|Hani village, Yuanyang County
|Hani farmer girl
Villages had a water guardian whose job it was to keep the main channel free of debris and oversee its renovation after the harvest and to check the dividers to ensure they had not been altered so that someone’s field got more water than what was allotted to them. This would upset the balance, for the original system, including the position and notches of the dividers, guaranteed that every terrace plot would receive the proper amount of water for the crop.
Even within the designated World Heritage Site boundaries Yi villages lie scattered over the slopes, with a Miao settlement here and there and Dai in the lower areas. So it’s a bit inaccurate to make the award to the “Hani rice terraces,” even if they are the majority community in this particular part of the mountains. The other ethnic minorities are also terrace builders and everything the UNESCO citation praises about the Hani is just as true of the other ethnic communities in Ailaoshan.
|a part of the "Tiger's Mouth"
The one major innovation in their material way of life was the introduction of high-yield rice seeds. This improved production so much that families could not only grow enough rice to feed themselves the entire year, they very well might even have a little surplus to sell in the market. Population had gone way up since, say, a century ago, and extra terraces had been made, but now these terraces were producing more rice than at any time in their history. Traditional material culture had achieved an unprecedented success.
These market venues will have stalls with ethnic minority women selling clothing components to other minority women. There will be Miao stalls selling batik cloth, embroidery thread and Miao jewelry, Hani women hawking Hani women’s jackets, trousers, belts and bags, Yi women offering embroidery and appliqué patterns for blouses and belt ends, etc. Their customers, of course, will be other Miao, Hani or Yi women who don’t have time to make the items themselves.
|transplanting the rice seedlings
Other ethnic minorities employing the slash-and-burn method also went through the same changes. In other areas, with permanent fields, the introduction of modern machinery and fertilizers altered relations between the people and their environment. In one way or another, in nearly every place in Yunnan, traditional material culture has altered and this has modified other aspects of tradition as well, from religious beliefs to aesthetic views.
|Hani on the way to market day
Besides keeping their traditional aesthetic sense, the Hani and their neighbors also maintain the village altars and spiritual specialists who conduct rituals on behalf of the community. In a grove at the edge of a Hani or Yi village a small area next to a large tree is fenced off and three upright stones stand in the rear. The taller one in the center represents humans, the smaller two flanking ones represent crops and animals. The arrangement exemplifies what the UNESCO citation referred to as the “symbiotic relationship” established between man and the animal and plant world. Major annual rituals take place here.
|Hani village altar
What about education and the general exposure to modern, secular ideas? Well, from my own years doing research in the area for my book The Terrace Builders I witnessed several traditional rituals, both by ritual specialists acting on behalf of the entire village and private rites carried out by family heads on the rice terraces. In every case the person carrying out the ritual was one of the more educated men in the village. In other places in Yunnan, in similar circumstances, when I asked about the ritual I was told they carried it out because it was part of their tradition, not that they necessarily believed in it. In Ailaoshan the reply centered on the efficacy of the rite, the meaning of whatever was used for it and the “good reasons” to perform it. Part of the tradition, yes, but a part they obviously still believed in.
|ritual offering to the rice spirit
The traditional material system will persist and so, more than likely, will other aspects of tradition, from clothing preferences and rice field rituals to domestic customs, taste in food and village social life. Their self-confidence and geniality is also likely to persist, rooted as they are in their awareness of their traditional culture’s success.
So congratulations, Hani farmers, on the world’s recognition of your achievement. You and the Yi, Miao, Yao, Dai and Zhuang, not mentioned in the UNESCO citation, can be proud of the genius of your ancestors. In this remote mountainous terrain they created a system of irrigated farms, and a lifestyle to go with it, that has survived intact for over 1300 years and is flourishing here now in the fast-evolving world of the 21st century. In a time of shrinking natural resources you can give the world lessons in land and water management, as well as how to achieve harmony between man and his environment. By its very name, a World Heritage Site is a place with a value relevant to the entire human race. Congratulations, Hani farmers. You deserve the award.
|Hani farmers going home
note: For more information on the area and its people, see my newest book—The Terrace Builders: the Hani and their Neighbors in Yunnan’s Ailao Mountains. Published as an e-book, covering the area from Xinping to the far north of Vietnam, it has 300 photographs.