Millet is the start of Chinese culture

In my youth, when reading Mencius, we come upon this phrase: “Weeds(莠) untended may ruin the seedlings(惡莠,恐亂其苗也).” And our teacher told us that this weed looks alike to rice, so it’s hard to tell them apart. At the time I’d wonder, how could any type of weed look like rice?

Many years later, I learned that the “weeds” Mencius were referring to are actually giant foxtail (Stearia faberi), the seedlings being foxtail millet (Stearia italica L.) instead of rice! It was no wonder he said they looked alike, since they’re from the same Genus.

Millet originated from northern China, Stearia italica L. (foxtail millet) being one of its kind, the other being broomcorn (common panicle millet, Panicum miliaceum L.). The oldest records of growing millet go back to 10,000 years ago; due to its short growth period, low requirements of soil nutrients, excellent drought tolerance, and competitiveness against weeds, during the Xia and Shang dynasty, with the lack of agricultural knowledge (eg. use of fertilizer) millet became their main crop; which means that the Han people built their empire atop millet. The “禾” (hé, meaning cereal) in oracle bone script (甲骨文) is a drawing of millet and the “苗” (miáo, meaning seedling) is a drawing of millet seedlings growing in the field. And so, in the chunlian frequently saying “May the five crops flourish, six livestock thrive (五穀豐登,六畜興旺)”, two of the five crops, Stearia italica L. and Panicum miliaceum L. (黍 and 稷) are both millet.

Besides chunlians, we can also find various sections that relate to millet in Shijing (詩經) . For example, “Large rats! Large rats! Do not eat our millet.” in Shuo Shu (碩鼠), and “Millet seedlings grow in rows. These are millet seedlings.” In Miilet (黍離). Especially the former, the people are so afraid that rats will gobble up their harvest, causing them to starve. And in Sunzi Suanjing (孫子算經) it is also mentioned that the unit of measurement in ancient China is based on the amount of millet, whereas a tam (石) equals 4,608,000 grains of millet and one hu (斛) being 60,000,000 grains. The name of Ministry of Finance in Qin Dynasty means “Officer of Millet Cultivation” (治粟內史) literally and it was changed to “Officer of Agriculture” in Han Dynasty. When Cháo Cuò (晁錯, 200–154 BC), a politician during Han Dynasty, wanted to brought the Emperor’s attention to agriculture, he submitted an article to the Emperor Wen of Han talking about how to encourage people growing millet (論貴粟疏) at 178 BC.

People in Western Jin Dynasty used millet wrapped with wild rice leaves to make zòng zi (粽子). Foxtail millet is a remedy in Chinese medicine to treat malabsorption, vomiting, overeating, even insomnia. It can either use alone or with lotus seeds, yam and fu-ling (茯苓).

Because millets are self-pollinating, different cultivars are emerged over time. Broomcorn millet has glutinous cultivars, which are mostly used for making spirit. Several glutinous cultivars of broomcorn millet were recorded in Shijing. foxtail millet also has many cultivars. It was suggested that crop rotation was required for growing foxtail millet in Qimin Yaoshu (齊民要術), a most completely preserved ancient Chinese agricultural book. It is suggested that millet rotate with mung bean will get the best result.

Though millet was slowly replaced by wheat in the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476 BC)and its output surpassed by rice in mid Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AC), millet is still growing mainly in the north as a staple food, hence the saying “Rice is for the south and millet is for the north”. In addition, millet was always an important crop in times of shortage, even into the Ming and Qing dynasty. Though we only think of millet porridge and bird feed when it comes to millet nowadays, prior to the Han dynasty millet was used to make pastas for the commons, wheat was only for nobles. It was believed that 90% of foxtail millet is produced in China, but India produced most of the millet (pearl millet, Pennisetum glaucum) in 2014.

Pearl millet is the highest yield species among all species of millet. It is originated in west Saharan area, slowly spreading to southern Africa than south Asia. India has been growing pearl millet since 2,000 years ago. After the Age of Discovery, pearl millet was spreading to United States in 1850s, then Brazil in 1960s. It was spreaded to China during Wei and Jin Dynasty. Due to its high yield and drought tolerance, it is attracting more attention nowadays as one of the solutions to combat climate change. Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is also originated in this area.

Something that must be mentioned when discussing millet is the indigenous people’s millet culture from Taiwan. Taiwan’s indigenous people all grow foxtail millet, and they all have their respective legends regarding the crop; according to legends, millet can come from the heavens, underground, or some faraway place; often times the millet must be stolen and hid; what’s even more amazing is that they only use a small part, as small as a fourth of a grain to cook a pot, which is truly astounding! Spirits of millet plays an important part in their culture, it is made specially for festivals and religious rituals.

Many Taiwanese indigenous tribes hold religious festivals for millet. The Tapakadrawane of Rukai(魯凱族多納黑米祭) is probably the most special one, for they are the only tribe have the black millet. During the festival, young men make corset of black millet, giving it to the girl he admires as a token of love. Girls would hang those corsets under eaves to show their appreciation. Bunun tribe(布農族) is probably the tribe having the most festive activities around millet, from breaking the fields, sowing seeds, weeding, harvesting and storage. The God of millet of Cou tribe (鄒族) is one of the few Goddess in their culture. It is believed that Goddess of millet do not like noises, therefore people must be quiet and act peacefully before the harvest festival (Homeyaya) or she will be upset, which would damage next year’s harvest.

Since Taiwan’s indigenous people and China’s Han people both grow millet, is Taiwan’s millet originated from China? According to recent research from the professor Chang SongBing (張松彬), Life Department of National Cheng Kung University, about Taiwan’s millet strain, Taiwan’s millet is a special produce native to Taiwan. Taiwan’s millet is probably domesticated from S. viridis (green foxtail). In fact, Taiwan’s indigenous people are the only one among the tribes of Austronesian peoples with this millet culture. Half of the food production was millet before Japanese occupation. Unfortunately, during the time Taiwan was under Japan’s rule, the latter started importing rice and sweet potatoes, giving millet the cold shoulder; if it wasn’t for Guo Hua-Jen (郭華仁), professor of National Taiwan University, who found out that an US researcher Wayne Fogg had taken 96 strains of millet from various Taiwanese tribes back to the US, then proceeded to bring them back in 2011, these strains may have been lost forever.

Image for post
Image for post
foxtail millet
Image for post
Image for post
common panicle millet

Written by

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store