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