Following the westward expansion of the nineteenth century, US agronomists found themselves plagued by soil degradation and erosion as a result of unorganized development. In an effort to find answers, Western scholars soon focused their attention on China, home of the oldest farming country in the world, where Chinese farmers were successfully maintaining the strength of their land after thousands of years of cultivation. In 1909, US soil scientist F. H. King and his entourage crossed the ocean and began a trip through East Asia. He carefully observed how the Chinese farmed, trying to unravel this oriental mystery with modern scientific knowledge, and discovered that traditional Chinese fertilizer was the key. At the same time, as the trend of Western learning spread across the East, Western chemical fertilizers expanded throughout China. As such, Chinese and Western fertilizers finally converged within the long river of history.

Chinese traditional fertilizers have always been viewed by the academic community as an important issue in the study of agricultural history. That research discusses the content of fertilizer knowledge and explores the flow of technology among regions chronologically. Unlike the scientists of a hundred years ago such as King, Du Xinhao takes an approach that differs from previous research paradigms, interpreting this issue instead from a new perspective in his work, Jin Zhi: Fertilizer Knowledge and Practice in Traditional China (Tenth to Nineteenth Century). His research is not confined to time or space, but constructs a new history of ancient Chinese fertilizer from the unique perspective of technological flow among classes.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter discusses the background of agricultural development after the Song Dynasty. Du points out the reason that fertilizer technology was increasingly important by analyzing the increase in the demand for multicropping systems and fertilizers, the cultivation of cash crops and the loss of fertility, and other social factors. The second chapter elaborates on fertilization theory by the literati stratum after the Song Dynasty. The focus is on why we should fertilize, what we should use to fertilize, how to fertilize, how fertilizer works; the chapter acknowledges the construction of fertilizer theory in the traditional Chinese knowledge system, which is based on the concept of medicine and the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (阴阳), the five elements (五行), and qi (气).

The third chapter concentrates on the entire process of fertilizer collection. By taking dredged river sludge, picking up and accumulating dung, and the Jin Zhi industry (excrement used as fertilizer) as the center, the author sketches out the real scene of “accumulating feces like gold” and points out that the pressure to survive is the main reason for the irrational economic behavior of “overdense” production activities with farmers. The fourth chapter emphasizes the agricultural tools used in all aspects of fertilizer technology and briefly analyzes the reasons that Chinese agricultural tools failed to make major breakthroughs and innovations after the Yuan Dynasty. In the fifth chapter, taking the production of fertilizer in the Ming Dynasty as a case study, the author discusses the production of so-called intensive fertilizer, attempts to study this “failed” technological invention from the perspective of the social history of technology, and analyzes the reasons for its occurrence and failure. Chapter 6 centers on the flow of fertilizer technology in the two regions between Jiangnan and northern China, and reveals the causes, processes, effects, and impacts that fertilizers from the south of the Yangtze River diffused into northern China. The role that scholars and farmers played in the spread of fertilizer technology is also discussed.

Chapter 7 pinpoints the fertilization techniques in agricultural practices, including the application of top-dressing techniques, new types of fertilizers, and key factors in the fertilization technology such as soil suitability, material suitability, and proper occasion. The author considers the concept of the so-called fertilizer revolution of Li Bozhong and others from the perspective of the history of technology to restore the real fertilization scene during this period. The author outlines a picture of ancient Chinese fertilizer development that differs from previous studies through these readings.

Du investigates the roles played by scholar agronomy and peasant agronomy in the history of fertilizer development in the traditional era, criticizes the dichotomy of explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge present in previous research to reflect the difference between the two, and introduces the concept of “great tradition” and “little tradition,” which was first proposed in Peasant Society and Culture by US anthropologist Robert Redfield (1956), to discuss the relationship between the two kinds of agronomy. In particular, compared with previous studies of fertilizer history that only focused on three processes of collecting, producing, and using fertilizers, the author incorporates aspects of cognitive fertilizer (i.e., fertilizer technology theory) as well as how to produce and disseminate fertilizer technology. In doing so, the scope of research on fertilizer history has been greatly expanded and research content further enriched. Not only that, Du also takes the history of fertilizer technology in the different dynasties of Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing as a whole, avoiding the previous study where the history had been divided into a two-stage approach of Song-Yuan dynasties and Ming-Qing dynasties, more fully tracking the growth history of fertilizer technology. The problematique is also the prominent feature of this book.

However, the effort of trying to solve a different problem in each chapter results in a lack of logical coherence of the text as a whole as well as partial duplication of content in some places. What is more, the discussion of knowledge dissemination between different classes (such as scholars and farmers, scholars and artisans) raised in the book is not sufficient and only relies on a monograph of the history of fertilizer, which requires far more attention and discussion by scholars in other fields.

All in all, Du Xinhao’s Jin Zhi: Fertilizer Knowledge and Practice in Traditional China (Tenth to Nineteenth Century) provides us with a completely new perspective for the study of ancient Chinese agricultural history, and his work is worthy of recognition. As Francesca Bray writes in the preface to this book, “The result is not simply a valuable and original contribution to the history of agriculture in China, it also provides an excellent example of new ways forward in the history of Science” (1).


Redfield, Robert.
Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization
University of Chicago Press