The epigraphic form of the Chinese character for “peasant farmer” (農 — nóng ) consists of pictographs for “woods,” “field,” and “plough.” Later, in the clerical script form, the top of the character, i.e., the hands and the field, was abbreviated to an unrelated character with a similar form (曲 — qū), which means “vessel holding things.”
Until recent times, the vast majority of Chinese people lived off the land, and many millions continue to do so today. Before 1949 and the start of collectivization, Chinese rural society encompassed a vast spectrum of people, from wealthy landlords to landless peasants and laborers.
The bulk of the people in between were nóng, meaning peasant landowners or tenant farmers, who lived in villages and walked or rode donkeys and buffaloes to the fields where they worked. There were also fishermen, boatmen, carpenters, masons, spinners, weavers, carters, and fortune tellers.
According to legend, the agricultural arts were brought to China by Shen Nong (神農), the Divine Farmer, one of the legendary Three Sovereigns. Shen Nong is believed to have invented the plough and hoe, and he created the first markets.
Additionally, according to one 2nd-century B.C. source, he taught people how to grow the five staple grains of the traditional Chinese diet (panicum and setaria millet, soya beans, wheat, and rice). Later accounts describe how nine magical wells sprang up at his birth, and he used their water to nurture grains that had fallen from Heaven.
Shen Nong is also said to have classified all plants into those fit for consumption and those suitable for medicinal use, selflessly tasting each one to determine if it was poisonous. It was this tradition of empirical testing that led to his name being associated with The Divine Farmer’s Canon of Materia Medica, a classic work on Chinese medicine by Tao Hongjing (A.D. 452-536).
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