In 1999, while most people were anticipating what the new millennium might bring, American academic Jared Diamond cast his gaze back 10,000 years to question whether the agricultural revolution that had germinated settled society had really been such a great leap forward.
Writing in Discover Magazine, Diamond contended, “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.” Significantly, epidemics that “couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp” spread only after humans began to grow crops and raise chickens. “Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming; measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.”
Yet for the Chinese, the idea that agriculture was the wellspring of civilisation is seldom, if ever questioned.
From the revolutionaries that settled the Yellow River valley thousands of years ago, Chinese history is often framed with Long March gallantry, leading step by step from paddy field to palatial shopping centre. Chinese civilisation, the story goes, outlasted all its rivals and triumphed over the vagaries of nature, stoically enduring episodes of turmoil to arrive at the current age of abundance. It is a tale of great and ongoing struggle, soaked in blood, sweat and jingoism.