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You are here: Home / Plants and Crops / Milho, makka and ya mai: early journeys of Zea mays in Asia Printer Friendly Page
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Chapter 5: Yu mai in China
View:  Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Conclusions | References

Maize was cultivated in China during the 16th century, but the precise dates and circumstances of the first introductions of maize into China are not known. The main sources of information on maize in 16th and 17th century China are medical and botanical texts and agricultural records of the Ming Dynasty that ruled eastern China from 1368 to 1644, and rare accounts from early European missionaries and traders. Unfortunately, Chinese and indigenous records of 16th and 17th century agriculture in the far-western Provinces of Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Xizang (Tibet) appear to be rare. Furthermore, European travellers left few accounts of agriculture in far-western China or in the western Provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu until the 19th century.

Early Chinese Names for Maize

Linguistic evidence indicates that maize was introduced into Ming Dynasty-controlled regions of eastern China from regions to the west. Names for maize in Ming Dynasty medical and botanical texts of the 16th and 17th centuries include fan mai (foreign or barbarian wheat), hsi fan mai (western barbarian wheat), and Jung shu (grain of western barbarians) (123). Other early names for maize in Ming China were yu mai (jade or imperial wheat) and yu shu shu (jade grain of Sichuan or jade sorghum), suggesting an association with imperial jade, which was imported into Ming China from the west by two ancient trade routes. A southwestern route led from the Jade Mountains of northern Burma through the western Provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, and a northwestern route led from Yu-t'ien, the Jade City (now Khotan or Hotan), on the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert in the far-western Province of Xinjiang. According to Asia scholar Berthold Laufer, other early names for maize were aiha shu shu (glass-bead grain of Sichuan) in Manchuria and erdeni shu shu (precious grain of Sichuan) in Mongolia. Early names for maize in Tibet and Ladakh, however, appear to refer to the yellow color of the grain rather than its place of origin: abras mo spos shel (amber rice) and mar me bai lo tog, with what Laufer finds to be a puzzling combination of mar (butter) and lo tog (crop) (123). The odd phrase mar me bai may be an attempt to use Tibetan characters to imitate the sound of ma kai, the name for maize in the countries along the southern border of Tibet.

The Silk Road

Centuries before Marco Polo's travels in the 13th century, a network of trade routes, now often called the Silk Road, connected the countries of the Middle East and South Asia to the Chinese Empire in eastern Asia. One major route from Iraq and Iran crossed the Pamir Mountains to Kashgar and Yarkand (now Kashi and Shache) in Xinjiang, where it was joined by southern routes from Afghanistan and Kashmir. From Yarkand the route split to travel along the edges of the Taklamakan desert along a line of oases, either along the north perimeter via Turfan or along the southern perimeter via Khotan, to rejoin at Dunhuang in Gansu, and continued east into the Chinese Empire. Other trade routes crossed the eastern Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, Bhutan, or Burma (now Myanmar) to Xizang (Tibet), Sichuan, and Yunnan. According to Russian historian Emil Bretschneider's translation of the Ming shi or History of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), "The emperor Yung lo [1403-24] had always been desirous that all countries, even the most distant, should acknowledge his supremacy, and during his reign envoys from the West used to arrive every year. Those foreigners are very fond of Chinese productions, especially silk, and derive benefit from exchanging them with the goods they bring from their countries" (124).

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Trade Embassies From Mecca

According to the Ming shi, trade embassies continued until the end of the reign of the emperor K'ang hi (1662-1723). During the 1500s and early 1600s, numerous embassies arrived from countries of the Middle East, and especially from T'ien fang, heavenly square, the Chinese name for Arabia which refers to the square shape of the shrine of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca. Tribute from T'ienfang included antelopes, camels, horses, lions, ostriches, jade, pearls, precious stones, knives made of fish teeth, fine wool, and other products of the country (125). Many cultivated plants from the Middle East and South Asia were introduced to China during the centuries of overland trade. The first recorded introduction was of alfalfa and the grapevine from Iran in the second century B.C. (126). In the 17th century, the Ming emperor K'ang hi wrote "I would procure for my subjects a novel kind of fruit or grain, rather than build a hundred porcelain kilns" (127). Although we have found no specific references to maize among the trade goods listed in translations of the Ming records, it seems probable that maize and other American crop plants were brought to China by trade embassies from the Middle East or South Asia during the 16th century. As the Ming Dynasty ended after the reign of K'ang hi, China closed its borders, leaving western China inaccessible to Europeans until the mid-1800s.

