Meditation & Health #20-The Breathtaking Terraced Fields of China
The Breathtaking Terraced Fields of China
BY FENG HE & NAROM CHEA
The breathtaking terraced fields of China have often been lauded as the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. More than just a source of livelihood for the locals, they are a unique and magnificent landscape heritage that demonstrates farming culture and the art of Nature. The undulating contours, swift-flowing water, and ever-changing seasonal colors tell a compelling story of toil and respect for the land. These farmlands have been passed down from generation to generation, a testament to the peaceful coexistence of humanity and Nature.
Longji Rice Terraces: Timeless Beauty
For thousands of years, farmers living in mountainous regions have managed to survive with limited farmland. To be self-sufficient, they grew crops on the steep mountain slopes. Following the contours of the mountains, they carved steps, forming terraces of many small platforms.
In Longsheng County in Guangxi Province, the renowned Longji Rice Terraces built during the Yuan dynasty (1271 — 1368) were completed in the early Qing dynasty (1644 — 1911). The edges of the terraces create sinuous, graceful patterns in the landscape, presenting picturesque map-like paddies. At sunrise, the shimmering terraced fields resemble a dragon coated with layers of shining scales, in flight amongst the clouds.
Full irrigation is carried out during the fourth month of the lunar year, forming puddles of water which glitter under the bright sun. During the planting season, tireless farmers lead their buffalos onto the fields, a harmony of human and animal that never fails to touch those who are privileged to witness it.
During summer, the rice fields are a verdant sea of green sprouts, stretching far and wide into the distant hills. Ancient folksongs fill the air, adding a joyousness that harkens back to the distant past.
The Longji Rice Terraces are most alluring during harvest when they are ablaze with clusters of yellows, oranges, and reds. Amidst the blue sky and turquoise water, the golden crop is a wondrous feast for the eyes.
During winter, the barren fields are utterly silent. When snow falls, the fields are transformed into polished white jade rings circling the mountain range.
Ever since the time of the Yao natives’ settlement, these terraces have been cultivated using primitive tools. The natives have long been living by the terraced fields, giving to the land and receiving from it.
The Wet Terraces:
Abundance of Rainfall
The Chinese began cultivating on terraces as early as the Qin and Han periods, more than 2,000 years ago. The wet terraces are mainly located in the southern region, on mountain ridges with high temperature and rainfall, such as the Longji Terraces in Guangxi, Yuanyang Terraces in Yunnan, Ziquejie Terraces in Hunan, and Zique Terraces in Guizhou.
One amazing terraced field in Zhejiang, known as the Yunhe Rice Terraces, has earned the reputation of being the most beautiful terrace in China. In the early Tang dynasty, the She tribe migrated from northern Fujian to Lishui Chongtou Town in Zhejiang. They transformed the land into the largest group of terraced plantations sited on the undulating mountains of Eastern China, which became known as “The Cloud Terraces.” There are more than 700 levels of terraces spanning about 1,200 meters top to bottom. Seas of fluffy clouds roll thousands of miles over the terraced fields, valleys and streams throughout the year. Yunhe is called “Peaceful Clouds” in Chinese.
The Dry Terraces: Evolving Splendor
The dry terraces are mainly found in the mountainous region in the North, with the Zhuanglang terraced field in Gansu being the most outstanding. Zhuanglang Rice Terraces are located amongst the foothills of Liupan Mountain in Shanxi Province, once a barren land subject to drought alternating with floods during the rainy season.
The cultivation of terraced fields began in Zhuanglang in the 1960s and has since expanded into millions of acres of rice fields. The crop yield has increased and the environment has improved tremendously. Not only has the area evolved into a stunning landscape of cascading terraces which call to mind a great amphitheater, it is also surrounded by lush forests and mountains against, the clear blue sky.
Hani Terraces: Ecological Wisdom
The terraced fields of Yuanyang are located in the southern region of Ailao Mountain, in Yuanyang County, Yunnan Province. It is a masterpiece of the Hani tribe created through generations and over thousands of years. Tiers of terraces fill the mountains, ranging over tens of thousands of acres. The grand scale of the interlinked slopes is astonishing, and when viewed from a distance, the wavelike terraced fields seem to sparkle in the sun.
The Hani terraced fields are not only known to be visually arresting, they also showcase the Hani’s ecological wisdom. Before the terraces were formed, the highlands of Ailao used to flood with red mud, the deep valleys and ravines becoming clogged during heavy downpours in June or July every year. During the Sui and Tang periods, the Hani tribe settled in the area and cultivated the terraces, thereby altering the whole landform. The picturesque aerial view looks like thousands of small ponds pieced together, becoming three-dimensional water bodies stretched on the bare slopes. Not only do they prevent soil erosion and landslides, the fields also serve to humidify the area and balance the climate.
Life of Abundance
The Hani people took into consideration the soil and climatic condition in their choice of location and layout. Yuanyang is V-shaped, with a height of 2,800 meters and temperature variation of 13.4 degrees. It is hot and dry in the river valley but cold and humid in the alpine. Water in the river valley evaporates to form dense fog and descends as heavy rain in the cold alpine. The runoff water is absorbed by the forest floor and drains off as streams and springs in the mountains, flowing into the ravines following the channels built by the Hani that lead into the terraced fields. Water travels down the terraces before flowing into the valley or evaporating. This ingenious irrigation method is unique because the water, assisted by gravity, is constantly on the move.
An ancient Hani song contains these lyrics: “Where there are good trees, there is good water/ Where there is good water, there are good plantations/ Where there are good plantations, there shall be generations of good descendants.” The Hani people consider trees their source of water and treat them as guardians of the village. Ceremonies are regularly held to pay respect to Nature. The Hani people have a deep reverence for Mother Earth, which has helped them to make the best use of the scarce arable land and water in their mountainous home, and to live a life of simple abundance.
Where There Is Soil
The many terraced fields across China reflect the labor of our ancestors. “Where there is soil, there is a terrace” is an old saying which evokes the resilience of the human spirit in pursuit of survival. Each magnificent terraced field is a masterpiece of engineering that has been nourishing the local people for generations. These wonders remind us of what is possible when humanity works in harmony with the rhythm of the natural world.