Rice in China
KeywordsRice Straw Rice Field Rice Husk Rice Farming Liaodong Peninsula
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.
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.
Dispersals to Other Regions
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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