A view of the stunning and longstanding Ziquejie Terraces in Xinhua County, Hunan Province, on October 14 （XINHUA）
China feeds a fifth of the world's population from only less than one tenth of the arable land across the globe.
The need to feed its population has always been a concern of China's rulers. As early as the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, the imperial government was encouraging people to expand food production beyond the fertile lowlands into the mountains.
For areas growing rice, a semi-aquatic plant needing rooting in clear water, the technical challenges were formidable. However, by the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), there is documentary evidence of well-watered rice fields that were carved in a step-like fashion into mountain slopes as steep as 40 degrees. The spectacular rice terraces of Ziquejie in Hunan Province from this era are known to date .
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that rice cultivation techniques had been developed centuries earlier.
Even more remarkable than the early terracing of forested hillsides into productive paddies is the fact that the terraces remain productive today. They are a unique example of sustainable development, with the same soils nourishing crops for over a millennium.
The terraces are a marriage of farming expertise and hydrological engineering that is surprisingly sophisticated—even by today's standards.
Equally, they serve as a "perfect example of the harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature, promoted by traditional Chinese philosophy," an assessment offered by Professor Li Yunpeng and his team at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.
What is most remarkable is that good harvests can be guaranteed regardless of the large variations in rainfall from year to year. Excess water is drained away, while fields are automatically irrigated in times of water shortage, all without exogenous water storage.
The scale of the Ziquejie Terraces—about 4,000 hectares of planted rice spread over numerous hills ranging in height from 450 to 950 meters above sea level—speaks to a collective effort.
Not only does rice farming require twice as much labor as wheat farming, but it also requires daily teamwork that must be maintained season after season.
Water needs to be shared, repeatedly used with minimal loss and zero pollution. Elaborate irrigation channels must be dug and maintained to distribute water resources. Water levels must be retained even when the land is fallow to ensure that earth dams and field partitions do not dry out and crumble. Rice planting, weeding and harvesting all require multiple hands to ensure the optimal timing demanded to maximize yields and to maintain the quality of the crop.
While the Ziquejie Terraces still yield high-quality rice and are recognized as a World Heritage Irrigation Structure, they are under serious threat.
The success of China's economic development has lifted the minimum living standard to the point where it exceeds the income that can be generated from traditional rice farming, even allowing for the customary mixing of rice with fish and duck farming on the same paddy.
Since the average width of the rice terraces is only 1.75 meters and the narrowest point is only one fifth of a meter wide, the scope for increased mechanization is limited.
Currently, rice production on the Ziquejie Terraces is subsidized by the local government, and residents of the area hope that the spectacular natural scenery will attract tourists.
Rice remains the staple food for 65 percent of China's population.
Moreover, strong evidence is emerging that rice cultivation has not only fed the population but has also forged Chinese philosophy and culture and even facilitated the development of present China's distinctive form of democracy: whole-process people's democracy. This involves all strands of democratic processes and all levels of society—from top to bottom. Elections, consultation, and decision-making and governance by collective wisdom are all part of this type of democracy.
In 2014, Scientific American magazine posed the question, "Does rice farming lead to collectivist thinking?" The answer, based on pioneering work by Chinese and American researchers, suggested that it did.
Those living in rice-growing areas in south China were more interdependent and holistic in their thinking than respondents in the wheat-growing north. The latter expressed attitudes that were individualistic and pursued thought processes that were analytic and focused, rather than embracing.
These differences in attitudes were persistent. It made no difference whether people had grown up in the countryside or spent their lives in a large city.
Other work suggests that people from collectivist rice areas are likely to be less risk-adverse than those from individualistic regions. This is because the former can presume that others will assist if things go wrong.
Subsequent studies have shown that such differences are repeated globally. Populations in countries where more land is devoted to paddy cultivation have more rigid social norms than elsewhere, and citizens are pressured to meet social expectations.
The combination of tight norms and collectivism is not conducive to the development of Western-style democracy, but is strongly supportive of China's whole-process people's democracy. This is because the latter is based on the cooperation of nine national political parties committed to agreed long-term goals to be achieved by following successive five-year development plans.
While there is some suggestion that people in rice-growing regions may be individually less innovative and even, due to constant self-evaluation within a tightly bonded group, less happy, rice-based norms point to a positive response to global challenges.
Sharing a planet, the world's people must consistently work together to counter the systemic threats posed by climate change, depleted resources and global inequality.
Rice farmers, like those tending the Ziquejie Terraces, have demonstrated for centuries that it is possible to maintain a delicate balance between the needs of people and the environment.
It is no surprise, then, that rice-growing provinces in China are currently leading the transition to green investments that address pollution and other environmental challenges.
Likewise, the evidence points to persons in rice-growing areas excelling in adaptive creativity, responding to change but also persisting with incremental innovation.
In this regard, China's unwavering support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the UN in 2015 as a universal call to action to promote prosperity while protecting the environment, and the UN climate change conferences can be recognized as grounded in Chinese rice-based culture.
China's goal of achieving common prosperity by 2050 may be similarly understood. Successful rice cultivation is a collective enterprise rewarding the entire community, not just those coming first in market competition.
Hence, rice farmers on the Ziquejie Terraces are supported financially while a communal response is found to the challenge of rural revitalization, China's long-term, comprehensive strategy to close the development gap between its urban and rural areas.
Likewise, China's call to build a community with a shared future for humanity reflects a generosity of spirit born out of the collective experience of turning hostile mountains into productive paddies.
All can prosper but only by working together to ensure that nature's riches benefit everyone.
This is an edited excerpt from an article first published on the China Focus website. The author is a professor at the School of Sociology, Beijing Normal University, and an emeritus fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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