Missionaries Find Maize in Batang

The occasional Jesuit, Capuchin, and other Christian missionaries who traveled in Tibet and other regions of far-western China from the 17th to 19th centuries left few accounts of agriculture in these regions and rare records of American crop plants. During his travels in Tibet between 1712 and 1727, Father Ippolito Desideri made some comments on Tibetan agriculture and the prevalence of tobacco smoking, but made no mention of maize (128). In the 1840s, the French missionary priests Regis-Evariste Huc and Joseph Gabet traveled in Manchuria (northeastern China), Mongolia, and Tibet. Huc's account of everyday life along their caravan route contained descriptions of agriculture, but only in Batang, on the border of Tibet and Sichuan, did he describe maize, "This plain, which you find, as by enchantment, amid the mountains of Thibet, is wonderfully fertile: it produces two harvests each year. Its principal products are rice, maize, barley, wheat, peas, cabbages, turnips, onions, and several other varieties of vegetables " (129).

Maize in Taklamakan Desert Oases

When the borders of far-western China began to reopen in the 19th century, the first British travellers into Xinjiang from India discovered that maize was already well-established at the oases along the perimeter of the Taklamakan desert. During his travels in the western Himalayan mountains, British agent William Moorcroft spent 1820 to 1822 in Ladakh, waiting unsuccessfully for permission from Chinese authorities to cross the Karakoram Range to the Taklamakan region. Native informants reported to Moorcroft that maize was grown in Khotan, which was for centuries the largest and most important cultivated district on the southern edge of the desert (130). In the 1860s, British travellers finally were able to travel from Ladakh into the Taklamakan region. In 1865, William Johnson of the Survey of India reached Khotan and reported that "The chief grains of the country are Indian corn, wheat, barley of two kinds, bajra, jowar [two kinds of holcus], buckwheat and rice" (131). Three years later, British trader Robert Shaw reported maize as a crop in the oasis town of Charchand (now Qiemo) more than 300 miles northeast of Khotan (132). According to numerous 19th century accounts, maize was ubiquitous in the oases of the Taklamakan, providing food for the nomadic shepherds of the southern perimeter and feed for caravans of horses and donkeys as far northeast as Dunhuang, near the western end of the Great Wall of China (133). For example, in 1895, wealthy English travellers Mr. and Mrs. St. George Littledale purchased 25,000 pounds of maize at Charchand for the pack animals of their unsuccessful expedition to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet (134). At the Muslim shrine of Mazar Kum-rabat-padshahim just west of Khotan, it was customary for 19th century travellers to leave maize for the thousands of pigeons as an offering of gratitude at the tomb of the Imam Shakir Padshah. According to folklore, the Imam fell in a battle with the Buddhists of Khotan more than a thousand years earlier (135).

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Early Maize in Western China

Medical and botanical texts and agricultural records of the Ming Dynasty thoroughly document the introduction of maize from regions of the Hsi fan, western barbarians, which includes the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan, and the presence of maize in some regions of eastern China in the 16th century. Chinese historian Ping-ti Ho noted that throughout the Ming period (1368-1644) "western tribesman, who had a great demand for Chinese fabrics and particularly tea, had been trading their horses for Chinese products at various government trading posts along that thousand-mile frontier. In addition to the thousands who regularly traded at the frontier posts, the number of tribesmen annually bearing tribute to the court at Peking (now Beijing) was unusually large.It is fairly certain that maize was first brought to Peking as tribute by these western tribesmen sometime before the middle of the sixteenth century" (136). The earliest report of maize in Ming China is in an agricultural history of the year 1555 in the Province of Hunan, and other early reports are in agricultural histories of the years 1563 and 1574 in several western districts of Yunnan. Other records indicate that by the end of the 16th century, maize was being widely grown in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai, particularly in mountainous regions unsuited to the cultivation of rice (137). The Portuguese priest Alvarez Semedo arrived in China in 1613 and reported that maize was grown in six provinces near Beijing and was grown at Beijing for the use of the emperor's court and army (138). Maize and other new crops played an important part in the agricultural settlement of Sichuan in the 17th and 18th centuries, as attested in a local history from 1814 "Our soil is not poor and our people are not lazy. The innumerable immigrants have brought with them every conceivable food plant or product, all of which have been extensively propagated here. Many things that were unknown in the past are now our staple products" (139).

