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Prosperous Times on the Hani Rice Terraces

By Yang Shaohua and Ni Qin Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-05-12

The gently purling brooks and endless stairs of terraces stretching into the horizon make for breathtaking views. We are at the rice terraces farmed by the Hani ethnic minority in Honghe, located in China's southwestern Yunnan Province, which have endured for over a millennium and span an area of over 66,000-hectares. In 2013, the terraces were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In the local villages, every place we go is bustling with life and wide smiles fill the faces of villagers. 

A stunning picture of harmony between humanity and nature 

At the Honghe Hani rice terraces, paddies and forests run seamlessly together against a backdrop of blue skies dotted with white clouds reflecting on crystalline waters. Acting on President Xi Jinping's thinking on ecological conservation, Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture has developed a circular ecosystem around the forests, villages, terraces, and water systems. Based on this fourfold approach, it continues to apply local traditional practices to manage water resources and forests, and has restored 17,066.7 hectares of ecological vegetation and addressed water loss and soil erosion on 74.67 square kilometers of land. It has also set environmental redlines, constructed new small-scale reservoirs while reinforcing existing ones, and worked to prevent and control agricultural pollution from non-point sources and from livestock and poultry industries. The systematic protection of the clean lands and waters of the Hani rice terraces provides a vivid and detailed illustration of how humanity can live in harmony with nature. In 2018, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment selected the Hani Terraces Heritage Area in Yuanyang County as a practical innovation base for the "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets" plan. 

Carrying forward Hani farming heritage 

At the Central Rural Work Conference on December 23, 2013, President Xi said, "Farming culture is a precious asset for Chinese agriculture and an important element of Chinese culture. We must not only keep this culture alive, but continuously carry it forward and develop it." "I have heard that on the Hani rice terraces in Yunnan increasingly fewer people know the ancient ballads like 'The Song of Production in Four Seasons' or the Hani dances. We won't achieve what we call modernization by discarding the good things that have been passed down to us by our forefathers." President Xi's entreaty spurred the officials and residents of Honghe Prefecture to work together in an unprecedented drive to protect the Hani terraces and local farming culture. They mined traditional ethnic cultural resources by collecting traditional ethnic songs and dances, applied for national intangible cultural heritage status for the Honghe Hani rice terraces, established agencies to preserve and promote ethnic culture, and expanded the teams in charge of cultural heritage. "'The Song of Production in Four Seasons' and other elements of farming culture represent the roots of the Hani people. Once we keep Hani farming culture alive and develop it, the Hani people will always have a sense of contentment," said Ma Jianchang, who is a national-level inheritor of intangible cultural heritage.


Soft rays of sunlight dapple the terraced fields, creating an ethereal scene at the Yangliu Rice Terraces located between the towns of Baohua and Jiayin in Honghe County, February 13, 2022. PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CPC HONGHE PREFECTURE COMMITTEE / PHOTO BY LU GUANGHAN 

In 2015, the "Ancient Hani Ballad," an original production of folk songs and dances, which incorporated the "Song of Production in Four Seasons," "Hani Haba," and other elements of national intangible cultural heritage, debuted at the Milan Expo in Italy and returned to the stage in Beijing in 2019. Both performances were highly praised. The thousand-year-old songs of the Hani people have helped convey to audiences in China and overseas the charm of farming culture. Also in 2019, during a visit to Italy, President Xi Jinping stood witness to the signing of an agreement between China and Italy to twin the vineyard landscapes of LangheRoero and Monferrato in Piedmont with the Honghe Hani rice terraces. The agreement has helped further promote Hani culture around the world. 

Local industries that rely on nature to help people prosper 

It's still early when Zhang Zhengming, a resident of Dayutang Village, Xinjie Town in Yuanyang County, heading to his family's plot with a hoe on his shoulder to begin the day's work. "As long as we safeguard the rice terraces, we will have good lives. This is what motivates everyone to plant and protect the terraces," said Zhang. For anyone who is willing to work, a good living can be made from safeguarding the natural environment. Honghe Prefecture, while ensuring the rice terraces are properly protected, is working to help people increase their earnings and grow their wealth. It has popularized an integrated model of rice, fish, and duck farming. This has transformed traditional rice farming, which produces only a single income source, into a generator of multiple streams of income earned from red rice, fish, loach, ducks, and duck eggs. By using the same water body in three ways, one plot of land generates substantially more income. This model has been applied to 13,053 hectares, producing an output of 5,590 yuan per mu (0.07 hectare), for the benefit of 50,446 households. Experiments have been made to develop an Internet Plus model of planting, production, and business operations, which brings companies, production bases, cooperatives, and farmers to work together. A red rice breakfast powder mix, red rice wine, and other products have also been developed and are on sale across the country. These steps have helped ensure farmers can maximize the value of their output on the terraces. 

Honghe Prefecture has effectively cultivated the brand of the Hani rice terraces and used it well. It is pursuing a four-pronged approach based on rural revitalization, the protection of traditional villages, integrated development of cultural tourism, and the preservation of ancient farming techniques. It has harnessed the resources, landscape, and agricultural ecosystems of the Hani rice terraces, as well as the farming lifestyle and authentic rural flavor, to become a destination for vacations, sightseeing, wellness retreats, retirement, and farming tours— industries that can help locals prosper. It has also arranged for residents to become directly involved in tourism management and services. As a result, the economic potential of the natural environment is being continuously tapped. Gao Yanmiao's family has used their terrace plot, residence, and other resources to become a shareholder in the collective tourism company in their village. In 2021, the family received 6,000 yuan in dividends. They have also opened a farmhouse restaurant and homestay business. Not only are they earning more than they would if they migrated to the city for work but they are also leading a more satisfying life. 

At sunset, the rich colors of the terrace and the smiles of those tending their plots seem to add to each other's beauty. The lucid waters and lush mountains protected by the Hani people for generations have now become the pillars of their happiness. Villagers sing and dance to the "Song of Production in Four Seasons": "The first month arrives, and the mountain fauna spring to life; in the forest the francolin takes wing, in the grasses cranes and magpies sing; deer bound across the hills, and the marbled cat calls out from the hollow..." The Hani terraces are indeed becoming increasingly prosperous. As a recent local government campaign slogan puts it, "Brilliant ideas are inspiring the borderland, and the Honghe people are fully behind the CPC." These words offer the best depiction of Honghe county at present. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 6, 2022)