The Vegetables of Ancient China

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The Vegetables of Ancient China HUI -L IN L I 1 In the very extensive literature in the Chinese language, there is a vast store of material relevant to economic plants. The Chinese, a traditionally agrarian and at the same time utilitarian people, are also his- torically minded. They have recorded over 30 centuries much of their knowledge about plants, their occurrence, introduction, culti- vation, variation, and utilization. The Chi- nese literature has frequently been pointed out as the best source material for studies on the domestication and utilization of culti- vated plants. Many of our present important crop plants originated in China. A large number of cultivated plants of extra-Chinese origin had also been introduced into China in ancient and medieval times. This paper is an attempt to identify the principal vegetables cultivated in ancient China and to trace the fate of these crops during the course of the history. As the literature on plants in China is scattered among widely different sources, an exhaus- tive or definitive study is not here intended. Fortunately for our purpose, there is still preserved a complete treatise on agriculture more or less intact, the Ch'i-min-yao-shu (Essential arts for the people), by Chia Ssu-hsieh of the Later Huei of the Northern Dynasties. This book was produced in the late 5th or early 6th Century and is probably the oldest complete treatise on agriculture extant in any language. While this work does not describe the most ancient condi- tions of agriculture in China existing around 3,000 years ago, it does give us a full record of the situation of crop plants and agricul- tural practices in northern China along the Yellow River Valley about fourteen centuries ago. This is the region where the ancient Chinese civilization originated and devel- oped in the earlier times. This work has recently been translated into modern Chinese and extensively anno- tated and commented on by Shih (6). He 1Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Pennsyl- vania. 19118. Received for publication October 3, 1968. also prepared a general discussion on the contents of this work in English (7). The plants treated in the original work are given common names in these latter studies, but no botanical names are given. The work Ch'i-min-yao-shu discusses in detail, among other things, the cultivation and utilization of various crop plants such as grains, oil plants, fiber plants, legumes, vegetables and others. The present study is limited to the portion on the vegetables, which covers chapters 14 to 29 inclusive. Legumes and other plants, which may be also used as vegetables secondarily, are not here included. In that work, the different vegetables are either described in some detail or mentioned more briefly in connection with others. Those that form chapter headings represent the major crops. The leading plants of each chapter are evidently arranged in a sequence indicating their relative importance. The whole treatment is fairly extensive and ex- haustive. There were apparently some other vegetables of only very minor importance in cultivation in northern China at that age that are not treated there. For instance, some "miscellaneous vegetables" such as Hsien ( Amaranthus mangostenus ) , Tsu-su ( PeriUa frutescens Britt. var. crispa Decne.), Chia-su (Nepta japonica Maxim.), and Shuisu (Stachys baicalcnsis Fisch.) are men- tioned only incidentally. We may safely conclude that the listing in that work covers all of the more important vegetables as cultivated in northern China around the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D. In the present study, the identification of the plants is based mainly on the interpre- tation of these names in the classical work on materia medica by Li Shih-ch~n, the P~,n-ts'ao-kang-mu of 1590 and the exhaus- tive study on Chinese plant names by Wu Ch'i-chiin, the Chih-w~-ming-shih-t'u-k'ao of 1848. The descriptions and illustrations given in these two standard works supply sufficiently reliable information for the basis for botanical determination in most cases. In a few instances, as will be mentioned 253 254 ECONOMIC BOTANY TABLE I VEGETABLES IN ANCIENT CHINA AS DESCRIBED IN CH'I-MIN-YAO-SHU Ancient Importance Chapter Romanized name Latin name of use Present 14 1. Kua Cucumls meIo great moderate 2. Yiieh Kua Cucumis conomon lesser lesser 3. Hu Kua Cucumis sativus lesser great 4. Tung Koa Benincasa cerifera lesser lesser 5. Ch'ieh Tz6 Solanum melongena lesser moderate 15 6. Hu Lagenaria siceraria great moderate 16 7. Yii Colocasia esculenta great moderate 17 8. Kuei Malva verticillata most (leafy) weed 18 9. Wu Ching Brassica rapa great moderate 10. Sung Brassica chinensis lesser most (leafy) 11. Lu Fu Raphanus sativus lesser most (root) 12. Ting Li Nasturtium