Map showing borders of the Northern Song (960-1126) and Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasties, with the Yangzi River in orange


Rice Cultivation

During Song times, new developments in rice cultivation — especially the introduction of new strains of rice from what is now Central Vietnam, along with improved methods of water control and irrigation — spectacularly increased rice yields. Rice was used primarily as food, but was also used to brew the wine consumed in homes and taverns.

Rice was grown primarily south of the Yangzi River. This area had many advantages over the north China plain, as the climate is warmer and rainfall more plentiful. The mild temperatures of the south often allowed two crops to be grown on the same plot of land — a summer and a winter crop.

The many rivers and streams of the region facilitated shipping, which reduced the cost of transportation and, thus, made regional specialization economically more feasible. During the Song period, the Yangzi River regions became the economic center of China.


A Labor-intensive Crop

As grown throughout East Asia before modern times, rice required much labor — to level the paddy fields, clear irrigation ditches, plant and especially transplant the seedlings, as well as to weed, harvest, thresh, and husk.

Farmers developed many varieties of rice, including drought resistant and early ripening varieties, as well as rice suited for special purposes such as brewing. They also remade the landscape by terracing hilly land, so that rice could be grown on it. Agricultural manuals helped to disseminate the best techniques for rice cultivation.

New Varieties of Rice
A farm house on the outskirts of the city, Beijing qingming scroll

“In the early part of the Song dynasty ... a new variety of early-ripening rice was introduced into China from Champa, a kingdom then located near the Mekong River Delta in what is now Vietnam, and by 1012 it had been introduced in the lower Yangzi and Huai river regions. ... Because the variety of rice was relatively more drought-resistant, it could be grown in places where older varieties had failed, especially on higher land and on terraces that climb hilly slopes, and it ripened even faster than the other early-ripening varieties already grown in China. This made double-cropping possible in some areas, and in some places, even triple-cropping became possible ... the hardiness and productivity of various varieties of rice were and are in large part responsible for the density of population in South, Southeast, and East Asia.

According to the Buddhist monk, Shu Wenying, the Song Emperor Zhengzhong (998-1022), when he learned that Champa rice was drought-resistant, sent special envoys to bring samples back to China.”

— Lynda Noreen Shaffer
In “A Concrete Panoply of Intercultural Exchange: Asia in World History,” in Asia in Western and World History, edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 839-840.


To feed all the city people, most Chinese had to remain farmers. The rectangular fields in this scene from the scroll (left) are divided by irrigation channels, but the scene does not give us enough information to determine which crops are growing there. We do know, however, that millet, wheat, and sorghum were the basic subsistence crops in the north, while rice predominated in the south.


More about Rice Cultivation in China

Ancient Chinese Rice Archeological Project [Carleton University]
A valuable resource for information on early rice culture in China. Select PHOTO GALLERIES from menu at bottom of homepage for images of archaeological sites at Bashidang and Cheng Toushan. Select PAPER DATABASE for an extensive list of scholarly papers related to historical and archaeological studies of rice cultivation. Especially relevant to rice cultivation during the Song dynasty is the article “Huang-lu Rice in Chinese History,” by Zeng Xiongsheng, which discusses the huang-lu (yellow rapid-ripening) historic variety of rice that became very popular during the Song dynasty. The author argues that the promotion and popularity of the huang-lu variety played “an important role in grain supply and population growth after [the] Song dynasty.”


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