Rice in China

  • Hsiao-chun HungEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-3934-5_10026-1


Rice Straw Rice Field Rice Husk Rice Farming Liaodong Peninsula 
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Rice is a staple food for half of the world’s population, and it has been a significant icon of Chinese culture for thousands of years. So far the earliest written Chinese character of “wild rice” (秜) was recognized as Open image in new window on an oracle bone of the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 B.C.), and the first “rice” (稻) was identified as Open image in new window or Open image in new window inscribed in a bronze of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 B.C.). Long prior to any written records, archaeological evidence indicates the earliest harvesting of wild rice can be traced back to more than 10,000 years ago in southern China. The origins and developments of rice cultivation in China have a very deep root and a long process of evolution, closely linked with technological advances and the unique characters of Chinese life and cultures.

Origins and Early Developments

Rice is a cereal crop that produces edible seeds of grain. The seed can be eaten in its natural “wild” form, but rice potentially can be more productive and reliable as a staple crop in its domesticated form. Fully domesticated morphologies of Asian rice emerged in China as Oryza sativa var. japonica through multiple stages of crop processing (threshing, winnowing, sieving, dehusking, and hand selection) and over the course of many generations. In a natural condition, the seeds are easily shattered as part of their dispersal for regrowth, but over time, people selected for nonshattering varieties that could be stored safely for long periods such as the seasons between harvests. Additionally, people learned how to manage a well-watered environment for healthy growth and then eliminate the water supply for an artificially induced production of the edible seeds. These manipulations led to genetic transformations of rice, as well as to opportunities for various technological, economic, and social developments among rice-growing people.

Archaeological evidence so far reveals plentiful examples of wild and domesticated rice in several parts of China, but an exact point of origin (or multicentric origins) for domestication has been uncertain. The oldest preserved specimens are dated about 12,000–8000 B.C. in several limestone caves in the foothills of the Nanling mountain range, but these specimens probably were wild Oryza. The middle-lower Yangtze River traditionally is viewed as the heartland of domesticated rice in China, where accordingly evidence of rice cultivation has been dated to about 8000–5000 B.C. The ancient origins may have been more complex, as morphologically domesticated rice has been found at comparable early dates elsewhere outside the Yangtze Basin, for instance, about 7000–6000 B.C. in sites of the middle Hanshui Valley and Huai Valley, located between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Regardless of debates about the point(s) of origin, the middle-lower Yangtze region contains several sites that together represent different stages in a long sequence of rice domestication. Here, rice farming can be seen as having developed in close integration with social life over a few thousand years. In the lower Yangtze, the abundance of rice is hinted at by the considerable quantities of rice husks incorporated into the clay of earthenware pottery as early as 8000 B.C. at Shangshan. Very dense concentrations of rice phytoliths have been found in the cultural layer of Xiaohuangshan, c. 8000–6000 B.C. Thousands of rice husks were found at the site of Kuahuqiao dated 6000–5000 B.C. In the middle Yangtze, as early as 7000–6000 B.C., preserved rice specimens are numerous at Pengtoushan. Nearly 20,000 rice husks and grains were collected from one small excavation at Bashidang, identified as an archaic type of cultivated rice, but the morphology differed from the present-day indica and japonica varieties (Zhang & Pei, 1997, pp. 36–41). Although those ancient rice grains unearthed from 8000 to 5000 B.C. appear to be wild-like (Crawford & Chen, 1998, Fuller et al., 2009) rather than fully domesticated, the impressive quantities found in the sites suggest that deliberate food production already was beginning at this time.

Definite nonshattering domestic forms of rice were prevalent by 4000 B.C. (Fuller et al., 2009). The oldest known traces of actual rice fields have been identified in the middle and lower Yangtze, at least as early as 4500–4200 B.C. These small fields probably were used by individual households, as they typically enclose only 3–5 m2 each, surrounded by low earthen banks. Examples in the lower Yangtze are found at Caoxieshan (Zou et al., 2000, pp. 97–113) and Chuodun (Ding, 2012), dated about 4200–3000 B.C. (Fig. 1). In the middle Yangtze, similar small rice fields have been reported at Chengtoushan, dated about 4500–4000 B.C. (Nasu, Gu, Momohara, & Yasuda, 2012). Large numbers of spades made of bone or wood come from other similar-aged sites in the lower Yangtze.
Fig. 1

Ancient rice paddy field in Chuodun, Jiangsu Province (After Ding, 2012)