indicum lesser weed 19 13. Suan AUium sativum great great 14. Ts~ Suan Allium nipponicum lesser weed 20 15. Hsieh Allium bakeri great moderate 21 16. T'sung Allium fistulo*um great moderate 22 17. Chiu Allium ramosum great moderate 23 18. Shu Chieh Brassica alba moderate moderate 19. Yun T'ai Brassica chinensis oleifera moderate (oil) moderate 20. Chieh Ts6 Brassica cernua moderate moderate 24 21. Hu Sui Coriandrum sativum moderate lesser 25 22. Lan Hsiang Ocimum basilicum moderate 26 23. Jen Perillct frutescens great oil 24. Liao Polygonum hydropiper great weed 27 25. Chiang Zingiber officinale great moderate 28 26. Jang Ho Zingiber mioga moderate wild 27. Ch'ing Oenanthe stolonifera moderate moderate 28. Chii Lactuca denticulata moderate weed 29. Ma Ch'ing Angelica kiusiana lesser weed 30. Chin Viola verucunda lesser weed 31. Hn Sz4 Xanthium strumarium lesser weed 29 32. Mu Su Medieago sativum moderate as forage below, there is still some uncertainty about the exact botanical identity. Most of the names given by Chia are the same as those used in northern China today. A few, however, have changed and the common names used today are different from those used in more ancient times. The plants, according to the sequence in the original work, are given in a table, each together with its botanical name and a brief summary of its status as a cultivated plant in ancient as well as modern times. A number is given to each of these plants according to this sequence to facilitate the discussion (Table I). The Chinese char- acters of these plant names are given sepa- rately (Table I I ) . In the following discus- sions, the plants are slightly rearranged so that related plants, such as species of one genus or genera of the same family, are discussed together. Cucntmis melo L. 1. Kua The melon was the most important fruit vegetable in ancient China, and the method of its cultivation is here described in the greatest detail. The leaves are mentioned here as also being used as a vegetable. From the collection of seeds in the previous year to the selection of seeds for planting in the spring, preparation of grounds, care of seed- lings, cultivating, weeding and harvesting, all processes are carefully described. Along with the melon, three other cucurbitaceous plants are more briefly described, together with the eggplant, in the same chapter, LI: CmNESE VEGETABLES TABLE I I CHINESE CHARACTERS FOR PLANT NAVIES 255 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 A 17 18 19 20 ~~ 25 ~F~ ~o 4~ 256 ECONOglIC BOTANY Cucumis conomon Thunh. 2. Yiieh Kua The Oriental pickling melon is sometimes treated as a variety of the melon, Cucumis melo vat. conomon (Thunb.) Makino. Cucumis sativus L. 3. Hu Kua The cucumber, together with the Oriental pickling melon mentioned above, is of southern origin. It seems that their culti- vation at that time was not considered as very important. However, the cucumber is now very commonly cultivated and exten- sively used and evidently has gained much more importance than in former times. This is also commonly called Huang Kua. Benincasa hispida Cogn. 4. Tung Kua The white gourd is also of tropical origin, and it is here only briefly mentioned to- gether with the other gourds. It is at present a fairly common vegetable but not an im- portant one. Lagenaria siceraria Standl. 5. Hu The bottle gourd was one of the most widely cultivated plants in ancient times. The thin-shelled fruits were used as recep- tacles and utensils, especially as water ves- sels. Here it is considered as an important vegetable. The young tender fruits are eaten; moreover, the young leaves are also edible. Today the fruits are still being widely used in China as a vegetable. It is mentioned here that the fruit can be used as vessels and its white flesh can be used as feed for pigs, while the seeds yield a wax suitable for making candles. It re- ports that, to prepare the gourd for use as a vessel, the hairs should be removed by rub- bing it with hands from the tip of the frnit toward the stalk and that then it will not grow any further and will become thick- skinned. Colocasia esculenta Schott. 6. Y(i The taro is of tropical origin in Asia and an important food plant widely cultivated since ancient times. It is also one of the oldest cultivated plants in China. Evidently here it is considered as the most'important tuber crop. Its method of cultivation is described in some detail. A number of varieties are mentioned. The leaf-stalk is considered edible by pickling. Solanum melongana L. vat. esculentum Ness. 7. Ch'ieh Tzfi The eggplant is of tropical Asiatic origin. The plant cultivated in former times as described here was apparently a small- fruited one, of "the size of a marb/e." It is said here to be edible also in the raw state. The eggplant is now a very common and im- portant vegetable throughout China. Malva verticillata L. 