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    Chapter 276: Great Qi is Stable Now

    The two men followed the little eunuch into the Taiji Palace. They saw a group of officials in the hall and were led through the ranks of civil and military officials. Neither dared to lift their eyes, even when the eunuch stopped. Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng knelt immediately, not daring to glance at the emperor, let alone remember what the eunuch had taught them outside. They simply bowed their heads repeatedly.

    Zhou Cunzheng was slightly better. He managed to say, "A humble citizen pays respect to Your Majesty," something he had learned from listening to storytellers during the peaceful years of the previous dynasty.

    The emperor, however, was unexpectedly amiable and smiled as he invited them to rise.

    "Are both elders from Daxing Village? Do you live on the same estate as the Lady of the Manor? Did you also seek refuge in the mountains in earlier years?"

    "Yes."

    "Yes."

    Their replies were as punctual as chickens pecking at rice.

    "There's no need to be nervous, sirs. I summoned you to inquire about matters related to farming." The emperor began asking detailed questions about composting techniques and crop rotation for wet and dry fields.

    When it came to farming, the emperor's barrage of inquiries was meticulous. As Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng focused on answering, they gradually relaxed. After all, that was precisely why they had been sent here, though teaching the emperor had never crossed their minds.

    The emperor was a skilled inquirer. Although his questions seemed mundane, he skillfully extracted the details of Sangluo's composting and crop rotation methods, the years they were implemented, the crops planted each year, and their yields. Of course, there were no exact figures for annual yields; peasant farmers, whether working in the fields or hiding in the mountains, rarely bothered to weigh their harvests precisely. They relied on containers and experience to estimate the quantity. The only precise measurements came from the previous year when the government purchased their grain, necessitating an accurate assessment of the yield per acre.

    Even without the exact figures from the first three years, just vague descriptions of increased output in terms of baskets, it was undeniable that the land had produced two crops annually without any decline in yield – in fact, it had increased.

    Listening beside the emperor, Shangshu Chen clenched his fists with excitement, his heart pounding. His boldness swelled to the point where he dared interrupt the emperor, seizing an opportunity to ask, "I have one question: do crops differentiate between types of fertilizer? Isn't it all manure? Minister Zeng's report mentioned that different crops return different nutrients to the soil. If crops can be burned to fertilize, aren't they all consuming fertilizer? How can they also return it?"

    Chen Youtian was quite fond of pondering farming techniques, so Sangluo had shared more information with him. Thus, after some thought, he replied, "Indeed, fertilizers are not all the same. On our estate, we use human, sheep, chicken, pig, rabbit, and cow manure. Other types include green manure, wood ash, leaf mold, and even the eggshells and bones from our daily meals – all of which can be processed into fertilizer. According to Aro, these provide different nutrients to crops."

    "I cannot explain the specifics, but the timing and type of fertilizer used, as well as the specific crop, are crucial factors."

    "As for crops returning nutrients to the soil, I don't fully understand the mechanism, but following Aro's methods for the past four years, the soil has indeed remained fertile. With proper fertilization later on, the land can support two crops a year without needing fallow periods, and the yields remain excellent."

    Recalling this, he emphasized once more, "Back in the mountains and later at Daxing Village, with the young men in our family being skilled hunters, we raised many livestock, ensuring an abundant supply of fertilizer. For the water and dryland rotation method, sufficient fertilizer is essential; without it, the harvest would suffer significantly. Furthermore, the processing, amount, and timing of fertilizer application are critical, affecting both crop health and yield. For instance, we used to apply manure directly, but now we compost it first to prevent burning the plants and reduce diseases."

    His discourse on farming left the Confucian scholars, who were more versed in rhetoric than agriculture, utterly perplexed and dizzy. In contrast, the ministers focused on economic and practical matters listened attentively, especially considering Minister Zeng's report, which highlighted the importance of fertilizer and proposed building more public toilets in various counties.

    Two honest farmers, upon entering the hall, were so nervous that their legs trembled. Standing there, they seemed unsure of how to position their hands and feet, but when discussing agricultural matters, they spoke with expertise. The emperor and several officials probed deeply, and they were able to answer every question.

    Those familiar with Zeng Ziqian's character, coupled with Sang Luo's previous accomplishments in agriculture, already believed about six parts of his claims.

    Fertilization and crop rotation methods were relevant to the Ministry of Agriculture, so they couldn't afford to be idle spectators. The Minister of Agriculture stepped forward to ask more detailed questions, which Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng answered one by one. By the end, even the minister had no further inquiries.

    At this point, most officials were convinced to an eight out of ten degree.

    The annual grain yield in the south was set to multiply several times!

    Some influential families, who had stockpiled large quantities of last autumn's harvest anticipating higher profits, silently calculated the figures presented in Zeng Ziqian's report. Their hearts ached as they realized selling their stored grain to the government as soon as possible was now their best option. Any hope for a higher price was unrealistic.

    They could already anticipate the state of grain prices this autumn and the following year. In just one year, the price might return to what it was before the great chaos of the previous dynasty, sixty copper coins per bushel.

    Holding onto their grain any longer would only lead to loss!

