16 December 2017

The Amazing Longsheng Rice Terraces

Village elders have a saying in Longsheng: where there is soil there is a terrace. Two hours ride from the city of Guilin in Guanxi province the problem of growing rice on steep hills was long ago solved. From the Yuan Dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century the colossal task of terracing the Longsheng hills to provide a rice harvest began.

It took four hundred years for the terraces, also known as Longjii, to be built. During that time countless generations toiled on the terraces to ensure the annual rice harvest which did little more than feed their families. Yet in their efforts to provide for their families they produced a scene of tremendous beauty. It is little wonder that the Chinese call it the ‘amazing terrace’.

The place changes from season to season. During the spring water is irrigated naturally by rainfall reservoired throughout the winter and the terraces take on the appearance of giant ribbons slung on to the mountainside. The summer brings the green waves of rice blowing in the wind. In the autumn when the harvest ripens the fields become a golden color while often in the winter the whole of the hillside is blanketed in snow. The people of Longheng's budgeting of their precious resources have created a place of true beauty.

Pushed in to the hilly area during the Yuan Dynasty, the people who arrived here had a problem – a burgeoning population in a hilly area which would not yield many crops due to the terrain. The resourceful building technique they adopted makes the best use possible of the inadequate arable land.

This is human ingenuity at its best – natural rainfall is the sole water resource in this mountainous area. It is reservoired and then the terraces are flooded in the spring and the way they are staggered ensures that not a drop is wasted.

Hundreds of different ethnicities live in China and in Longsheng it is the Zhuang, Dong and the Yao nationalities that inhabit the hill villages around the terraces. The people still wear mostly traditional clothing (although some of the finery is reserved for tourists) and the Dong women are known for the extraordinary length they grow their hair.

The Zhuang people call the terraces the Dragon’s Backbone. From a height of 800 meters it is easy to see how the terraces can be seen to resemble the layered scales of a massive slumbering dragon, its backbone twisting in to the distance.

The terraces cover over sixty square kilometers (almost 17,000 acres) and are 1100 meters high at their uppermost point. This is not usually a place that visitors come to simply to gawp for an hour or two and then leave. As it is somewhat remote stopovers are recommended for a minimum of two days.

Travellers are welcome and many local families run small hostelries to cater for them. While visiting the terraces, the culture of the indigenous people can also be experienced and enjoyed. It is advisable to go there in spring or summer to experience the terraces at their best. Come autumn and the rice is so long the terraces can look more like gently undulating hills.

For centuries the rice terraces were owned by families and passed down through the generations. The rise of communism saw what is referred to as the liberation of the terraces. You are born and the local communist committee allots fields to you. When you die the fields go back to the community and are allotted to someone else.

Each family produces just enough rice to feed themselves. Yet there is always room for life’s small pleasures. Part of the crop each year is sticky rice, which is the variety used to make rice wine. Yet if this sounds like subsistence living, think again.

The twenty first century, of course, has arrived in the locality and these days the rice terraces are not as vital as they used to be. Many young people go to the local city of Longsheng (or beyond) to work and send money back to support their families. Although the terraces are still working, as such they are no longer the main source of income for the local peoples.

This was brought home to unscrupulous tour operators a few years ago. Unwilling to share the fees that they charged tourists with the local communities, the villagers simply told the operators that they would no longer flood the terraces and grow the rice, so taking away the very reason for tourists to travel to their community. Needless to say negotiations opened soon afterwards.

There is no earthly way that the rice produced here could ever be sold at competitive prices, simply because the terraces are too small to grow a bulk crop of rice. However now that the terraces are more and more on the tourist map the villagers have realised they can make many more times their annual income by hosting and feeding travellers. With this in mind, the rice terraces of Longsheng will be here until the last tourist becomes bored and leaves.

Considering the awe inspiring beauty of the place that is unlikely.

first Image Credit Flickr User Gill_penny