When people think of China they often associate it with the eating of rice, so here we describe the growing and cooking of rice in China.
Rice only grows well in the south of the country, in the north it is wheat that is the staple cereal crop and noodles are more widespread than rice. One reason for the strong association of China with rice is that many Chinese who settled abroad and ran restaurants came from the south, and so their menus include rice, particularly Cantonese (Guangzhou). For centuries the rice growing areas of Southern China provided the food necessary to support the people of the north. The Grand Canal provided the main south to north transport for this vital commodity. Here is a map showing in green the main areas where rice is grown in China. The areas where rice is the predominant crop are shown in dark green; it also shows where two or more crops of rice a year can be grown in the southern area.
The tradition of rice growing goes back to earliest times (probably 10,000 years), Emperor Shennong was said to have ritually initiated rice planting every year. Chinese civilization had at this time spread to the lower Yangzi where the climate allowed rice plants to be grown. In the Zhou dynasty only the rich and affluent could afford to eat rice; but by the time of the Han dynasty it had become a staple food for everybody. Rice is easy to store and cook, and if combined with soybeans provides basic but reasonable nutrition. Many books about the cultivation of rice have been written over the centuries, including Daopin (‘Strains of Rice’) by Huang Xingsi from the Ming dynasty. The success or failure of the rice harvest was key to the health of the nation; too much or too little rain would lead to poor rice harvests and so to extensive famine. Rice cakes are traditionally eaten at the New Year festival both at the start and at the end ( Lantern festival) when then are known as Yuanxiao or Tangyuan ➚. Rice in the form of zongzi ➚ made of glutinous rice is eaten at the Dragon Boat festival and also at the Chongyang festival.
Over the centuries advanced schemes for irrigation have been invented to maintain the level of water in the paddy fields for rice cultivation. Irrigation is used in about 90% of the land used to grow rice. The usual depth of water in paddy fields is 6 inches [15 cms]. Foot powered pumps were in general use by the time of the Song dynasty. Paddy fields are often constructed by terracing of the landscape to increase the area suitable for growing rice. In mountainous regions paddy fields are constructed as narrow strips following the contour lines of steep hills. It is the requirement for a naturally high rainfall or the adequate irrigation that puts the limit on where rice can be grown.
Rice is not exclusively grown in China, it can be grown anywhere which is frost-free and receives enough water. China grows about 28% of the world's total rice production on a land area sized an impressive 298,997,512 acres [121,000,000 hectares]. A typical yield is 6.7 tons per hectare when fertilizers are used. Generally the seedlings are planted out in April and harvested in September. In southern areas, where there is sufficient warm weather to raise two harvests in a single year, it is grown from March to June and again from June to November.
Scientifically speaking the rice plant of the most widely grown variety of rice is Oryza sativa ➚ ssp. Japonica. Over the centuries many different varieties (strains) of rice have been selectively bred. So now there are over 50,000 of them, one for every possible location and climate. Some are selected for taste, some for fast growth and some even for growing specifically on burnt ground. Pearl rice has small chewy grains and is favored in the north, while sticky glutinous rice is favored in the south.
In some areas water buffalo are used to pull the plow to prepare the ground in Spring. The buffalo's manure helps to keep the soil fertile. The rice is grown from seed in specially protected shallow water. After about 40 days the seedlings are planted out in the paddy field. In some regions fish are introduced into the paddy fields (carp and goldfish) as the fish keep insect pests at bay and can be harvested at the same time as the rice, giving a useful bonus to the farmer. Harvesting involves draining the field, waiting for the rice to dry and then cutting it and gathering into sheaths. The grain is then separated from the stalks and laid out to dry. When it is dry the husks are separated from the chaff in a process called winnowing. All these processes used to be done by hand, the cultivation is very labor-intensive, but in the lowland, flatter areas these processes have been mechanized. In the remote south-western upland areas this is not possible and the cultivation is still done by manual labor.
Glutinous rice ➚ grown in the south east is 'sticky', forming a lump on cooking and is often made into packages wrapped in bamboo leaves. Rice forms the bulk for a Chinese meal, it adds a neutral component allowing the sweet and savory qualities of the other dishes to the appreciated. The starch from rice cooking has been used in the very foundations of buildings as it was used as a constituent of the mortar. The leaves of the plant can be made into a fine edible paper: rice paper ➚. The rice grains can be pounded into rice flour ➚ and then made into such things as rice noodles. Wines and spirits can be made by fermenting it; the rice wine from Shaoxing ➚, Zhejiang is the most famous example.
Over recent years imported rice has become cheaper than Chinese rice, and so the cultivation on poor land has become uncompetitive. This trend is accelerated by the pressure for acquiring land for industry and housing which reduces the area for cultivating rice in the southern coastal fringe. The more efficient rice producers in neighboring Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia can out compete Chinese farmers and so it is likely that China will be the leading rice importer in the world for many years to come.
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