    For officials like Xue Yan, Li Yu, and others, who were close confidants of the emperor and genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people, their hearts trembled with excitement.

    The Great Qi was secure!

    The wise adapt to circumstances, the loyal rejoice in serving their ruler, while the greedy and foolish are discontented. This foot soldier belonged to the latter category. After Chen Youtian had answered all inquiries, he posed another question:

    "Since the experiment with mountain cultivation began in the first spring of Wu Ding's reign, and you emerged from the mountains by the end of the third year, why was the method of manuring and alternating water and dry fields not presented alongside the plow in the following spring, or the castration technique for pigs and the method of planting yams in the late fourth year? Had it been offered in the spring of the fourth year, there should have been two harvests by now."

    With such an effective method, why wasn't it presented last year? Would the emperor have to be so desperately worried about food shortages? Yet, precisely at the moment when grain was scarce and insufficient to buy, this method capable of multiplying crop yields several times appeared.

    The timing was too convenient.

    Apparently, this person suspected that Zeng Qianqian had colluded with the emperor to put on a grand act.

    Little did they know that Chen Youtian and Zhou Cun were honest, but not foolish. They immediately sensed the insinuation in the official's words – he was implying that the delay in presenting the mulberry compost and crop rotation methods had cost the court a whole year!

    Nerves tautened instantaneously; both men wore grim expressions. Chen Youtian pressed his lips together, and Zhou Cunzheng was no longer as forthcoming with answers.

    Blame couldn't be placed on either of them; they both knew that Sangluo had simply forgotten. The tool was so ingrained in her life that with a year away from the mountains and a multitude of tasks - from plowing to pig castration, pregnancy, childbearing, and thriving business ventures - it was no surprise that even those like them, who were preoccupied with tilling fields, livestock farming, and sideline production, had also completely overlooked it.

    The people of Dahsing Village had been using this method for so long that neighboring villagers had adopted it as well. The knowledge had long been shared; no one considered it a secret recipe anymore. Thus, nobody bothered to dwell on it.

    Now they were going to be made examples of!

    Chen Youtian instinctively clenched his fists, exchanging a glance with Zhou Cunzheng beside him. Both their minds had never raced so quickly before; all tension disappeared as they scrambled to find a plausible explanation.

    Would it work to say they had already taught her? That didn't seem quite right either.

    Before they could ponder further, Zeng Zixuan stepped forward from the line, standing between them.

    Anticipating this, he would likely claim Sangluo simply forgot about it, right?

    Only a fool would say that.

    He turned sideways to face the Beijing official, appraising him from head to toe. "I suppose this esteemed official is not well-versed in agricultural matters?"

    The Beijing official's lips twitched at the question. In his mind, there might not be two officials in the entire court who had actually farmed. Did Zeng Zixuan consider himself an expert?

    "Lord Zeng jests. Who among us, with such backgrounds, would dare claim to be knowledgeable about farming?"

    "I assume you are indeed unfamiliar, otherwise you wouldn't have spoken thus. However, do not include me in your assumption. While I may not be proficient in agriculture, I do understand that changes in soil fertility take a long time to manifest."

    Agriculture is the foundation of a nation, not a mere tool that can be crafted with a thought and yield results upon first use. Matters involving soil fertility cannot be trifled with; no one would dare to act recklessly without years of observation.

    According to Lady Country's original plan, at least another one or two years of observation were needed. If not for my summoning her husband's younger uncle to assist in purchasing grain and revealing the current difficulties of the court, these composting methods and alternating irrigation techniques might not have been introduced so soon.

    Despite this, Lady Country repeatedly warned that these methods are still in their experimental stages and should be implemented with caution. Experienced local farmers with knowledge of different climates, soils, and crops must first verify and experiment with them before widespread adoption."

    At this point, Zeng Zixuan turned slightly and bowed toward the emperor on his throne. "This prudence is precisely Lady Country's responsibility towards His Majesty and our great Qi kingdom. How has it become a fault in your eyes, sir?"

    With a smile on his face but a sharp edge to his words, Zeng Zixuan openly implied before the emperor and the officials that the man only knew books but not governance, branding him as a fool for criticizing the accomplished Lady Country.

    The scholar was furious, his hands trembling with anger, and he feared that his reputation would be tarnished by Zeng Zixuan. A layer of cold sweat formed in his palms. "Your Excellency Zeng, you are too severe. I had no intention of blaming Lady Country; I was merely acting out of urgency for His Majesty's sake."

    "Oh~ I see." Zeng Zixuan dragged out the word, maintaining his smile. "That's why I believe it's excellent that Lady Country proposed the establishment of specialized agricultural officials to focus on farming research. After all—each has their own area of expertise, don't you agree?"

    Snap after snap, his words were like slaps delivered with a sweet smile.

    The critical scholar was left speechless, his face turning green, unable to refute any of Zeng Zixuan's points.

    A soft chuckle echoed, and several elder officials turned their gazes towards the Director of the National Academy.

    This man was quite amusing too. Despite his grandson stealing the limelight, he remained composed with his eyes lowered, as steady as a mountain. You couldn't tell if he was dozing off or not.

    Tsk, what an interesting pair of grandfather and grandson.

    The elder was a wolf in sheep's clothing, while the younger one... was no pushover either! Look at him, so eloquent and, more importantly, able to grasp the emperor's favor.

    ...

    Zeng Zixuan was earnestly spouting nonsense. Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng were unaware, and Sang Luo didn't explicitly tell them she had forgotten. Listening to Zeng Zixuan's coherent explanation, they nodded repeatedly, fully believing him!

    So that was how it was.

    Of course, if they had forgotten, how could A'luo possibly have?

    Contrary to her earlier anxious expression, she now held her head high with a restrained pride on her face.

    The emperor was delighted to see Zeng Zixuan poking fun at others. The spectacle brought him great pleasure. Once Zeng Zixuan had had his fill, the emperor shifted the conversation to more serious matters.

    Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng hailed from Daxing Village and had won the emperor's favor. Each was rewarded with twenty taels of silver and five bolts of silk. They were asked to wait outside the hall for a while. After the imperial audience, they would return to the Ministry of Agriculture with the Minister of Agriculture, and then proceed to the royal farms to instruct the ministry officials and farm managers on composting and crop rotation methods.

    Chen Youtian and Zhou Cunzheng had no idea what the Ministry of Agriculture was, but upon receiving the emperor's favor, they were so overwhelmed with excitement that they knelt and bowed profusely.

    The emperor laughed and called them to stand up. The same little eunuch came forward to lead the two out of the hall, whispering that the rewards would be delivered by other eunuchs directly to their temporary residence at the Xizhou Reporting Office.

    ...

    Sangluo had once again proven her worth, with an immense contribution.

    This time, unlike the previous one, there was no need for Zeng Zixuan to speak up. Xiao Yan, Li Yu, and other close advisors to the emperor stepped forward to request rewards for Sangluo.

    Certainly, she deserved a reward! Not only had she increased Qi's national strength by thirty percent, but she had also indirectly resolved the issue of food shortage this year.

    The smile never left the emperor's face.

    "Reward! Of course, there will be a reward! And it shall be a substantial one!"

    He didn't intend to discuss this matter with his ministers. After a moment's thought, he declared, "I hereby confer the title of Yunyang County Lady upon Sangluo, with a landed estate of three hundred households, and a county lady's mansion in Chang'an City. Since her expertise lies in agriculture and silk, I shall also grant her a manor in the outskirts of the capital."

    His words made all the officials below look up in unison.

    Not for any other reason, but because Yunyang Countess had been directly granted a title, one derived from the capital's Yunyang County. This implied that Sangluo's three hundred manors would be situated within Yunyang County.

    This was indeed astonishing. Simply put, the kingdom had been too poor in recent years. Their emperor, apart from generously rewarding the founding ministers, had not been particularly generous to imperial relatives or even his own children. The princes and princesses still only held empty titles without any manors.

    Sangluo, on the other hand, had skipped the rank of County Lady and been directly bestowed the title of Countess, along with manors and a mansion. This left the assembly of officials stunned.

    But it made sense. The grain harvest would multiply several times over; this was essentially laying a solid foundation for Great Qi.

    While some found the reward appropriate, others believed that such lavish rewards were premature. One official stepped forward to suggest, "Your Majesty, perhaps we should wait for a year to test the effectiveness of the composting and crop rotation methods before granting the rewards?"

    "No need. I trust Zixuan, and I also trust the agricultural prowess of Yunyang Countess."

    Even before the formal investiture, the emperor referred to her as Yunyang Countess. The official acknowledged with a nod, then fell silent and returned to his place.

    "Minister Qin, have you and the Ministry of Rites reached a decision regarding the imperial examinations and enrollment at the National University?"

    The Minister of Rites was well-prepared, retrieving a memorial from his sleeve and presenting it. "After discussions with my colleagues in the Ministry of Rites, we propose that each prefecture and county hold their own examinations in autumn, followed by provincial exams. The top performers can then present tribute in October and be recommended to participate in the metropolitan examination hosted by our ministry next February. As for the National University... we believe that distinctions should still be made between the noble-born, officials' sons, and commoners. The National School and the Imperial Academy should adhere to the original regulations, while the Four Schools of Literature, Law, Mathematics, and Calligraphy could allocate some spots for outstanding commoners from each prefecture and county."

    This was a topic that had been debated several times in the court. Those who sought immediate achievements to secure their descendants' future naturally had their own ambitions. The emperor understood and glanced through the proposal, specifically the quotas for commoners in the various schools. He nodded in approval. "Very well, inform all prefectures and counties to begin preparations."

    The memorial was placed on the imperial desk, and he silently calculated the expected birth months of the Shen family's two children. Changing the subject, he returned to the topic of rewards: "Let Lady Yunyang arrange the affairs of Xizhou, and have her family join the tribute delegation to enter the capital in October."

    The Minister of Rites and all the officials: So you were leading up to this question about the imperial examinations?

    Zeng Ziqian: Wait, Your Majesty, what about the promised three years??

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