Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ancient Agriculture Images (& free ice cream at the end!)

The weekend crowd at Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum last Saturday was probably bigger than usual, thanks to free admission, a variety of dance and musical events, and give-aways for those who visited a featured exhibition inside.

So my friend and I hurried to join the queue, intending to quickly cruise the gallery and claim our free ice cream at the end. Instead we got stopped in amazement by 300-year-old images of agriculture in China.

The exhibition is "The Kangxi Emperor: Treasures from the Forbidden City." I had never heard of him, but Kangxi ruled China from 1662-1722, a 61-year reign that is still one of the longest in history. The exhibit opens with massive brightly colored portraits of Kangxi's ancestors and the Emperor himself. Rich ceremonial garments, ornate household items, and even the emperor's own calligraphy tools are displayed.

But what really fascinated and inspired me was a scrolled painting, over 60 feet long, depicting the Emperor on the second of six inspection tours he made to the southern part of China during his rule. According to the exhibit's Gallery Guide, the Emperor Kangxi was concerned about the living conditions of his people and particularly with agricultural production. He undertook these long journeys in order to inspect new actions that were being take to manage China's vast river system.

So the scrolls are like his photo album from the trip. They depict his entrance in to key towns along the way, but also the life of the villages and surrounding countryside. In great detail, you can see people at work in all kinds of places. The village scenes buzz with thousands of tiny figures, each with hair and expressive faces, going about daily life in dumpling shops, temples, tea houses, canals, and markets. Outside of the village areas you see fruit orchards of all kinds, livestock being tended (including a runaway cow!), and various crops being seeded, tended and harvested.

No wonder it took a team of artists six years to complete all 12 scrolls commemorating this journey! This picture from another one of those scrolls shows its color and vivid detail.
The scroll got me thinking about all that we can learn about how communities really work -- and where agriculture and food production fits in -- that if we just take the time to look closely.

Today, the life captured in Kangxi's scrolls can be found in pictures like this gorgeous image from the Philippines, among others on IRRI's terrific Flickr collection.

Maybe its because I grew up in an urban area, but I find these landscapes absolutely fascinating. True, they're separated by 300 years and a thousand miles or so, but the details in images like these teach me about places and the geography, climate, and cultivation practices. They also give me feelings about the place, including the atmosphere, energy, humor, industry. I'm filled with curiosity. I want know who these people are, if it rained, what they had for breakfast, and what they will do tomorrow.

Unfortunately too many images of modern agriculture are "red barn" pictures like this : no features, no people, nothing seems to be happening. No wonder it's hard to gain support for new agricultural technologies and policies -- it all seems so peaceful just the way it is!

Our own travel photo albums most likely do not capture the richness and detail of Kangxi's scrolls, and we probably don't spend much time looking at agriculture in the places we visit.

Farming can be brutally hard work, but it is often done in beautiful places by people of dignity and strength. The next time you are in a rural area, or see an image of 'agriculture', take time to really look. Discover what you can learn from the details.

Then go have some ice cream -- we took so long looking at Kangxi's 300 year old photo album that they ran out by the time we left!


  1. That scroll (and exhibition) was mind-blowing. Definitely recommend it to anyone in Singapore.

    Nice blog - subscribed!


  2. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think it's a beautiful idea, to see more. English farms where places I walked through on weekend rambles. There would always be a messy yard, quiet except for the dogs. Rusting cars or machinery here and there. And then fields of cows, sheep, corn, wheat, rape. Not many people - they did their work earlier in the day. In contrast, Vietnam was full of people and the processes were literally done in public. Crops were left drying in the roads, rice and red chillies. Wow, you made my mind full of pictures. Thank you.

  4. Great post, super blog. This is absolutely what I'm interested in. Your comment about un-peopled landscapes rings a bell. We cannot continue to define nature as 'out there somewhere' and ourselves as somewhere detached from that. Similarly, we can't consider the infrastructure required to run a (village, town, city, megalopolis) without considering food as part of that infrastructure. I don't care how awesome the public buses are, if nobody had breakfast then that's not a happy bus. ~Molly, from