A. C. Graham: "The Nung-chia School of the Tillers and the Origins of Peasant Utopianism in China" in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London vol. 42, 1979, p. 68-100.

During the Warring States period in ancient China (403-221 B.C.E.), chaos engendered numerous philosophical schools, dominated by the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Taoists, and, finally, the Tillers. Significant elements of eremitism emerged from this last movement. Graham meticulously identifies the literary sources and traditions about the Nung-chia or "School of the Tillers" and provides important information about the hermits of this era and philosophies of politics, society, and eremitism.

Graham's essay is divided into seven sections, and one does no better than to follow his outline.

  1. Hsu Hsing, the Tillers, and the legend of Shen-nung
  2. Shen-nung in the Legalist Shang-tzu
  3. The realm of Shen-nung as the Tiller's Utopia
  4. The TIllers' version of the legend of Po Yi and Shu Ch'i
  5. The Utopias of the Tillers and the Taoists
  6. Shen-nung and the Yellow Emperor
  7. The social background of the Tillers


The first occurrence of Tillers thought occurs in Mencius, that imminent disciple of Confucius, dated to 315 B.C.E. In conversation with Mencius, a certain Hsu Hsing, representative of Tiller thought, argues that the king (or emperor) should plow his own land side by side with the people instead of maintaining his own granaries and treasuries, a clear proof that he exploits the people. Mencius appeals to the logic of division of labor. No reply is given by the Mencius writer. Hsu Hsing then argues that all goods should be available at the same fixed price. Mencius replies that price must be determined by quality and that goods range in cost accordingly.

The two positions of Hsu Hsing, hardly elaborated in this Confucian source, are the core of Tiller ideas, as the famous Han dynasty bibliography Han Shu corroborates, adding that while the Tillers school made welcome contributions to agriculture, their social thought "upset the ideas of superior and inferior."

The only extant literary source by the Tillers was, even at this time, an agricultural manual. Hence the philosophical thought of the Tillers is deduced in the absence of a text. Graham notes, however, that references to Tiller thought in contemporary writings, and especially references to Shen-nung, provide valuable information.

Shen-nung was a semi-mythical figure reigning in proto-historical times. Whereas successive emperors are seldom identified in late Chinese antiquity in a positive way,

It is Shen-nung who has a clear philosophical identity in the third century B.C., which he retains down into the second. He is a sage who reigns in perfect peace over an empire of farmers whom he teaches without issuing decrees or imposing punishments, and he works in the fields side by side with them. The "Way of Shen-nung" is a coherent political ideal clearly distinguishable from Confucianism and Mohism, Legalism and Taoism ...

Graham then proceeds to demonstrate the distinctiveness of the Tiller school using one of the chief literary sources, the Legalist treatise Shang-tzu.


Not only for its abundant references to Shen-nung is the Shang-tzu useful corroboration, but the fact that Tiller thought is so inimical to the Legalist compilers of the Shang-tzu lends it great authenticity. The Legalists retained the agricultural manual attributed to Shen-nung as practical and relevent, while criticizing the legendary king and his ancient polity.

The train of Legalist argument in the Shang-tzu is to justify authoritarian control of the state. Shen-nung is said to have "not put to death," while his successor the Yellow Emperor did put to death. More elaborately,

In the age of Shen-nung, they were fed by the ploughing of the men and clothed by the weaving of the women. He ruled without the use of punishments or administration. He reigned without resorting to weapons and armour. When Shen-nung died, they took advantage of strength to conquer the weak, of numbers to conquer the few.

Shen-nung's successor, the Yellow Emperor, is depicted (against the Taoists?) as laying down laws, punishments, social roles, introducing weapons, and "putting to work the executioner's axe." To the Legalists, it was not that Shen-nung was wrong but that times changed, people became corrupt, and the need for strong authority arose.

