To the Agriculturalists, the governance and focus on agriculture by the legendary ruler Shennong
served as a model of the ideal government
Agriculturalism dates back to the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period, during a period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought" which flourished from 770 to 221 BC. Throughout this period, competing states, seeking to war with one another and unite China as a single country, patronized philosophers, scholars, and teachers.
The competition by scholars for the attention of rulers led to the development of different schools of thought, and the emphasis on recording teachings into books encouraged their spread. The result was an era characterized by significant intellectual and cultural developments. The major philosophies of China, Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, and Taoism, all originated from this period.
Chinese tradition attributes the origin of Agriculturalism to the Chinese minister Hou Ji, a figure known for his innovations in agriculture. The Agriculturalists also emphasized the role of Shennong, the divine farmer, a semi-mythical ruler of early China credited by the Chinese as the inventor of agriculture. Shennong was seen as a proto-Agriculturalist, whose governance and focus on agriculture served as a model of the ideal Agriculturalist government.
Xu Xing, a philosopher who defended Agriculturalism, settled with a group of followers in the state of Teng in about 315 BC. A disciple of his visited the Confucian philosopher Mencius, and a short report of their conversation discussing Xu Xing's philosophy survives.
The rise of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC saw the "burning of books and burying of scholars," that is, the purge of the Hundred Schools of Thought. This included Agriculturalism. The Legalist Qin dynasty was intolerant of other schools of thought, seeking to burn any text that did not adhere to the Legalist philosophy. Because of this, few Agriculturalist texts exist, and most of what is known of Agriculturalism comes from critical assessments by other philosophical schools.
The bibliography of the Book of Han (2nd century AD) presents Agriculturalism as one of 10 philosophical schools and lists 9 books belonging to that school.