Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stairways to the Sky: the Ancient Terraces of Southern Yunnan

                                              by Jim Goodman

dry season terraces near Luchun
       Sometimes farms are the tourist lure.  It could be because they are sited in places with spectacular backdrops, but then it's the totality of the scenery that draws attention, not the farms themselves.  In other cases, though, the farm per se is the attraction.  Its shape, its location and its obviously intricate water engineering are what capture the eye.  Perhaps nowhere in southwest China are simple farms the stars of the scenery so much as in the Ailaoshan mountain range of southern Yunnan.  This is especially true in Yuanyang County, between the Red River and the border of Vietnam.  Every year at New Year time a contest draws dozens of photographers seeking to shoot the county's farms in prize-winning light and settings.
Pinghe village terraces,  Luchun County
        These are no ordinary farms, of course.  They are terraced parcels cut into the slopes, sometimes sculpting three-fourths of a mountainside.  From the forest near the summit to the streams at the bottom, every promontory, knoll and hillock is terraced.  On the more gradual slopes the plots can be fairly large, but some of the slopes are up to 70 degrees inclined, where the terraces are long but narrow.  The great majority are used but once a year, for the summer rice crop, and are kept filled with water the other months.
       The Ailaoshan terraces were mentioned in Tang Dynasty chronicles, the earliest ever recorded of such farms anywhere in the region, and are therefore at least a thousand years old.  They are mainly the work of the Yi and Hani minority nationalities.  Most villages in the mountains are Yi or Hani, with the Yi more prominent in the northern part of the county, the Hani predominating in the southern part.  Until you can see the costumes of the women, though, it's a bit difficult to tell the villages apart.
terrace work, XInjie
       Yi and Hani build box-like houses of mud brick on stone foundations, with several small rooms.  The upper floor has a flat roof for drying crops.  Some Yi villages, and all Hani ones, append a room on part of the roof, with sloping sides, used for storage.  Most villages are quite large, up to a hundred houses bunched together near a spring, whose flow is directed into the terraces below.  Vegetables they grow in the plots closest to the village.  The rest of the terraces are mainly reserved for rice, except for the newest ones.
        In these new farms the people cultivate maize and soybeans the first few years.  The bed of the plot is initially covered with a layer of rough gravel.  Only after 3-5 years is the terrace ready for inundation.  After filling them with water, the farmers keep them permanently flooded, adding tree branches and sand after harvest to prevent the ground from becoming too soft for plowing.  To enrich the soil they use animal manure and other natural fertilizers, such as the soy plants surrounding the borders of a plot.
planting rice
the ripening crops  in September
       Most of the terraces are watered by springs above the village, which is carried along various irrigation channels along the uppermost terraces, a length that could reach several kilometers.  Divider logs, or in the older areas carved stones, direct part of the flow over clusters of fields.  Spillways between plots carry it from higher terrace to lower, all the way down to the drainage channel at the bottom.  These channels, as well as the springs, are no one's private property but are owned collectively by the whole village.  Village representatives select one man whose full-time job is to check and maintain the main irrigation channel, oversee the distribution to the terraces and in general make sure nobody is stealing water.
rice beginning to grow at Baoshanzhai
       Planting begins at the onset of the monsoon in late May.  The crop ripens in late August, splashing the mountains with patches of golden yellow.  In September the farmers crop the grain, threshing it on the spot by whipping the stalks against a V-shaped funnel of stiffened buffalo hide.  Repairs to the main irrigation channels, as well as the terraces, follow the harvest and then the terraces are left flooded till the next planting.  The scenery is at its grandest in the winter mornings, when thick fog blankets the valleys and lower altitudes, leaving terraced fields popping up over the clouds like islands in the sea.
view of Panzihua, Yuanyang County
       The people inhabiting these mountains are among the most conservative in the province.  One might expect that from folks using the same terraces for hundreds of years.  Villages are electrified and many houses have televisions.  All sizable settlements have primary schools, while the townships and cities have middle schools as well.  The men have largely adopted modern styles of clothing, except for the Yao and Miao, but women of all ages retain the ethnic costume and so do a large proportion of the children.