8. Kuei The mallow was the most important leafy vegetable in ancient China. It is men- tioned in the earliest classics. In the Ch'i- rain-yao-shu, it is described in great detail. A number of varieties are mentioned, such as the purple or white-stemmed ones, each kind with large or small-leafed forms. It is evident that at that time, in the 5th or 6th Centuries, it was still regarded as the most important leafy vegetable. Records show that in the T'ang period (7th-10th Cen- turies) it was still considered important, but after that time its cultivation seems to have gradually declined. In the Ming dynasty, when Li Shih-ch~n wrote his Pkn-ts'ao-kang- mu in 1590, he was already unfamiliar with it as a cultivated plant. But Wu Ch'i-chiin, in 1848 said that the plant was still planted in certain remote regions on a very limited scale. The mallow was introduced in former times into Japan and cultivated there as a drug plant. At present it occurs only as a weed in yards and as a naturalized plant in coastal areas (5). The leading position of the mallow in the vegetables has been gradually taken over by Brassica chinensis. Its drop in favor can probably be explained by changing food habits. In ancient times vegetables oils were not available. The mucilaginous vegetables thus were a required part of the diet. Later on, when technological knowledge enabled people to extract oil from vegetable seeds, these became unnecessary. The mallow, being a perennial, was thus gradually re- placed by the more easily cultivated annual or biennial leafy vegetables. It is to be noted that species of Malva have been used as potherbs throughout L I : Ct l INESE VEGETABLES 257 regions where they are found. Malva syl- vestris L. was formerly also cultivated in Europe. Brassica rapa L. 9. Wu Ching Five species of the genus Brassica are given. These are probably all of Asiatic or at least Eurasian, if not strictly Chinese, origin. The turnip is a very important vegetable in both ancient and modern China. Its method of cultivation and preparation are described here in great detail. Brassica chinensis L, 10. Sung The Chinese cabbage, called "Pak-choi" in some western works, is at present the commonest and most extensively used leafy vegetable in China. It can be grown either as an annual or biennial. Its origin was prob- ably in Asia. In Chia's work, it is only men- tioned briefly in connection with the turnip (no. 9), showing that at that time it was a relatively unimportant crop. In another section, three additional kinds of Brassica, used primarily for their seeds, are discussed. Among these is Yun T'ai (no. 19). This is var. oleifera of Brassica chinen- sis. Both the seeds and leaves of the species and this variety are used as leaf crops and seed crops. However, the season of raising these crops is different. Brassica alba Rabenh. 18. Shu Chieh The second species of Brassica used for both seeds and leaves is the white mustard. This plant of Eurasian origin and widely cultivated at present for mustard from the seeds and for the leaves as greens. Brassica cernua Hemsl. 9,0. Chieh Tzt~ This is the third species of Brassica that is used for both its seeds and leaves. It is still extensively cultivated at present in China and Japan, and both the leaves and the spicy seeds are used Raphanus sativus L. 11. Lu Fu The radish is considered as having origi- nated in Europe and been introduced into China in ancient times. The Chinese name Lu Fu, rendered in many versions of similar sounds, is regarded as a transliteration of the classical name Raphus (rape). In Chia's work, it is briefly mentioned in connection with the turnip, Brassica rapa, the Wu Ching (no. 9). It was apparently a vegetable of secondary importance at that time. Now it is the most important tuber vegetable in China, replacing the turnip or Wu Ching of ancient times. It is now extensively culti~ vated not only in China but also in Japan and eaten in many ways, fresh, salted, dried, pickled, etc. Many forms have also since been developed. Nasturtium indicum DC. 12. Ting Li This is a cruciferous plant now wide- spread as a weed in gardens, roadsides and fields. It is a glabrous perennial, with coarse long stems, either erect or spreading. In Chia's work, it is only very briefly men- tioned in connection with the turnip; thus it is considered as a vegetable of relatively little importance. However, it is now no longer in cultivation and occurs only as a weed. It is interesting to note that the water-cress, N. officinale R. Br., of the same genus, is still being used as a culti- vated vegetable in Europe and America. AlIium sativum L. 13. Suan Four species of Allium are mentioned here, the most important being the garlic. DeCandolle (3) is of the opinion that the species originated in the desert of the Kir- ghis in western temperate Asia. The Chi- nese plant may be an introduction from the west, but some consider the plant culti- vated in northern China and Japan as a form native to northern China, forma pekinense Makino. This is still a very popular bulb crop in northern China and Japan. Along with this, another species, Ts4 Suan (water garlic, no. 14), is briefly men- tioned. It says here that both wild and cul- tivated plants are used and the cultivated kinds are considered the better. This is most probably Allium nipponicum Franch. & Say. It is no longer in cultivation. Allium bakeri Regel 15. Hsieh The Chinese shallot is native to China. The bulb is used for pickles. It is a culti- vated crop in China of great antiquity. 