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              History of Chinese Invention and Discovery

History of Chinese Invention - Iron Plow

Iron plows

The Bible frequently refers to the plow (or charash or arotrioo) and recognizes its importance to providing food. Of all the advantages China had for centuries over the rest of the world, the greatest may have been the ability to sustain its large and growing population through agricultural technology. Only about 10 percent of China's land is suitable for agriculture, so farming efficiency has been a concern as population increases. Rice, soybeans and other staples were farmed deliberately in rows, and the cultivation was efficient and adaptable to the use of tools. Various hoe designs and material improved agricultural efficiency after row crops and intensive hoeing was common in China. Improved iron supplies and casting techniques in by the third century BC led to the design of iron plowshares called kuan (moldboard plows). By the first century BC moldboards were common for Chinese plows, which facilitated turning soil for easy furrows. Greek and Roman shares were usually simply tied on the bottom of a shaft with bits of rope, which made them flimsy compared to the Chinese ones. In Europe, moldboards were unknown until late 10th century, and then they were crude in their design.

The first significant revolution in Chinese agricultural technology had occurred when agricultural implements became available to the Chinese peasantry. The smelting of iron in China began somewhat later than that of the Indo-European Hittites, where the end of the Late Bronze Age about 1500 BCE was marked with the advancement of development of a process to extract iron from iron ore and smelt into cast or pig iron. The Chinese had utilized coal and coke antracite about 1000 BCE, and used this in their process to hammer-forge iron. The earliest iron plow found in northern Hunan dates from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and is a flat V-shaped iron piece that must have been mounted somewhat insecurely on wooden blades and handles to serve as working edges. This was a relatively advanced design, with a central ridge ending in a sharp point to cut the soil and wings which sloped gently up towards the center to throw the soil off the plow and reduce friction. Early plows were small, and there is no evidence that draft animals were used. Cattle-drawn plows do not appear until the 1st century BC.

Several improvements and innovations, such as the three-shared plow, the lou-li (plow-and-sow) implement, and the harrow, were developed subsequently. By the end of the Sung dynasty in 1279, Chinese agricultural engineering had reached a high state of development. When brought to Holland in the 17th Century, these plows began the Agricultural Revolution.

The common farmers continued to use these early medieval techniques into modern times. Their unfenced fields were cultivated by a wooden plow, with or without a cast-iron share and usually drawn by a water buffalo. Harvesting was by sickle or billhook (a cutting tool consisting of a blade with a hooked point fitted with a handle). Sheaves carried from the field were slung at the ends of a pole across an individual's shoulders. The grain was threshed by beating on a frame of slats or by flails on the ground. Winnowing was accomplished by tossing the grain in the wind. Rice was dehusked by hand pounding in a mortar or with a hand-turned mill. Irrigation techniques varied. The most common perhaps was a wooden, square-paddle chain pump with a radial treadle operated by foot. Fields were drained by open ditches and diking. Night soil, oil cakes, and ash fertilized the soil.

The Genius of China
3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention
written by Robert K.G. Temple and published by Simon and Schuster, 1986
Currently out-of-print

Encyclopedia Brittanica

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