Maize in Early Chinese Text

Chinese medical and botanical texts of the 16th century contain some of the earliest descriptions and illustrations of maize. In the 1572 edition of the Liu-ch'ing jih-tsa, the author I-heng T'ien discussed the origin of maize and also provided a rather accurate description of the plant "The stems and leaves are of the same kind as those of the panicled millet, the blossoms like the ears of the rice plant. Its husks are like a fist, and long. Its awns are like red velvet. Its grains are as big as the fruit of the water-plant ch'ien, and lustrous white. The blossoms open in the crown, and the fruit appears at the joints" (140). In the 1578 first edition of his text the Pen-ts'ao kang-mu, Shih-chen Li noted that maize originated from the western regions, but was still uncommon in the eastern Province of Hubei (141). Drawing of Maize Li also described various methods for cooking maize, including popcorn (142). drawing of maizeA later (probably 1596) edition of the Pen-ts'ao kang-mu contains a figure of a plant labeled with the three symbols of a Chinese name for maize Yu shu shu, and has been cited by many authors as one of the earliest illustrations of maize (143). However, although it bears husks and silks typical of maize, the ear is incorrectly located at the top of the stalk rather than at the leaf joint. It should be noted that early botanical illustrations in China as well as in Europe were rarely drawn from actual plant samples, and thus often were not accurate.

The overland introduction of maize to China during the 16th century is strongly supported, but linguistic evidence and the historical record are not sufficient to determine the relative importance of different overland trade routes from the Middle East and South Asia. Although the trade route from northeastern India to Yunnan is the shortest linear distance across the Himalayan mountain range, travel along this route has historically been difficult due to banditry in the region and to the high amounts of rainfall and the deep parallel gorges of the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers that must be traversed. Mountain crossings are easier from the Middle East and northwestern India through the physically more accessible passes of Kashmir and Afghanistan into far western China, and trade to China along this route has historically been more significant. Unfortunately, accounts of agriculture in Xinjiang date only from the 19th century when European travellers found maize cultivation at Khotan and other remote oases of the Taklamakan desert. In the late-19th century, the first European travellers found maize cultivation throughout the mountains of western Sichuan and Yunnan (144). Of western Yunnan, British agent H. R. Davies wrote "I do not think that I have ever seen such a mass of steep broken hills as this country presents. Maize is the chief thing grown by the few villages that there are" (145). When botanist Ernest Henry Wilson traveled westward on the trade route from Chengdu and Batang in Sichuan to Lhasa in Tibet, he reported that the region was populated by a diversity of tribal communities who cultivated maize as their main crop up to elevations of nearly 9500 feet (146).

Northwest and Northeast Silk Roads

The precise dates and circumstances of early maritime introductions of maize to China are not known. A major source of misinformation has been the Historia de las cosas mas notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China (The history of the great and mighty kingdom of China and the situation thereof) which was published in 1585 by the Spanish priest Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza (147). Over the past hundred years many authors, including Laufer (1907), Burtt-Davy (1914), Ho (1955), Gode (1961), Anderson (1988), and Warman (2003) have cited Mendoza as evidence that by 1577 maize was widely cultivated on the southeastern coast of China and that large amounts of maize were paid as taxes in many provinces (148).

