|Original maps from The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
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.
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.