasingly well organized and productive as crop rotation and intensive agricultural techniques and implements were developed.

As the first century b.c.e. progressed, population growth in the capital district and the increasing demand for crops such as rice and wheat that required a great deal of water led to official policies that called for and publicly supported the creation of irrigation systems. Fifty-six water control projects for irrigation and land reclamation have been documented during the Han Dynasty. The largest were created by imperial proclamation and involved tens of thousands of laborers working for years. Smaller systems were built by local administrations and private investors. These systems spread throughout the country. Han irrigation projects utilized advanced engineering technology for dam building, complex networks of troughs and trenches in fields, and siphons, water wheels, and other mechanical devices for raising water from lower to higher levels. Archaeological evidence indicates that eventually every Han household had a well with a sophisticated system for drawing water and a water tank with an opening into an irrigation ditch.

Two new dry-farming and one new wet-rice-farming technique contributed to much higher productivity for Han farmers. The dai tian (tai-t’ien) method of “ridge farming” involved plowing to produce trenches, or furrows, with the removed dirt piled beside them, creating ridges. Seeds were then planted in the furrows, and the dirt was gradually pushed back in as the plants grew. This technique was far more successful than sowing large amounts of seed on a flat field, because less seed was required, moisture was held in the furrows, and plants got more sun and were protected from the wind. The ou zhong (ou chung) method of “pit farming” involved digging small square pits on plots of land and growing well-irrigated and well-fertilized crops in them. This method made it possible to farm land that was marginal or too small for conventional plowing and reportedly resulted in dramatically increased yields. In the northern regions, improved crop yields were realized by growing rice seedlings in a nursery while other crops were grown and harvested, then planting the seedlings in the fields, which were flooded through irrigation, and harvesting the rice after a short growing season.

Available evidence indicates that most of the agricultural implements of the Western Han Dynasty were made of cast iron and were relatively small and fragile. By the Eastern Han Dynasty, apparently there had been a major breakthrough in iron technology, including the invention of the water-driven bellows, resulting in greatly improved high-grade wrought-iron implements during this period. Han plows came to be produced in many sizes and were made of materials and with new designs that made deeper plowing and the use of new farming methods such as dai tian practical. The government-owned iron foundries produced and distributed other high-quality implements, such as various configurations of sickles, spades, and hoes, that were necessary for maximizing agricultural output.

Citizens of the Eastern Han Dynasty apparently enjoyed a higher standard of living than their Western Han predecessors because of these advances in agricultural technology. Gaozu, Han’s first emperor, encouraged land investment and created the trend of landlords controlling larger and larger areas of land, which caused privately owned farms to become rarer. Land reform initiatives in the late Western period and by Emperor Wang Mang during the Xin Dynasty were too late; thwarted by the politically powerful landlords, who also had their land removed from the tax rolls. The private ownership of family farms had once been a source of political stability, but the increasingly overtaxed peasants rebelled in 184 c.e., creating a period of civil wars that culminated in the fall of the last Han Dynasty in 220 c.e.


Qin and Han Dynasty agricultural technological advancements avoided what would surely have been disastrous imbalances between food supplies and the growing population. Moreover, it was impossible for citizens during this period to have imagined what an enormous impact these developments would have on every period to follow, up to modern times. Many of these innovations—in irrigation, tilling, sowing, specialized implements, and rice growing—are still used today in China’s struggle to feed a population in excess of one billion people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsu, Cho-yun. “The Changing Relationship Between Local Society and the Central Political Power in Former Han 206 b.c.-8 a.d.Comparative Studies in Society and History 7, no. 4 (1965). Examines the effect of government policies on the general populace, including laws against entrepreneurs and the rise of landlordism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsu, Cho-yun. Han Agriculture: The Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy (206 b.c.-a.d. 220). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980. A detailed and well-documented history of the government’s attempts to increase agricultural productivity during the Han Dynasty and the resulting technological developments and sociopolitical changes. Includes maps, illustrations, documents, and Chinese and Western-language bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wang, Zhongshu. Han Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A comprehensive treatment of the archaeological findings from the Han Dynasty. Includes a chapter on Han agriculture with numerous figures, an index, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yu, Ying-shih. Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in the Structure of Sino-Barbarian Economic Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. In focusing on Han Dynasty foreign and economic policy, this work discusses agricultural and industrial advancements. Includes maps, a glossary, an index, and a bibliography.
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