All about rice in China

When people think of China they often associate it with rice, so this page sets out to describe the growing and eating rice in China.

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Guilin rice terrace in summer, Guangxi. Photo by Mgmoscatello available under a Creative Commons license.
Character for rice ? The character for rice in Chinese is . It is derived from a picture of rice grains being separated from the leaves. Cooked rice is 'rice food' mǐ fàn. The importance of rice in China can be seen from the character for 'essence; spirit' originally () had the rice character included. It is derived from the vapor rising from boiled rice and qi is the important quality in Daoist thought, particularly Feng Shui. Rice is used as a component in all sorts of other characters including 'pure; unadulterated'.

The first major point to make is that 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 were from the south, the menus reflect the cuisine of the south particularly Cantonese (Guangzhou) and so include rice. For centuries the rice growing areas of Southern China provided the food necessary to support the people of the north. The Grand Canal was the most important transport for this vital supply. 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; also shown is the southern belt where two or more crops of rice a year can be grown.


Rice cultivation

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 rice growing was possible. In the Zhou dynasty only the rich and affluent could afford to eat rice. By the time of the Han dynasty it had become a staple food for ordinary folk too. It is easy to store and cook, and if combined with soybeans provides good nutrition. Books on how to grow rice have been written over the centuries Daopin (Strains of Rice) by Huang Xingsi from the Ming dynasty is one of the classics. The success or failure of the rice harvest was key to the health of the nation. Extensive famine would result from poor rice harvests due to too much or too little rain. Rice cakes are traditionally eaten at the New Year festival both at the start and the Lantern festival at the end 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. It is also eaten at the Chongyang festival.

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Planting rice in paddy fields. Yangshuo, Guangxi, China Photo by Corto Maltese 1999 available under a Creative Commons license.

Over the centuries advanced schemes for irrigation have been introduced to maintain the level of water in the paddy fields. Foot powered pumps were in general use by the Song dynasty. About 90% of the cultivated land for rice is irrigated. Six inches is the usual depth of water in paddy fields. Paddy fields are often constructed by terracing of the landscape to greatly increase the area available for rice growing. In some areas paddy fields are constructed as narrow strips following the contours of steep hills. High rainfall or the provision of adequate irrigation is the main limit on which areas are suitable for rice growing.

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Rice in Ifugao ready to be harvested Photo by Efe available under a Creative Commons license.

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. The area is an impressive 121,000,000 hectares. A typical yield is 6.7 tons per hectare with the use of fertilizers. In southern areas there is sufficient warm weather to raise two or three harvests in a single year. Usually the rice is planted in April and harvested in September, where two crops are possible it is grown March to June and again from June to November. The bulk of the cultivation is in southern China.


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Rice Diversity. Part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Photo by IRRI available under a Creative Commons license.

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. 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 on burnt ground. Pearl rice has small chewy grains and is favored in the north, while sticky glutinous rice is favored in the south.

The rice is grown from seed in specially protected shallow water. In some areas water buffalo are often used to pull the plow to prepare the ground in Spring. The buffalo's manure kept the soil fertile. 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); the fish keep insect pests at bay and are 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 it is cut. The grain is then separated from the stalks and laid out to dry. In the winnowing process the husks are separated from the chaff. 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 mechanization is not possible and the cultivation is still manual.

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Terraced rice fields in Yunnan, China. The reflected sky is glinting on the fields. Photo by Jialiang Gao available under a Creative Commons license.

Rice has many uses. 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 mortar. The leaves of the plant can be made into a fine edible paper: rice paper. Rice can be pounded into rice flour and then made into such things as noodles. Even wines and spirits can be made by fermenting it. The rice wine from Shaoxing, Zhejiang is the best known example.

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A typical Chinese family meal with lots of steamed rice. Photo by ZiCheng Xu available under a Creative Commons license.

Over recent years imported rice has become cheaper than Chinese rice, and so the cultivation on poor land has become uncompetitive. Also the pressure for acquiring land for industry and housing is reducing 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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