258 ECONOS, I IC BOTANY Allium fistulosum L. 16. Ts'ung The spring onion has long been cultivated in China. It is reported growing wild in Siberia. Its actual cultivation most probably started in northern China. The leaves are widely and very commonly used in China for seasoning. AUium ramosum L. 17. Chiu The Chinese leek is considered a different species from A. porrum L., the leek of west- ern Asia and Europe. It is still growing wild in northern China and Siberia. Its cultiva- tion must have been started in northern China at a very early date. All four species of the genus Allium men- tioned above are still very commonly used in China. In ancient times they were all considered important vegetables and in Chia's work their methods of cultivation, which are different from each other, are separately described in some detail. Zingiber officinale Rosc. 25. Chiang Zingiber mioga Rosc. 26. Jang Ho Two species of the genus Zingiber are here described. The ginger, Z. officinale, was apparently much used in northern China in former times, but its cultivation there was limited. The ginger is of tropical origin. Here it is said that the soil is not suitable, and it can only be grown to a small size. Ginger is at present a very important condi- ment, but its cultivation is still limited to the southern, warmer provinces. The second species, Zingiber mioga, is native to China and Japan, growing in shady situations. The flower-stalks and young shoots are edible. This work states that the plant should be cultivated under the shade of trees and once planted could be left alone forever. It is now only occasionally found in cultivation. Coriandrum sativum L. 21. Ho Sui The coriander is of ancient culture in Europe and originated in the Mediterranean region. It was introduced into China in an- cient times. In Chia's work, the plant is treated at great length and very thorough instructions on its cultivation are given. It is thus a vegetable of far greater importance in ancient China than at the present, where it is still widely used but not of any great importance. Ocimum basilicum L. 22. Lan Hsiang The basil, of tropical Asiatic origin, used widely for seasoning, is one of the most useful and popular culinary herbs. It is con- sidered as an important leafy vegetable in Chia's treatise, and it is said that its culti- vation is similar to that of the mallow. Perilla [rutescens Britt. 23. Jen This is a native species of China, an annual with a characteristic and somewhat unpleasant odor. In Chia's work, it is de- scribed as an important crop used both as a leafy vegetable and for the oil from the seed. Its method of cultivation is considered very simple, as it grows readily from seeds scattered around, and plants will grow by themselves thereafter every year. The plant is now used only for its seeds as a source of oil. PeriUa [rutescens var. crispa Decne., Tsu-su, is very casually mentioned else- where. It is now sometimes cultivated as a drug plant only. Polygonum hydropiper L. 24. Liao The smartweed is a common weed in eastern Asia along waters and on wet grounds. The leaves are known to be edible, pungent, acrid and peppery to taste. In ancient times it was, as described in Chia's work, cultivated in paddie fields. The edi- ble form, with narrower leaves, is recognized as var. Maximowiczii Makino. Makino (5) notes that it is sometimes cultivated in Japan. Oenanthe stoloni[era DC. 27. Ch'ing This, the Oriental celery, is a common perennial of wet lands and ditches in eastern Asia. It is cultivated as a leafy vegetable in paddie fields, in both ancient and modern times. Chia says that the cultivated form is sweeter and crisper than the wild form. Angelica kiusiana Maxim. 29. Ma Ch'ing This is only briefly mentioned, in saying that the seeds can be used as a condiment with the garlic. It is now a tall weedy plant L I : CH INESE VEGETABLES 259 in the warmer parts of eastern Asia, espe- cially along coastal areas. Viola verucunda A. Gray 30. Chin The identity of this plant, Chin, only briefly mentioned by Chia, is conjectural. Shih (6) determines it as synonymous with the celery, Apium graveolens L., a species of European origin. According to the notes collated by Wu Ch'i-chiin, I believe it is referable to Viola verucunda. This is a mu- cilaginous plant. Chia mentions that it occurs in both the cultivated and wild state. It is now a weed preferring a moist habitat. Lactuca denticulata Maxim. 