This historical change reflected three ancient eras: 1) "the beginning of kinship," a primitive egalitarian era which ultimately devolved into contention and violence, 2) an era "elevating the worthy," when virtuous rulers established a peaceful and benevolent society, and 3) an era when sages established property, social roles, class and labor divisions, hierarchy of offices, and a strong unifying ruler. Clearly Shen-nung belongs to the middle period and every successor has inherited the conditions of the third era -- especially the Legalists.

But as Graham notes, the Legalists acknowledge that a primitive era of peace and stability once existed. The ensuing decline culminating in the present chaos might seem to justify their repressive measures, but the compilers take the chance that contemporary readers of the Shang-tzu might wonder why the way of Shen-nung could not be restored. The Legalists accepted the Tillers' agricultural manual and thus allowed for the Shen-nung evidence. All agricultural manuals of the time inevitably (and uncomfortably for the Legalists who were to seize the empire) extolled the golden age of Shen-nung. Perhaps the Legalists found a past Golden Age more tolerable than the practical moralizing of the Confucians and Mohists.


Several documents of third and second-century B.C.E. China provide a portrait of the realm of Shen-nung according to the Tillers: the Lu-shih ch'un-chiu, the Huai-nan-tzu, and fragments of the Shih-tzu. These sources are eclectic in reflecting no firm ideology, though the second one is superficially Taoist. The Chuang-tzu is also a Taoist source but takes a different tack: its Non-action or wu wei philosophy is an individualistic view slightly at odds with the communalism of Shen-nung tradition, though clearly in the same anti-authoritarian spectrum as other Taoist texts.

The Huai-nan-tzu clearly iterates the "law" of Shen-nung:

If in the prime of life a man does not plough, someone in the world will go hungry because of it; if in the prime of life a woman does not weave, someone in the world will be cold because of it.

This is why Shen-nung himself plowed alongside the peasants, and his wife wove cloth. The text continues:

In guiding the people, he did not value commodities difficult to obtain, did not treasure things without use. Consequently, any who did not work hard at ploughing had no means to support life; any who did not work hard at weaving had nothing with which to clothe the body. Whether one had ample or less than enough was each person's own responsibility. Food and clothing were abundant, crime and vices did not breed; they lived untroubled in security and happiness, and the world ran on an even level.

The passage goes on to note that there was no need for moralists like Confucius nor military figures ("men of valour") in such a self-governing and self-sufficient society. Presumably land was available to any who would work it. Even the Legalists owned that the people of Shen-nung's era were industrious, unlike moderns who required rewards and punishments. And even those who could not produce were taken in account, with sufficient food and clothing available for all.

The Shih-tzu describes the era more colorfully, depicting the king with

his own grain field, his wife had a mulberry field. The House of Shen-nung reigned ploughing side by side with the people. ... [They] carried loads on their backs, their wives carried loads on their heads, in order to govern the empire.

Graham observes that "the stages of the decline imply that the ideal order of voluntary co-operation" was reduced to a dependence on oaths and covenants. When these were insufficient the Legalists would argue, more stringent controls and incentives were required. The Legalists dismissed the Shen-nung ideals as irrelevant, but in the above passages, the documents suggest that such ideals were very much alive -- a statement that points corroboratively to the Tillers.

Shen-nung is not portrayed as a figure ruling through the power of his Virtue in the style of the Taoists), but as a practical administrator whose word was so clear, logical and compelling that the people pursued it as good and practical advice. The Lao-tzu, for example, suggests that the insights of Shen-nung were the product of observing Nature, that after diligent work in apring, one does not injure or obstruct the natural growth of summer, leading to the good fruits of autumn.

Carefully tend what is beneficial in the land, so that the myriad things complete their growth; do not snatch away what benefits the people, and the farmer will work in accord with the seasons.

One may extrapolate this nature wisdom (Graham does not, however) into social dictums. Does one punish slow-growing vegetables, grains, or fruit trees? Do harsh laws and deprivations of nutrients make them grow faster or better? Clear away obstacles and add or subtract what is necessary. Protect, nurture, and abide. Account for the seasons. So with plants is it with the people -- the key to Shen-nung's realm.