       Four kinds of Hani inhabit Yuanyang County, and several more live in neighboring Honghe, Jinping and Luchun Counties.  The Hani around Xinjie wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket over trousers.  The basic material is blue or black cotton, occasionally white, blue or purple silk, with embroidered cuffs and lower sleeves and stripes along the hem and around the ankles.  Married women wear a fringed black turban with a long, silver-studded tail.  Another Hani group wears a more brightly embroidered blouse, a black cap with silver studs on the front, and a belt with long tassels with embroidered spiral designs.  A third group wears skirts instead of trousers, while a fourth dons jackets with sections done in tie-dyed indigo.
Yi girls in the Xinjie market, Yuanyang County
       Over an ordinary long-sleeved blouse the local Nisu Yi women wear a bright, short-sleeved jacket, with embroidered strips around the shoulders and on the sleeves.  In cooler weather they wear over this a black vest, either studded with silver across the front or stitched with thick white stripes.  Around the waist they tie a belt with long wide tails, featuring pile-embroidered spiral and floral patterns, which hang over the buttocks.  In Honghe the patterns are flat-embroidered and more complex and pictorial.  The women here tend to favor hand towels as headgear, rather than the embroidered headscarf of Yuanyang.  In the latter county, too, the young Yi girls sometimes don a chicken-shaped cap, embroidered in white or studded with silver.  The same style in Honghe is worn by Hani girls, not Yi.
winter morning in Xinjie
        Old Yuanyang town, now called Xinjie, lies 25 km south of the Red River from New Yuanyang, the county capital since early this century.  The road immediately begins climbing uphill until it reaches the city at around 1700 meters.  Yi and Hani villages sit on slopes above their terraces at intervals all along the way.  The town itself was built as an uphill extension of the original Yi village, just as Huangcaoling, further south, was expended around the original hilltop Hani village.  Many Yi and Hani have settled in Xinjie, but one of the charms of the town is that the women in the markets and the girls working in the restaurants still wear their ethnic costumes.  The proximity of traditional villages, the terraces on the near and distant mountains, and the general friendliness are its other assets.
Hani from Huangcaoling, Yuanyang County
Miao girls from the Laomeng area
       The road south runs by more of the same beautiful landscapes, then crosses a pass and winds around spurs and ridges to Panzhihua, from where the most spectacular view can be had.  As far as the eye can see the contours of the mountains are covered with terraces, their villages perched above them.  According to a local Yi headman, these particular terraces were cut 700 years ago by Yi who migrated here from the rolling, less steep hills south of the Red River.
fishing in the terraces
       From this township the road drops to the valleys, where the Dai people live.  Here the land is fairly flat alongside the rivers and so the plots are larger and interspersed with plantain groves.  The Dai here are animist, not Buddhist, and live in the same kind of houses as the Yi and Hani, with one addition--a large variety of fish traps.  The women wear black sarongs, with cross-stitched leggings in winter, black, short-sleeved, Yi-like jackets, brightly embellished on the hem and sleeve ends.  Standing on the bridge at Huangmaoling, watching Dai women drive their buffaloes home past the rice fields, palms and papaya trees, with a group of boys swimming in the stream beside the gnarly roots of a big banyan tree, one could as well be in Thailand or Laos.
Yi farmer girl going back home
       Huangmaoling holds market day on Saturdays, while further down the road, Laomeng has its market day on Sundays.  The ethnic variety in the county is highly evident at these events, particularly in Laomeng, which is more likely to have remote Hani, Yao and Miao shoppers.  The Yao are of the Lanten branch and wear all black, except for the youth, who don caps with colored pompoms.  Miao women are recognizable by their skirts and upswept hairdos.  In marked contrast to the shy Yao they are quite approachable and the men eager to converse with foreigners.
       In general the mountain people of Ailaoshan are friendly and good-humored.  Sometimes they stare at the foreigner as if he just stepped out of their televisions and suddenly became three-dimensional.  But once they become conscious of their staring they often apologize and ask him not to take offense.  They are proud of their terraces and so quick to appreciate an outsider's admiration.  They have held fast to their cultures and celebrate their annual festivals--the Torch Festival of the Yi in mid-summer, the Hani New Year in November--with great fanfare, whether in Yuanyang or the villages.  And their self-assurance and general contentedness with their life soon affects their visitors, who can't help feeling happy just visiting such a place. 

terraced fields near Dayangjie, Honghe County
                                                                       * * *                          
                           for more on Ailaoshan, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

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