Shen Kuo was born in Qiantang (modern-day Hangzhou) in the year 1031. His father Shen Zhou (沈周; 978–1052) was a somewhat lower-class gentry figure serving in official posts on the provincial level; his mother was from a family of equal status in Suzhou, with her maiden name being Xu (許). Shen Kuo received his initial childhood education from his mother, which was a common practice in China during this period.a[›] She was very educated herself, teaching Kuo and his brother Pi (披) the military doctrines of her own elder brother Xu Tang (許洞; 975–1016). Since Shen was unable to boast of a prominent familial clan history like many of his elite peers born in the north, he was forced to rely on his wit and stern determination to achieve in his studies to enter the challenging and sophisticated life of an exam-drafted state bureaucrat.
The Bencao on traditional Chinese medicine; printed with woodblock in 1249; Shen grew ill often as a child, and so developed an interest in medicinal cures.
From about 1040, Shen's family moved around Sichuan province and finally to the international seaport at Xiamen, where Shen's father accepted minor provincial posts in each new location. Shen Zhou also served several years in the prestigious capital judiciary, the equivalent of a federal supreme court. Shen Kuo took notice of the various towns and rural features of China as his family traveled, while he became interested during his youth in the diverse topography of the land. He also observed the intriguing aspects of his father's engagement in administrative governance and the managerial problems involved; these experiences had a deep impact on him as he later became a government official. Since he often became ill as a child, Shen Kuo also developed a natural curiosity about medicine and pharmaceutics.
Shen Zhou died in the late winter of 1051 (or early 1052), when his son Shen Kuo was 21 years old. Shen Kuo grieved for his father, and following Confucian ethics, remained inactive in a state of mourning for three years until 1054 (or early 1055). As of 1054, Shen began serving in minor local governmental posts. However, his natural abilities to plan, organize, and design were proven early in life; one example is his design and supervision of the hydraulic drainage of an embankment system, which converted some one hundred thousand acres (400 km²) of swampland into prime farmland. Shen Kuo noted that the success of the silt fertilization method relied upon the effective operation of sluice gates of irrigation canals.
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