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Mendoza's History of China

Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza wrote his history of China without actually visiting China. According to Asian historian Charles Boxer (149), Mendoza based his history on two eyewitness accounts of travellers to China in the 16th century and on previous histories and other secondary sources. As one primary source, Mendoza used the Tractado em que se cotam muito por esteso as cousas da China published in 1570 by the Portuguese priest Gaspar da Cruz who visited the port of Canton (now Guangzhou) in the Province of Guangdong for a few weeks in 1556. Cruz in turn based much of his account on the unpublished narrative of Galeote Pereira, a Portuguese trader who had been captured on the coast of the Province of Fujian in 1549 and had spent three years in prison in China.

Boxer Discovers Early Manuscript

As a second primary source, Mendoza used the unpublished narrative of the Spanish priest Martin de Rada (also called Herrada) who spent two months in Fujian in 1575 and appears to have had access to a contemporary edition of the Kuang-yu-t'u, the Ming Atlas, for agricultural statistics. In 1947 at a book sale at an English estate, Boxer discovered a 16th century copy of Rada's original manuscript. In 1953 Boxer published South China in the Sixteenth Century, being the narratives of Galeote Pereira, Fr. Gaspar da Cruz, Fr. Martin de Rada, 1550-1575, the first publication of an English translation of the original narratives of Rada and Pereira (149). Boxer's text now allows a comparison of the original narratives with the Mendoza text as it exists in the 1853 Hakluyt Society edition of the original 1588 English translation by R. Parke.

The first mention of maize in the 1853 English edition of Mendoza's history is "On their high grounds, that are not good to be sowne, there is great store of pine trees, which yield fruit very savourie; chestnuts greater, and of better taste, then commonly you shall finde in Spaine; and yet betwixt these trees they do sow maiz, which is the ordinaire foode of the Indians of Mexico and Peru" (150). The original 1570 Portuguese text of Tractados das Cousas da China e de Ormuz states "Os altos, que nam sam tam bons pera pam tem muy fermosos pinhaes, semeando ainda entrelles alguns legumes onde pode ser" (151). Boxer's translation of this text is "The high ground which is not so good for corn hath very fair groves of pine trees, sowing also some pulse where it may be" (151). Thus, Mendoza has substituted a specific reference to maize for a reference to legumes, a general term that could refer to a wide range of peas, beans, soybeans and other leguminous plants.

The second mention of maize in the 1853 edition of Mendoza is a list of yearly taxes to the Ming emperor, in which a number of grains are listed including "wheat called Mayz" in the amount of more than "20,250,000 fanegas" (Spanish bushels)" (152). Boxer notes that the phrase used in the original Spanish edition of Mendoza is "de trigo llamado maiz" which Parke has translated as "wheat called Mayz" (153). Boxer also notes that the original Rada text and the Kuang-yu-t'u edition of 1579 have, for this entry in the list of yearly taxes, no specific reference to maize, but rather a general reference to "another kind of grain". Thus, Mendoza appears again to have substituted a specific reference to maize for a general reference to "another kind of grain".

The third mention of maize in the 1853 English edition of Mendoza is in margin notes added by Parke in reference to the text statement that "in this province, and all the rest of the fifteen in that kingdome, they gather much wheate, and excellent good barley, peese, borona, millo, frysoles, lantesas, chiches, and other kindes of graines and seedes". Parke added the comment that borona was "a sort of grain, resembling maize or Indian corn" (154). Boxer notes that Minsheu's Spanish dictionary of 1599 defined borona only as "a kinde of graine in China" (155). Thus, the term maize is not present in the original Spanish edition of Mendoza's history, but was added by the 16th century English translator.

Although both Laufer and Ho (123). expressed some doubts of the accuracy of Mendoza's statements about maize in China, Boxer has provided convincing evidence that all of the references to maize in Mendoza's history of China are mistranslations of the original documents. Thus, there is no longer any historical reference to a significant introduction of maize to the southern coast of China in the 16th century. Perhaps this should not be surprising since the first Portuguese expedition to Guanzhou was not until 1517, after which official relations broke off for 30 years. Official trade was reestablished only during the 1550s; the first permanent Portuguese trade settlement in China was established at Macau south of Guanzhou in 1557 (156). By the year 1600 the Spanish were established in the Philippine Islands, becoming additional agents for the maritime introduction of maize across the Pacific Ocean from the Americas.

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