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A cycle of grain that feeds Asia

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A cycle of grain that feeds Asia

"Farmers weeding at noon,
Sweat down the field soon.
Who knows food on a tray
Thanks to their toiling day."

In China, there are a few famous poems that every child knows by heart. Toiling Farmers, written by Tang Dynasty poet Lǐ shēn, is one of them. Even today, Chinese parents use this poem at the dining table to teach their children that every grain of rice comes at the expense of someone's hard labor.

China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia Myanmar A cycle of grain feeds Asia

In Eastern culture, rice is not just food but life itself. More than 90% of the world's rice is cultivated in Asia. Vietnam and Thailand are amongst the leading exporters of rice in the world. Rice is distinctive as it can grow in wet environments that other crops cannot survive in, and such wet environments are abundant in this sub-tropical part of the world. Legend has it that after China was flooded, all living plants were wiped, and animals were rare, making hunting near impossible. But one day, a dog came up to the people with golden seeds on its fur. As they planted them, the rice grew. Although this myth might not be true, without a doubt, the rice had fed people for far longer than any other grain, and as a result, it became dear not only to the Chinese but to the whole of Asia. For centuries, this tiny grain has shaped the customs, lifestyles, cultures, economies, and landscapes of many countries in the region. As a result, beautiful green terraces, hand-carved into steep hillsides, became Asia's ideal image in our heads.

Rice field, shape of Asia

Unsurprisingly, the rice has social and spiritual meanings throughout the continent. In Vietnam, parents must never punish a child while he or she is eating rice, no matter what the child has done because that would upset the sacred communion between the rice-eater and rice-maker. During Chinese New Year, people eat sticky rice cakes called nian-gao to increase wealth for the following year. The holiday greeting, Nian Gao Sheng, which includes the rice cake's name, implies wishing someone advancement toward higher positions and prosperity. Rice is so significant to Cambodians that even their language highlights its value. To eat translates "to eat rice," while the kitchen is referred to as "the place to cook rice." In Bangkok, an annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony occurs in May in front of the Grand Palace to mark the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season. The Lord of the Harvest scatters seeds, and afterward, the audience rushes to collect the grains to take home and mix with their own seeds for a rich harvest. The rice plant is considered to be animated by spirits throughout Southeast Asia; thus, it only can be harvested stalk by stalk by small finger knives, so the rice goddess doesn't become upset.

Rice farmer in Vietnam

So, when did it all start? Based on archeological findings, the rice plant Oryza Sativa was first collected and cultivated in the Yangtze River valley in China some 12,000 years ago. The area is covered by large tracts of wetland, providing a comfortable setting for early rice exploitation and farming. In this region, rice seems to have been utilized long before its domestication, as rock shelters or cave sites have deposits with evidence of wild rice use. Wild rice was likely growing in the nearby swamps, now soaked in. At some places, mounds of wild rice grains, husks, stalks, and leaves have been found in great numbers. Puddling the soil, turning it to mud to break it down and avoid too much water penetrating away – and transplanting seedlings were probably advanced in China as well around 8000 BC. With the invention of puddling and transplanting, two operations that are still commonly practiced, the rice became truly domesticated. By 3000 BC, rice cultivation spread rapidly into Southeast Asia and westwards across India and Nepal.

Rice lands in China

Currently, rice is providing two-thirds of the calory intake of more than 3 billion people in Asia. In some Asian developing countries, the yearly consumption of white rice can reach 200 kg per person. The Greater Mekong Sub-region, comprising China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, is the world's main rice-producing area and home to 334 million people. Nearly 60 million of its inhabitants participate in rice farming, growing 44% of the world's rice. Such a critical production of the grain largely relies on small family holdings that often manage less than one hectare of paddy fields for each household.

Rice farming comminity, China Vietnam Laos Cambodia Myanmar

In Vietnam and Laos, farmers grow rice by the time-consuming traditional process, unlike more industrialized Asian countries. The rice is usually started in special seedbeds, then transplanted meticulously by hand to the paddy fields once ready. When the seedlings are strong enough, farmers plow the field using water buffalo or ox. The seedlings are pulled out in bundles and piled to be protected from the sun and dry out the wet leaves. Farmers cut the roots and leaves and plant the seedlings in rows. As for watering, the farmers use traditional flood irrigation methods to water their fields and close them off by blocking the canals with mud. The standing water in a paddy-field halts weed growth, while the algae growing on the water provides fertilizer in the form of nitrogen and oxygen for the rice plants. Such procedures with the help of some animal dung keep the ground fertile enough to give a cycle of one, two, or even three crops a year, depending on environmental conditions. During harvest seasons, farmers keep a close eye on their crop as harvesting can be done only at a precise point, or else the grains will fall into the paddy, turning into waste. While harvesting, farmers cut off irrigation to the paddy and cut the stalks by a sickle. Then they dry the plants in the sun for few days and mill them to separate the grain from its husk. After the harvest, farmers let the weeds grow in the paddy field for few weeks before plowing them under to decay and provide yet another fertilizer for the next crop.

