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25th October, 2017

The Beekeeper in Pre-modern China

Presenter: Professor David Pattinson, Director of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds 

Professor Pattinson introduced the history of the beekeeper in imperial China, focusing on the interactions between humans and bees as presented in Chinese literature. Professor Pattinson first explained the fact that information about beekeeper are rare in early Chinese literature from 3 AD onward. According to Professor Pattinson’s studies, the earliest reference to beekeeping in China appeared in Gaoshizhuan 高士傳, but details of beekeeping methods and products were not provided. More information about beekeeping methods, such as the use of bait hives, were mentioned in other texts written in the following centuries (e.g. Bowuzhi 博物志 and Taipingyulan 太平御覽).

From the Tang Dynasty onward, with the spread of printing, more information about beekeeping was written and preserved. Simultaneously, the techniques of beekeeping had significantly improved as well. Professor Pattinson introduced literature that detailed the methods used by beekeepers to try to increase production, control swarming, maintain colonies over the winter, and harvest honey (e.g. Song Yingxing’s Tiangongkaiwu 天工開物 and Pu Songling’s Nongsangjing農桑經). These texts were not only useful pragmatically, but of great literary values.

During the discussion, questions centered on the ways in which beekeepers were presented in Chinese literature. One person asked whether the beehive was presented in Chinese literature as analogous to the Confucian society, in which everyone performed its own duties. One person questioned whether beekeeping was ever popular among the Chinese literati, and whether bees were ever portrayed negatively because of their sting.