Other details of Shen-nung's realm emerge. The Shih chi (another document) quotes Lao-tzu:

In the utmost perfection of government, neighbouring fiefs see each other in the distance, the sound of cocks and dogs in one is heard in the other, but in each one of them the people find their food tasty enough, their clothes beautiful enough; they are content with their customs, delight in their work , and grow old and die without ever coming or going.

The same passage is found in Chuang-tzu, suggesting a common source, perhaps a Tiller source. More evocative, perhaps, is the Huai-nin-tzu's description of Shen-nung's reign:

The mild rain fell when it was due.
The five grains flourished.
In spring they sprouted, in summer grew up.
In autumn were harvested, in winter stored.
There were monthly inspections, there were seasonal trials,
At the year's end they reported how much had been done.
In due season the grains were tested:
And offered as a sacrifice in the Hill of Light.

This passage suggests that Shen-nung was not a primitivist but a careful planner and administrator. Another passage elucidates Shen-nung's food policy:

If one grain fails, reduce the one grain, and let the issue of grain be tenfold. Maintain a full supply: give the old grain to those without food, lend new seed to those without seed. Hence there will be no tenfold prices and no profiteering people.

The ridicule of Mencius toward Hsu Hsing was for a policy of price control ultimately intended by the Tillers to end fluctuation and profiteering, wherein the merchant prospers and the farmer suffers. Unlike Mencius' marketplace, the Tillers' Utopia has no use for such markets. As Graham puts it, the Tillers' realm would be a "self-sufficient community suspicious of fancy goods from outside."


In the Tillers' version of the story of Po Yi and Shu Chi -- the brothers who died of starvation on a mountain rather than compromise their morals to their princely father's scheme to murder and overthrow his neighbor -- the brothers appeal to Shen-nung's model of good government. They protest the swearing of oaths and the making of covenants. They reject ritual prayers soliciting blessings, believing that prosperity should be the result of labor, not blessings. One document, the Han fei-tzu, says:

There were two brothers who were hermits. ... They upheld a doctrine: "We shall not be subjects of the emperor, we shall not make friends with the feudal lords. We shall eat what we get by ploughing, drink from a well that we dig ourselves. We shall not seek anything from other men. We shall not have the titles of superiors, shall not have a stipend from the ruler; we shall work not as officials but as labourers."

In Taoist thought, Shen-nung fit a hierarchy beginning with primitive chaos to an era of hunting, invented by Fu-shi, to an era in which Yu-chao taught men to nest in trees to escape wrathful animals, to the era of Sui-jen, the discoverer of fire. Each step makes progress over the previous. The sequence culminates in Shen-nung, the cultivator of millet and rice and the first tiller of the soil.


In the Taoist Utopia, all live in spontaneous harmony and "utmost oneness." The sage's influence is so subtle that the people are not conscious of its effect. A Huai-nin-tzu passage states:

Shen-nung taught the people for the first time to sow the five grains, to appraise the soil, judge between dry and humid, fertile and stony, high and low. He tested the flavours of a hundred herbs, the sweetness and bitterness of springs of water, and enabled people to know which to approach and which to shun. ...

The passages of Huai-nin-tzu enumerate successors of Shen-nung and pointedly omit the Yellow Emperor, a sign that the text is derived from a Tiller source. This conclusion is further corroborated by critiques of the Taoist Non-action or wu-wei school, another likely Tiller position. Indeed, Graham astutely notes in contrast:

Unlike the Yellow Emperor, Shen-nung is never adopted as a spokesman of Taoism. This is true even of his single appearance in one of the dialogues in Chuang-tzu. In this episode, he [Shen-nung] studies but makes no progress, and says when his teacher dies: "He that was Heaven to me knew that I am coarse and rude. That is why he abandoned me and died." A Taoist would see the Tillers as hermits like himself, but crude people interested only in farming, quite insensible to the profundities of the Way.

However, within the Chuang-tzu is a Primitivist tradition that conceives of the end of the Warring States era as the renewal of Confucian and Mohist attempts to find a place in the collapsing Legalist system of the Chin. In a lengthy but important passage, Graham notes:

The Primitivist, like his rivals, hates the authoritarianism of the defunct Chin but does not want to be managed by Confucian moralists either. He wants a state which rather than governing will be content to set limits within which the people can go their own way.

The Taoist Utopia of which he writes subsequently is not, as in much Taoist writing, a nostalgic dream. ... Unlike other Taoists, the Primitivist locates his Utopia in a historical scheme. When he traces the stages of decline of government he starts with the Yellow Emperor. He is exploiting the dangerous admission of Shang-tzu, that under Shen-nung there was perfect order but not yet any organized government, which originated under the Yellow Emperor. But as a Taoist he must assume that perfect order was the primeval state of man, not the consequence of material progress culminating in the invention of agriculture. He therefore treats Shen-nung as the last of a line which can be traced back to the beginning of time.

So the Shen-nung Utopia, as Graham indicates, was "not quite as harmless as the authors of Shang-tzu had supposed; it was exploitable by others beside the pacifistic little sect in which it originated." The eclectic sources herein studied preserved the Utopia as a proto-historical reality and ideal, starting history (that is, decline, the emergence of government, law, and oppression) with the celebrated Yellow Emperor, now revealed in a poor light for conventional Taoists.


Except for Hsu Hsing in Mencius, specific representative Tillers go unmentioned in this era. "Otherwise, the Tillers are lost to sight among the various kinds of hermits which flourished during the Warring Kingdoms," concludes Graham.

The Tillers represented peasant interests, a "striking combination of the naive and the practical." The Tillers were not Confucian gentlemen but maintained a rigorous ethic that confronts the moralisms of the Confucians without the latter's compromises with power. Nor were the Tillers high idealists like the Mohists who believed that sentiment would bring social reform, and that capturing and centralizing the state, and producing a mercantile economy, would bring equity and prosperity. The Tillers are as uncompromising in their convictions as Po Yi and Shu Chi, whom Graham calls "archetypes of the hermit who has renounced all worldly prospects rather than act against ... moral principle." This is the distinction Graham draws between Tillers and Taoists.

One must give up the notion that anyone with moral conviction in this period and earlier in ancient China and who retired from a corrupt world was acting as a Confucian. The eccentric behavior recorded of the many hermits suggests otherwise, but our discovery of the long-standing Shen-nung tradition presents a welcome historical resource to demonstrate an alternative view. All of the anecdotes up to this period require reconsideration. The Tillers refocus this examination of moral conviction coupled with a compelling political agenda against government punishments, war, oaths, and hereditary succession.

Unlike the Shen-nung legends, the Tiller agenda does not quite include having the ruler plow his own land. But the radical agenda did exemplify much more clearly than Confucian principles the withdrawal from a corrupt government and society. The Tillers agenda shows "how right the hermit has been in withdrawing from politics," concludes Graham.

Having committed himself to renouncing all prospects of worldly success, it would suit him to raise his standards for an acceptable ruler higher and higher, and scrutinize the classics for evidence that once upon a time they were observed.

"To what extent did hermits become déclassé," asks Graham, "so that the archaizing radicalism of literate men could fuse with peasant Utopianism?" Some recluses did farm, or make shoes. They were not embarrassed by their physical shabbiness, being quick to point out the moral shabbiness of the powerful who mocked them. The historical Chuang-tzu adopted a "Bohemian indifference." The Confucian Analects records two peasants warning a disciple of Confucius not to follow anyone but to apply themselves to learning the five grains and becoming self-sufficient. And so the déclassé could indeed share much with the peasant -- and from this intersection may have emerged the illusive and fascinating eremitical school of thought know as the Tillers.