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Notes on the Geography of China: Hani Terraces 1: Walking a Channel

In 2013, UNESCO added the 27,000 acres of the Hani Rice Terraces to its World Heritage list, where they joined the terraced fields of Luzon, Bali, and Oman. A few years earlier, in 2008, the same area--it covers about 27,000 acres of terraced fields close to the border with Vietnam--had been designated as a historic site by the Yuanyang County government. Experts, mostly Chinese, had already been studying the area for about 20 years: perhaps the most useful discussion, in English at least, came from Adichi Shimpei writing in Asian and African Area Studies 6:2, 2007.

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The World Heritage listing brought many changes.

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Tourism became an industry, even though the area was at least six hours by road from the nearest airport, at Kunming.

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Cloudy weather didn't seem to discourage visitors.

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UNESCO claimed that as many as 3,000 steps march up the terraced valleys. A visitor of a questioning persuasion might wonder why the terraces are flooded even in winter, months before sowing. (There are several answers. One is that dry fields are prone to erode; another is that the local villages insist that yields decline if the fields are kept dry. In fact, they are kept wet year-round, even during harvest and with the sole exception of the period of transplanting of rice seedlings from their nurseries.) The visitor might wonder about the hilltop forests and the distant village on the boundary between forest and terrace. He might observe that there was a pattern here: the hilltops are always in forest and the villages are almost always on the contact between forest and terrace. The explanation is that the forest protects the water supply, and no villager wants to lose farmland to mere buildings.

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Here we are at Pugao Laozhai, one in the villages in the Duoyishu area.

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From the lower edge of the village, the terraces cascade down into the clouds.

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Ah! A fleeting moment of sun. See that lonely tree sitting on a hillock just before the slope disappears from view? We're going down there, if we can.

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We'll get there by following the main irrigation channel. The concrete is all new, built sometime after 2010. Like the trash, it doesn't fit very well with a heritage-preservation program, but you'd better get used to it. Anyway, notice how a bunch of mud and straw has pooled the channel and diverted most of its water into the ditch on the left.

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Want to see more trash? No problem.

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We've come about ten steps downstream and are looking uphill toward the right side of the channel. The interesting thing is that water runs from terrace to terrace not only by visible cuts at the top of the dikes (none are shown here) but by tunnels like the one in the foreground. (Shimpei identifies them as yirudu and says they can completely drain a paddy if need be. He says they are, or perhaps were traditionally, made of bamboo. The drains come in handy during transplanting but are also made when topography makes a surface channel impractical.

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The terrace walls are mostly of stone, though so much mud accretes to them that sometimes it's hard to tell. Who maintains the terraces? Answering that question requires a distinction between the terrace wall and the dike resting on top of it. The owner of a field owns the upstream wall (on the left here) and the downstream dike (on the right here), but neither the dike on the top of the upstream wall or the wall beneath the downstream dike. The Hani, an ethnic minority with their own language, have a vocabulary to match: the dike is the ngebu and the wall is the ngeda. Got it? The owner of this paddy can't mess with the ngebu on the left without the permission of that field's owner. How many fields does one man own? UNESCO suggests two fields each, or perhaps one acre.

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The visiting esthete enjoys the sinuosity of the terrace walls. Does the farmer? Your call.

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Here the distinction between dike and wall is hard to see, but there's a good view of water spilling over a yima. You got it: that's the cut in the dike. Don't confuse it with a yirudu or underground pipe.

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The same water we saw diverted by the new concrete channel is here spilling from level to level. The distant ngeda is in poor shape. Why? Well, what do you think happens to a place when it lands on UNESCO's list? Answer: new jobs appear, and they're easier than working these fields.

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We're back to the main channel.

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If we turn around, we see it dropping from the village and forest above. Somewhere in that forest there's a "dragon tree," where an annual ceremony ensures good rains. Think you can find a villager willing to take you to see that tree? Good luck. The tree is sacred enough that lots of the villagers themselves have never seen the tree.

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Sometimes the main channel is itself built up.

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The soil comes in two layers. The plow layer or aludumo is underlain by an unplowed subsoil or agelamo. The plow layer has to be mucky enough to hold water; that means it has to be plowed time and again. Who or what pulls the plow? Try water buffalo.

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Ducks feed here and there.

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What do you know! A drained paddy and, sure enough, a disintegrating wall.

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Complicated? The main channel is sheathed in weeds. Branches take off to both left and right.

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Here's the main channel and the right branch, along with the distant tree on its island. It hardly looks closer than when we started.

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Feeding water into two fields.

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The main channel now looks almost empty. The villagers working down here mostly wear rubber boots.

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A forking concrete channel takes off to the right, while the main channel drops into a gulley.

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You couldn't see it in the last picture, but another channel branches to the left.

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The view back. The wall in the middle distance must be seven feet high above the water.

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Another village is barely visible in the distance.

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The main channel is in the weeds, as usual, while a ditch branches to the right.

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Someone's going to ask about these whitish stones. No clue.

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The main channel is lost in its gully in the foreground.

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You can see its course. In the distance there's another village. The World Heritage site includes 82. According to UNESCO, the site also includes four trunk canals and 392 branches.

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There's another village, this time to the right of the main channel.

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This is January. By March, seedlings (some purchased and "improved" varieties but much left over from last year's crop of traditional red rice) will be set out in nurseries to be transplanted later.

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Move! "I'm trying, I'm trying."

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The main channel drops. The path stays on its left.

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See the channel, or at least the green that traces it? We'll stay on its left.

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Somehow we have to get to the "island" tree.

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There's the path, to the left of the channel. The branch on the right is casually plugged.

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More plugs.

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See the yima at the far end of the upper field? You can get water to the lower fields without using the straw-plugged channel in the foreground.

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We're getting close.

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The main channel sweeps through a big, weedy "S" curve.

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A dike serves as a bridge to the island.

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Our target.

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You don't see the opening that feeds the pool surrounding the island?

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Here's the other side. Water is coming in at those bubbles on the left. If you were there you'd hear the water gurgling before you noticed the bubbles.

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Here we leave the main channel, although it's nowhere near done.

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The view to the left. Poetry rises in the breast, if you're not the guy with the hoe.

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To the right.

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Downhill, things get seriously steep.

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A clear distinction between the wall and dike.

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The dikes are themselves structural, of mud bricks that eventually fuse.

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And here, on the island, there are several tombs.

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Whose? Dunno.

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What's that coming our way. Another blasted buffalo!

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You go on ahead.


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