Boat with human excrement as fertilizer

Boat carrying human excrement from Canton to Honam Island to fertilize the winter crops.

Source: King, F. H. (Franklin Hiram), and J. Percy (Joseph Percy) Bruce. Farmers of Forty Centuries. Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Emmaus, PA: Organic Gardening Press, 1900., p.74.

Project (2021)

How Does Knowledge Spread? Evidence from Fertilizer in Late Imperial China

Technological progress is almost unanimously seen as central to agricultural and more generally economic development. However, the processes intervening between the arrival of a new technology and its gaining of widespread acceptance remain ill understood. Neither do we know much about the role of local-level actors in the spread of technological knowledge, although it is these people who decide whether and how innovations will be implemented and eventually enjoy widespread acceptance.

This project investigates how technological knowledge spread both spatially and temporally in late Imperial China between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on agricultural fertilization techniques. Fertilizer is a particularly interesting example because it was needed wherever farmers tilled their fields, but also had to be relentlessly adapted to fit different local conditions. There was, thus, a fundamental tension between an almost universal demand for fertilization techniques and the question of translating any such generalized knowledge into locally feasible solutions.

The project will examine this tension through three questions: (1) How did preliminary forms of knowledge about soil fertility and fertilization techniques emerge? (2) How was this knowledge geographically distributed and how did it vary regionally? (3) How did pieces of orthodox scholarship such as agricultural manuals affect local practice and vice versa? These questions will be investigated through an iterative text mining analysis of local gazetteers, and in a second stage be triangulated with information from agricultural handbooks. Fertilizer is interesting in its own right, but the results will also cast light on the channels through which knowledge spread in pre-industrial societies.