Increasing Productivity

Stone implements of plow cultivation first appeared about 4000–3300 B.C. and became well developed by 3300–2400 B.C. in association with the Liangzhu culture of the lower Yangtze, known for its marvelous artworks of jade, silk, and lacquerware and complex social structure. In a practical sense, plow cultivation enabled people to work in much larger fields than previously was possible by use of wooden and bone spades, and the total harvest output in theory could support a larger population. At the Maoshan site, more than 55,000 m2 of ancient rice paddies has been documented (Fig. 2). At least as early as 3000–2600 B.C., the individual rice plots varied in size, as small as 1–2 m2 but remarkably as large as 30–40 m2, in rectangular or irregular rounded shapes. After 2600–2400 B.C., the rice fields were designed to incorporate river courses and embankments, irrigation channels, and paddy embankments (Fig. 3). So far, nine embankments between the paddies have been identified in this later stage of Liangzhu culture at the Maoshan site, and each unit enclosed about 1,000 m2. Judging by the characteristics of rice phytoliths and spikelets, an estimated 221 kg of rice could be produced for each 1,000 m2 area in the later stages of the Maoshan site, about 2.2–2.5 times higher than the yields in earlier Hemudu phase (c. 5000–3000 B.C.; Zheng et al., 2014). The large quantity of rice output very likely was one of the main factors in the Liangzhu culture’s transformation into an elaborate social structure with ranked status and overt displays of wealth through artworks. Today, many Chinese scholars regard Liangzhu as the earliest kingdom in China.
Fig. 2

Archaeological excavation at the Maoshan site in Zhejiang Province

Fig. 3

Partial paddy fields of the late Liangzhu period at Maoshan, showing housing area, river, rice paddy fields, and paddy embankments (After Zheng, Chen, & Ding, 2014)

With larger rice fields, irrigation systems developed for controlling flows of water. Since the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 B.C.), several national-level irrigation systems and water conservancy projects were developed for rice farming in China. The Dujiangyan (都江堰) irrigation system in Sichuan, an infrastructure was built in 256 B.C. during the Warring States period, and it still is used today to irrigate over 5,300 sq km of farming land in the region. Many of these irrigation infrastructures meanwhile facilitated transpiration in ancient China.

By 700–600 B.C., iron tools and animal-driven devices vastly increased farming productivity, chiefly for rice. Some bronze implements already had made significant impacts at least as early as 1700 B.C., but iron tools were much more effective after the Spring and Autumn Period and best documented during the Han dynasty period of 206 B.C.–A.D. 220. Detailed scenarios of rice farming were recorded in Han period mural tombs, portraits on stones and bricks (Fig. 4), funerary objects, and ancient Chinese documents. Si Sheng Zhi Shu (氾勝之書, Book of Si Sheng Zhi) is the oldest known book about agriculture in China, presenting the details of the principles, methods, and timing of cultivation, as well as strategies of harvest and hoarding for 13 types of crops, including rice. The same book documented the techniques of water temperature control for rice paddies. Notably during the Han dynasty period, various new technologies were being developed to improve agricultural pursuits, such as a multiple tube seed drill for tilling soil and snowing seeds simultaneously, water lifting devices for irrigation, and winnowing devices and a water-driven pestle for grain processing (Hsiao & Yan, 2014; Figs. 5 and 6). Since then, technological inventions have continued to characterize much of Chinese history.
Fig. 4

A piece of Han dynasty portrait stone, unearthed from Mizhi of Shaanxi Province, showing a farmer with a cattle-driven plow

Fig. 5

A ceramic funerary object, depicting a grain-processing workshop, unearthed from Sijangou, Jiyuan, Henan, showing a rice pestle and a winnowing device with two workers of Western Han attire, dated more than 2,000 years ago (Henan Museum)

Fig. 6

Water-driven pestle for grain processing, illustrated in the book of Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物, The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, by Song Yingxing in Ming dynasty). This type of pestle can be traced back to the Han dynasty

Dispersals to Other Regions

After 3000 B.C., rice cultivation was introduced into most parts of China and farther into neighboring regions, in some cases involving migrations of people and lifestyle along with the materials, knowledge, skills, and mechanisms of rice farming and processing. From the middle-lower Yangtze River, southern-moving routes were coastal into Fujian and Guangdong about 3000–2500 B.C., as well as inland into Guangxi and Sichuan by 3000 B.C. and into Guizhou and Yunnan by 2500 B.C. These southern movements led farther into Taiwan and into Southeast Asia (Zhang & Hung, 2010; Fig. 7). From the lower Yellow River, where rice farming had been well established since 6000 B.C., dispersal routes went northward to the Shandong Peninsula by 3500–3000 B.C., then much later into Korea and finally Japan about 300 B.C. via the Liaodong Peninsula.
Fig. 7

A modern Vietnamese farmer with her plow and cattle working in a rice paddy field


Rice in China is more than a staple food. Hundreds of recipes make use of rice for worship at special events, enjoyment at particular feasts, ceremonies, and daily life. Beyond just the edible seeds, the by-products of rice have multiple functions, such as rice straw for making ropes, sandals, hats, mats, and raincoats. For thousands of years, Chinese traditions of year cycle and philosophy centered around rice farming, as in the phrase “plowing in spring, weeding in summer, harvesting in autumn, and hoarding in winter.” Rice has raised generations of people, and it supported the development of countless perspectives of Chinese culture, such as the living landscape, scientific inventions, transportation systems, astronomical knowledge, supernatural beliefs and religions, and lifestyle that characterize the foundations of Chinese civilization.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia