Rice is so deeply embedded in the life and culture of China, Vietnam and most of Asia that when people meet and inquire after each other they don’t ask, “Have you eaten?” but instead, “Have you eaten rice?” Rice is the standard filler for a proper meal, the first solid food given to babies and the favored crop for farmers. Rice fields dominate rural East and South Asia, filling the valleys and climbing up in terraces on the slopes of hills and mountains. And where weather, altitude or landscape prevent its cultivation, people raise other crops to exchange for rice.
So essential is rice to people’s lives, traditional cultures organize much of their ritual calendar around events in the rice-growing cycle. Ceremonies placate the spirits on the land on which it is grown and invoke the protection of guardians to insure the crop’s safety and high yield. Rice is also part of the offerings given at the ancestral shrines and to various spirits and deities.
Irrigated parts of the plains can support at least two crops per year. But for other areas, like the mountain slopes, only one crop is possible. That’s even true in Ailaoshan, where most terraces have water running through them all year. In between crops, the flooded terraces yield aquatic food like frogs, eels and snails. Cultivation here is much like that in the valleys: plowing early winter, laying seedling patches late winter, transplanting in spring (April-May) and harvesting in September.
The planting work is usually collective, as families join relatives or neighbors to work plots together and complete them faster. The men bring the seedling bunches and prepare the terraces. The women wade out into them in lines and plant the separate seedlings in evenly spaced rows. The work is tiring, but imbued with a collective spirit, punctuated with jokes and bantering. And for the visiting observer, it’s one of the most characteristically Asian activities one can witness.