Traditional way of farming rice in Vietnam and Laos

Although Vietnam's rice paddies seem to continue for thousands of kilometers across the Mekong and Red River Deltas, just 20 percent of the country's land area is flat. Much of Vietnam spans over various elevations, from low hills along the southern coast to the north's towering peaks. The country adopted the technology to form fertile land on rocky mountain slopes in the 14th century, particularly in its northern parts. Farmers turned mountain slopes into oversized stairsteps, each held up by a retaining wall. The steps are flooded by water transported down the mountainside from springs, rivers, or reservoirs, using a complex network of canals, streams, and pipes. The terraces allowed the mountains to be cultivated with a minimum of soil erosion. However, the narrow paths between them limited the types of machinery that can be utilized in the fields. Everything from tilling to harvesting must be done by hand. People soon realized that one family couldn't finish reaping within a short period during harvest seasons. In time, farmers have created a complex social structure. On a terrace system, they do not grow their rice whenever they want. Growing must be staggered to share the water supply efficiently. Some terraces are dried out, while others are flooded. In communions, one family can receive help from others so that everyone can complete transplanting and harvesting on time. People work together to build and maintain terraces, ensure sufficient water flow, and coordinate the crops' planting and tending. This friendship continues to keep the terrace system balanced even today.

Mountain slope rice farm Vietnam Laos Cambodia Myanmar China

In Mu Cang Chai, a district often called Heaven of Terraced Fields, rice terraces cover more than 2,200 hectares of land. Between mid-September and mid-October, the rice gets all ripe. It is when all mountain slopes of terraced fields change their colors from green to golden, making the landscape astonishingly beautiful. Nevertheless, the Mu Cang Chai's actual charm lies in the humble lifestyle of its ethnic minorities, like the Hmong people, who barely make ends meet by their intense labor. It is said that the Hmong initially lived in the area around the Yellow River in China. The villages survived on shifting cultivation, where the sorts of crops swapped until the soil became infertile. Thus, every few decades, they would relocate their homes and migrate to a new land to start all over again. The Hmong people have an outrageous marriage custom called "wife-snatching," where the man steals his potential fiancée without getting caught by her parents. When he brings home the bride, his parents butcher a chicken and give an offering to their ancestors, forming an unbreakable vow between the couple. Three days later, the newlyweds visit the bride's home and present a dowry of jewelry, food, and money. The girl's parents cannot reject the matrimony. Due to the government's interference, the Hmong marriage has adopted Viet customs, where the girl can choose her betrothed. The couples can either have a typical wedding or execute the snatching ritual with both families' approval.

Rice farmer woman, China Vietnam Cambodia Laos Myamnar

In Sapa, travelers can also see more minority groups and equally impressive, terraced rice fields. The largest population of Red Dao people lives in villages around Sapa. They are renowned for their spectacular terraced fields and love markets, where boys and girls can meet and date. The love season starts in spring after the Lunar New Year. The history of these people is not thoroughly recorded, except that they have played a significant role in aiding the Hmong groups. They both arrived in Vietnam in the 18th century, fleeing from the suppression of Imperial China. Both cultures favor men over women and ask men to prove their competence to lead a family through a maturity test. Those who fail the test are considered childish despite being old, while much younger men who pass are honored as mature men. The test is educational, not physical, challenging men on their knowledge about karma and morals. However, contrary to the Hmong marriage custom, the Red Dao man rescues his spouse rather than snatching her. They live in stilt houses, high above the ground. To marry his bride, the man must take her down without using stairs. He can either build a ladder or ask others for help to form a human tower. Meanwhile, the girl sings and tells love stories to encourage her man.

Red Dao people China Vietnam

Traditionally, a rice field is a unique eco-system, a home to many animals like fish, eels, and prawns, frogs who feast on its insects and aquatic weeds. Ducks and other waterfowls also come by after harvest to eat the leftovers and lay their eggs. There is an ancient practice of raising fish in rice paddies known as a rice-fish system. Fish are either stocked intentionally or enter the field naturally during floods. The fish loosen the soil and devour the weeds and insects, saving human labor. Farming fish from the paddy field without reducing rice production increases household nutrition and income significantly. The rice-fish system is listed as a "Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System" by the Global Environment Facility.

The rice-fish system, China Vietnam Cambodia Laos Myanmar

Sadly, the traditions associated with rice production are heading towards the brink of extinction due to globalization. Asia's growing middle class is choosing wheat-based foods over traditional food staples like rice, benefiting wheat exporters in the United States. Indonesia had already become Australia's biggest wheat market. Fewer Japanese people eat rice, with annual per capita consumption dropping to 54 kg in 2015, half of its 1963 peak of 118 kg. Since small-scale farmers never get rich, the younger generation is opting to work in the cities instead of cultivating rice in the field. The farmers are trying to improve their competitiveness by achieving large-scale production using agricultural technology. In the long run, this modernization may harm the rice fields' delicate natural balance and customs. If rice consumption continues to fall, the number of farmers will decline. Only time will tell what will become of this centuries-old tradition that shaped Asia since the beginning of agriculture.

Rice farming comminity of Vietnam and Laos

Interestingly, following the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Beijing started encouraging people to leave the urban centers and return to their villages to cultivate. It signifies two plans of the Chinese government – on the one hand, to increase food security by boosting rice production and, on the hand, to dismantle the overly populated metropolitan areas to reduce the spread of future pandemics. If our assumptions are accurate, China may bring back rice production to its former glory and restore the status of farmers delivering it.

Travel through terraces and minority villages in Northern Vietnam during rice harvest time.


Take private tour along northern Vietnam’s backroads, to the land of colorful ethnic minorities and mesmerizing rice terraces. The trip has been perfectly scheduled to the time of the year when the rice fields are ripe, slowly turning from lush green to goldish yellow. Join the locals, beautifully dressed in their traditional clothes, as entire villages take out to the fields to pick the grain that feeds the Asian continent and make Vietnam the world’s second-largest rice exporter.

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