The polyvalence of the term “culture” reflects the wealth of meanings of the Latin verb colere: among them, to cultivate a field, to care for or adorn one’s body, to protect, to inhabit, to practice a virtue or study, to honor, to serve with a cult a certain god or a sanctuary. Hence there is the close relationship in Latin languages of words relating to agriculture, culture (customs and knowledge) and cult (religious or civic). They convey notions of attentive and prudent care given to the land, to the powers that govern it, to the people who inhabit it, and even to the moral and physical ground that I inhabit and that I must cultivate.
Of course, resonances differ from one language family to another. In Chinese, the term used for “(literary) culture,” wen, refers primarily to the observation and knowledge of signs, first celestial, then written. The character jiao designates a teaching, a doctrine, later a religion, and also applies to the idea of “civilizing” (jiaohua). Cultivating and plowing are actions particularly expressed by the character geng. Among others, Mencius (ca. 380-289 BC), one of the leading Confucian thinkers, insists on the close association between “the development [literally: the deepening] of plowing ” (shen geng), on the one hand, and “the culture of filial piety” (xiu xiao), on the other.
In all the classical texts of Chinese antiquity, agrarian practices, ritual prescriptions and the observance of virtue constitute a triptych, one term of which cannot be neglected without damaging the other two.