28. Chii A number of species in the lettuce genus, Lactuca, are used in China as vegetable mostly in the wild form. This species, now generally occurring as a wild plant, is still cultivated in some remote parts of China as a vegetable. Xanthium strumarium L. 31. Hu Sz4 Now a weed in the fields and roadsides, the cocklebur is mentioned by Chia briefly as a leafy vegetable. It is said that the seeds are planted in early winter in tilled grounds, and the plant, which is tastier than the wild plants, can be used in early spring. As a weed, it is now one of the most widespread because of its densely hooked fruits which stick readily to man's clothing and animal hair. Medicago sativum L. 32. Mu Su The alfalfa, a plant of the Mediterranean region, was introduced into China from western Asia in the 2nd Century B.C. as a forage plant. In Chia's work, a whole chapter is devoted to this plant as a vege- table. It is said that young growths in early spring can be used, raw or cooked, as a vegetable, and when older it is suitable for feeding horses which have a special prefer- ence for this plant. The plant is now used only as a forage plant. A related species, M. denticulata L. native to China, is fre- quently used as a vegetable in its wild form. Conclusions From the above account it can be seen that there have been considerable changes among the vegetables used by the Chinese in the Yellow River Valley some 1400-1500 years ago as compared with those of today. The most important green vegetable of an- cient China, Malva sylvestris, has become completely forgotten and has been relegated to the status of a weed. Its place was taken by Brassica chinensis, then a vegetable con- sidered as only of secondary importance. The most important tuber vegetable, Bras- sica rapa, though still commonly used, has been replaced by Raphanus sativus, a rela- tively unimportant introduced plant in China in former times. While most of the vegetables used form- erly are still being cultivated and utilized as such today, a number of these have been greatly reduced in importance. Such plants as Coriandrum sativum, Ocimum basilicum, Perilla frutescens, and Medicago sativum, while still being cultivated, are no longer used as vegetables. Others, such as Malva verticillata, Nasturtium indicum, Lactuca denticulata, Angelica kiusiana, and Xan- thium strumarium have lost their status as cultivated plants and have become weeds. Zingiber mioga and Allium nipponicum rather seem somewhat to be lingering on the borderline between the cultivated and the wild state. Among those mentioned, Malva verticillata, Polygonum hydropiper and Lac- tuca denticulata were long cultivated as established crop plants but they exist today only as weeds or wild plants. Those vegetables that were formerly of secondary importance, but since have gained importance and become leading crops, such as Brassica chinens~ and Raphanus sativus, have developed many varieties which were unknown in former times. Also, later intro- ductions, unknown to the ancients, have been added to the vegetable garden and have become more and more important. Among these are Allium cepa L. (onion), Spinicia oleracea L. (spinach), and Brassica oleracea L. (cabbage). Many more addi- tions arrived in Asia from America after the Columbian times. Many of these new ar- rivals have now become very popular in China and have become more and more ex- tensively planted. This replacement process seems to be continuously in action. It is thus noteworthy to point out the 260 ECONOMIC BOTANY changing fate of many of our cultivated plants especially in the study on their origin and dispersion. The historical records of the vegetables in China furnish us with documentary proofs of the origin of a number of weeds through de-domestication of long established cultivated crop plants. Literature Cited 1. Burkill, I. H. 1966. A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Penin- sula. 2 vols. Kuala Lumper. 2. Chia, Ssu-hsieh. 5th Cent. A.D. Ch'i-min- yao-shu. (In Chinese). 3. De Candolle, A. 1884. Origin of the cul- tivated plants. London. 4. Li, Shih-chSn. 1950. PSn-ts'ao-kang-mu [Materia Medical. (In Chinese). 5. Makino, T. 1951. Illustrated flora of Japan. ( Rev. Ed. ) Tokyo. (In Japanese). 6. Shih, Sheng-han. 1957. Ch'i-min-yao-shu- chin-shih [Commentary on the Ch'i-min- yao-shu]. 4 vols. Peking. (In Chinese). 7. Shih, Sheng-han. 1962. A preliminarysur- vey of the book Ch'i Min )'ao Shu, an agricultural encyclopedia of the 6th Cen- tury. 2nd Ed. Peking. 8. Wu, Ch'i-chiin. 1848. Chih-wu-ming-shih- t'u-k'ao [Illustrated investigations on the identity of plant names]. (In Chinese).


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