The Significance of Plowing in Early Chinese Texts
When Wan Zhang asked Mencius about how Yi Yin sought an introduction to Tang, Mencius replied that he had done so by “plowing the wilderness of the Youxin Clan, delighting in the principles of Yao and Shun.” Mencius also responded to Zhou Xiao’s question, “Did superior men of old take office?” by quoting a passage on plowing from the Book of Rites: “A prince plows himself, and is assisted by the people, to supply the millet for sacrifice. His wife keeps silkworms, and unwinds their cocoons, to make the garments for sacrifice.” Later, still in discussion with Zhou Xiao, Mencius drew a direct parallel between plowing and governing: “An officer's being in office is like the ploughing of a husbandman.” Shun’s ploughing on Mount Li caused Yao to notice and the prefer him. Moreover, famous figures such as Sima Qian, Wu Zixu, and Chen She all began or restarted their careers behind a plow. This paper will therefore attempt to examine the use of the motif of plowing in early Chinese texts, examining the scenario of “plowing in the wilds” 耕於野 and other tropes, and stressing especially the close relationship between plowing and politics.
This event is part of the East Asian Studies Program coffee-hour lecture series.