In early China the language used to describe agricultural life was a much used medium for social and political commentary. Philosophical, literary, and ritual texts contain a repository of figurative language in the form of agronomic metaphors and analogies. In this lecture we will explore how agriculture figures in the language of Chinese “philosophical” discourse, and what, if anything, the masters of philosophy teach us about agriculture. Rather than approaching figurative language as a purely literary or rhetorical device aimed at making a moral or philosophical point, I suggest that we ought to be open to the possibility that agronomic metaphors and analogies belonged to the normal register of tools used to analyse and describe nature and the management of natural resources in ancient China. They served as didactic devices to convey social and political ideas and perhaps even to transmit a modicum of technical knowledge. I will present a range of examples that offer different interpretative possibilities.
Roel Sterckx is Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilisation at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Clare College. His publications include The Animal and the Daemon in Early China (SUNY Press, 2002) and Food, Sacrifice and Sagehood in Early China (Cambridge University Press, 2011. With Romain Graziani, he co-edited De l’Esprit aux Esprits : Enquête sur la notion de shen en Chine (Saint-Denis : Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2007). In 2013 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy.