The Hani Rice Terraces refer the system of rice-growing terraces built and maintained by the Hani ethnic group in southern Yunnan, China. Construction of the terraces began around 1,200 years ago. The total area stretches across 10,000 square kilometers in four counties: Yuanyang, Honghe, Jinpin and Lüchun, although the core area of the terraces is located in Yuanyang County. In 2013, 16,603 hectares of the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces were listed as a World Heritage Site. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Hani in the Ailaoshan Mountain have a common saying: “terrace is the face of a young man. Whether a young man is good-looking or not largely depends on how his terraces are made. If he is expert at all jobs, such as building banks, scraping dykes and ploughing fields, he will gain praise by the people and win girls' love. Also, the crucial element of whether a girl is beautiful is how she behaves in terraces.” [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

The terrace are an important source of food for the Hani People. Therefore, they extremely treasure water. In order to conserve and allocate water for farm work in the right season, there has been a folk custom of "carving wood to ration water" since ancient times. According to the acreage a flow of spring can irrigate, people gather together and decide the amount of water every terrace and field needs. Then they put up a piece of crossed wood at the entrance of the field, and carve the amount of water needed on it. As the stream flows by the fields, an irrigation gate is opened and amount of water needed for that field flows in. Every Hani household also breeds fish in terraces.

The climate of teh region supports just one rice crop a year, but it is often an abundant one. After transplanting seedlings of rice in March, people put fish fry into the terraces and let them grow themselves. In the late autumn, while harvesting the rice, baskets of fresh fish are collected to make delicious dishes. Water buffalo are capable assistant for cultivating terraces, and, as a result, the Hanis have a long custom of respecting buffalos. When a cow gives birth to a calf, the whole family immediately goes to the mountains and cuts tender grass to feed it, sometimes even adding fatty meat and brown sugar syrup to it. On cold days, the Hani do not hesitate to wrap up their beloved buffalo in old clothes and cotton fiber to keep it warm. On the third morning of the calf's birth, the family presents a large bowl of steamed glutinous rice before the cattle pen. In accordance with the size of the family and the number of cows and calves, they knead the rice into bowl-sized balls, one for each cattle and family members. This custom shows the equal position of man and buffaloes.

Hani Ethnic Group

transplanting rice

The Hani are one of the poorest and least developed hill tribe groups in Southeast Asia, but they are also among of the best known to tourists. Hani women are famous for their beautiful, elaborate and distinctive traditional costumes. The Hani are known as the Akha in Southeast Asia and sometimes called the Haoni or Aini. In China, the they have traditionally been a highland tribe dominated by the lowland Dais.

The Hani-Akha are a group of culturally and linguistic related peoples that inhabit the southern part of Yunnan province and the northern part of Southeast Asia. They are divided into many branches. In China, the Hani live mainly in southern Yunnan Province between the Honghe River and Lancangjiang (Mekong River) in the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefectures, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, and Jiangcheng Hani and Yi Autonomous County and the counties of Mojiang, Lvchun and Yuanjiang. They are also scattered in cities, prefectures and counties like Jinping Simao, and Lancang, They are also found in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The Hani, according to Chinese historical records, used to be called Heyi (Heman), Heni, Woni, Ani, Hani, and called themselves in more than 30 kinds of ways, such as Hani, Aini, Biyue, Kaduo, Haoni, Baihong, Budu, Duoni, Yeche, Amu. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Hani have traditionally been semi-nomadic slash-and-burn agriculturalists. In some places they are involved in the opium trade but generally have not been associated with it as much as other groups. The Hani are sometimes disliked by the other Thai and Burmese hill tribes who consider them dirty, ignorant and violent.

Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

The sprawling Honghe Hani Rice Terraces cover more than 160 square kilometers to create one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. There are hundreds of thousands of them, most no wider than a driveway. Like the Great Wall of China they are an man-made object that can be seen from space with a telescope or magnification. [Source: Gary Jones, BBC, October 26, 2021]

Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide wrote in the China Daily, “The Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture lies deep at the bottom of Yunnan province, in Southwest China. Go south past the prefecture and you hit the China-Vietnam border soon after. It is this relative isolation that has preserved the Hani Rice Terraces and its dual heritage of an ethnic lifestyle intimately connected to the land, and the secrets of keeping an ecological balance that results in rice fields perennially rich and lush while the rest of the region thirsts in a three-year drought that is only just starting to break.” [Source: Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide, China Daily, June 10, 2012 ==]

Location of the Honghe Prefecture, home of the rice terraces

The Honghe Hani Terraces create “a well-preserved, sustainable eco-agricultural system and a unique agro-ecological cultural phenomenon borne out of the ancient wisdom of the Hani - a carefully choreographed harmony between man and nature. The forested hilltops, the village hamlets with their mushroom thatched roofs, the terraced rice fields, the little reservoirs and wetland patches, the underground water and the water network above ground - these are the visible aspects. The intangible part of the heritage include the rich ethnic diversity of the Hani and Yi people, their oral history carefully preserved in songs and stories, the folk rituals and customs and most of all, a sustainable lifestyle that flows along with the natural energies of nature. It is a combination of nature blessing the land, and the people appreciating and protecting these benevolent gifts. That is the reason why the terraces have consistently good harvests, independent of the whims of drought or flood. ==

The Hani are one of the peoples of southwest China with a more developed agriculture. In some areas, their fields of rice, cared during hundreds of years, expand following the contour of the mountains until their summit, forming one of the most impressive landscapes created by the human action. The creation of these terrace fields has supposed many years of intense work and a careful use of the earth. In some places the terraced fields have hundreds of levels. [Source: Ethnic China]

Yuanyang County: Home of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Yuanyang county, the home of the terraces, is about 320 kilometers (200 miles, four hours) south of Kunming, the main city in Yunnan Province. Yuanyang County has a population of some 370,000 people, with almost 90 percent of them being members of China’s ethnic minorities. This diversity is most vividly on display on market days in villages such as Shengcun, when the Hani are joined by Dai, Zhuang, Miao, Yao, and Yi who also live the area. According to the BBC: they come “to trade and attend to regional business, to eat and drink, to gossip and smoke their distinctive, elongated bamboo pipes, the women often decked out in colourful and embroidered tribal costumes and chunky silver jewellery. Wander 200 meters rom Shencun in any direction, however, and the frantic buying and selling of the market is easily forgotten. Hike the meandering trails through the terraces – or even along their mud walls if nimble on your feet – and you will be absolutely alone. [Source: Gary Jones, BBC, October 26, 2021]

Though the terraces shimmer a vibrant emerald in the summer growing season, the landscape is at its most photogenic from November to late April, when the waterlogged terraces become natural mirrors that glow in shades of indigo and tangerine, in gold, turquoise and magenta, with every sunrise and sunset. Farmers and water buffalo occasionally lumber by in pleasing silhouette.

The Hani villages are also postcard-perfect, their squat, ochre-hued houses of adobe and stone topped with mushroom-like thatched roofs. Thumping great black pigs and accompanying farrows of cute piglets roam freely, always accompanied by a reassuring soundtrack of gurgling streams and tinkling irrigation channels.

Honghe Hani Rice Terraces: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (100 kilometers south of Kunming) were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. According to UNESCO: “On the south banks of the Hong River in the mountainous terrain of southern Yunnan, the Honghe Hani Rice terraces cascade down the towering slopes of the Ailao mountains. Carved out of dense forest over the past 1,300 years by Hani people who migrated here from further to the northwest, the irrigated terraces support paddy fields overlooking narrow valleys. In some places there are as many as 3,000 terraces between the lower edges of the forest and the valley floor.” The site covers 16,603 hectares. Yuanyang is a Hani minority settlement in the vast rice-terraced mountains. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Honghe Hani rice terraces are an exceptional reflection of a resilient land management system that optimises social and environmental resources, demonstrates an extraordinary harmony between people and their environment in spiritual, ecological and visual terms, and is based on a spiritual respect for nature and respect for both the individual and the community, through a system of dual interdependence known as the ‘Man-God Unity social system’.

The Honghe Hani Rice terraced landscape reflects in an exceptional way a specific interaction with the environment mediated by integrated farming and water management systems, and underpinned by socio-economic-religious systems that express the dual relationship between people and gods and between individuals and community, a system that has persisted for at least a millennium, as can be shown by extensive archival sources.

Sunrise in Qingkuo

History of the Honghe Rice Terraces

"Since ancient times, Hani people have built ditches and canals to divert spring water from mountains and forests to irrigate terraced fields,"A Xiaoying, a Yunnan-based guide with specialist tour company China Highlights told the BBC. "The amount of ditches required has been huge, needing a great deal of manpower and material resources, which individuals or villages could not afford independently." [Source: Gary Jones, BBC, October 26, 2021]

Gary Jones of the BBC wrote:Hani farmers began carving the terraces out of the mountains during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), with their distinctive use of land recounted in handed-down accounts. The terraces have been tended ever since, climbing from riverbank locations at less than 500m above sea level to cloud-shrouded heights of more than 1,800m, and on inclines as steep as 70 degrees. The oft-abused description "stairways to heaven" is most apt here.

Despite being gradually extended with each planting season, the Hani's gargantuan engineering marvel-cum-abstract artwork remained largely hidden from the rest of the world for centuries. A rare outsider account came in the 1890s, when Prince Henri of Orléans led a French expedition from Vietnam to Yunnan, searching for the source of the Irrawaddy River that bisects Burma. "The hillsides here were covered two-thirds of their height with rice fields, rising in regular terraces, over which water trickled in a series of cascades that glittered like glass in the sun," Henri wrote, adding, "This method of irrigation was quite a work of art, all the embankments being thrown up by hand or stomped by foot."

In the early 1920s, American Harry A Franck – one of the foremost travel writers of the time – also slipped into Yunnan from Vietnam, watching from the window as his train chugged through the rugged landscape along the French-built, narrow-gauge railway. "There are terraces everywhere, steeper than stairways, long, but as narrow as they are high, the mountains about them mirrored in new rice fields," Franck gushed in his book Roving Through Southern China (1925). But then, kicking off in the 1930s – with China's long war with Japan, followed by civil war and revolution and the shuttering of the newly communist country behind the so-called "bamboo curtain" – the mountainous region became off limits for foreigners, only reopening in the '80s.

Nobody paid much attention until the 2000s, with the arrival of new tarmac roads and a local authority determined to get the terraces highlighted on UNESCO'S World Heritage List. (This was finally achieved in 2013, the UN agency stating: "The resilient land management system of the rice terraces demonstrates extraordinary harmony between people and their environment, both visually and ecologically.")

In the past decade, keeping such a topographical oddity under wraps has been impossible, of course, with well-heeled photography enthusiasts – mostly from China's affluent cities – converging on the flooded terraces during China's Lunar New Year holiday in late January or early February, capturing the mind-blowing scenes in megapixels and then flooding social media with them.

Honghe Hani Rice Terrace Ecology and Farming and Water System

Gary Jones of the BBC wrote: “Refined through trial and error over more than a millennium, the rice terraces are an inspiring example of an entire community working symbiotically with nature, with land use arranged by elevation into distinct ecological zones. Rainfall and moisture from dense mountain fog are collected in forested catchment areas high on the slopes, recharging ground water; spring water is channelled to irrigate the terraces; pooled water evaporates to form clouds; and clouds gather to shed rain on the high forests. The hydrologic cycle then repeats ad infinitum. "The Hani people have always lived in harmony with nature, forming a living environment with forests on the top, villages in the middle, terraces lower down and water systems such as rivers running through, thus creating a unique ecosystem of 'four elements' – forests, villages, terraces and water systems," A said. [Source: Gary Jones, BBC, October 26, 2021]

“This strategy offers sustainable benefits not only in rice cultivation, but also in everything from timber, vegetable and fruit production to duck breeding, fish farming and the gathering of herbs employed in traditional medicines. The terraces are, effectively, the Hani's year-round larder. "There is water flowing through the engineered landscape all the time," explained American ethnographer Jim Goodman, author of Yunnan: China South of the Clouds, who has decades of experience interacting with the area's tribal peoples. "Most other terrace systems elsewhere in the world don't have that. So, in the winter months, outside of the rice-growing season, the Hani terraces are still useful as a place for fish and frogs, for snails, for good things that the Hani can eat."

According to UNESCO: “The Honghe-Hani terraces are an outstanding reflection of elaborate and finely tuned agricultural, forestry and water distribution systems that are reinforced by long-standing and distinctive socio-economic-religious systems. Red rice, the main crop of the terraces is farmed on the basis of a complex, integrated farming and breeding system within which ducks fertilise the young rice plants, while chickens and pigs contribute fertiliser to more mature plants, water buffalo slough the fields for the next year’s planting and snails growing in the water of the terraces consume various pests. The rice growing process is sustained by elaborate socio-economic-religious systems that strengthen peoples’ relationship with the environment, through obligations to both their own lands and to the wider community, and affirm the sacredness of nature. This system of dual interdependence known as the ‘Man-God Unity social system’ and its physical manifestation in the shape of the terraces together form an exceptional still living cultural tradition.

“The landscape reflects an integrated four-fold system of forests, water supply, terraces and houses. The mountain top forests are the lifeblood of the terraces in capturing and sustaining the water needed for the irrigation. There are four types of forests, the ancient ‘water recharge’ forest, sacred forest, consolidation forests, and village forests for the provision of timber for building, food and firewood. The sacred forests still have strong connotations. Above the village are places for the Village God “Angma” (the soul of the village) and for the Land Protection God “Misong”, where villagers pray for peace, health and prosperity.

“Clefts in the rocks channel the rain, and sandstone beneath the granite mountains traps the water and then later releases it as springs. A complex system of channels has been developed to spread this water around the terraces in and between different valleys. Four trunk canals and 392 branch ditches which in length total 445.83 kilometers are maintained communally.

Incredible Engineering of the Hani Honghe Rice Terraces

According to UNESCO: “Over the past 1,300 years, the Hani people have developed a complex system of channels to bring water from the forested mountaintops to the terraces. They have also created an integrated farming system that involves buffalos, cattle, ducks, fish and eel and supports the production of red rice, the area’s primary crop. Responding to the difficulties and opportunities of their environment of high mountains, narrow valleys criss-crossed by ravines, extremely high rainfall (around 1400 metersm) and sub-tropical valley climate, the Hani people have created out of dense forest an extraordinarily complex system of irrigated rice terraces that flows around the contours of the mountains. The property extends across an area of some 1,000 square kilometers. Three areas of terraces, Bada, Duoyishu and Laohuzui, within three river basins, Malizhai, Dawazhe and Amengkong-Geta, reflect differing underlying geological characteristics. The gradient of the terraces in Bada is gentle, in Douyishu steeper, and in Laohuzui very steep. [Source: UNESCO]

The Honghe rice terraces stretch along the foothills and slopes of Ailao Mountain, climbing upwards like staircases or greenery or watery pools — depending on the season. The Hani have built dykes and banks according to different kinds of topography and soils, making use of the regional conditions of "however high a mountain is, so is the water," to draw perennially flowing mountain springs into the terraces through irrigation channels and ditches. In early spring, terraces of varying shapes and sizes are filled with spring water, in the bright sunlight, generating shining ripples by mountain breezes. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

According to the BBC: The Hani have engineered the landscape democratically, using a system of channels, dividers and dykes to ensure that the water moves through the space fairly With more than 80 villages served by the terraces today, water is the commodity that's not only crucial for the Hani's survival, but for community cohesion, too. Equality of supply, said Goodman, is the starting point of the group's success. "The Hani have engineered the landscape democratically, using a system of channels, dividers and dykes to ensure that the water moves through the space fairly," he said. "Every village has an official 'water guardian', who ensures that the water is distributed evenly. The family whose land is at the bottom of the terrace gets the same water as whoever is at the top." [Source: Gary Jones, BBC, October 26, 2021]

“Viewed from any lofty vantage point, the asymmetrical terraces – some as big as football pitches, others no larger than a casually thrown bed sheet, and all clearly defined by dark, curving walls of compacted mud – slot together like a colossal jigsaw puzzle. In winter and spring, the terraces fill with water to reflect the sky, each resembling a lozenge-like panel in a mighty, swirling stained-glass window.

“Even more impressive, perhaps, is that the terraces have always been carved by hand, and that the construction methods used today are the same as those of the Hani's ancestors. "You can't mechanise the terraces," explained Goodman. "You can't use tractors or other machines because of their shape and location. And they're often knee-deep with water. So, the Hani are still using buffalo or doing the hard work by hand, using the same picks and hoes and hand tools that they've used for hundreds of years."

“In a time of shrinking natural resources globally, Goodman says the Hani can give the world lessons in land management, as well as in how to live in harmony with the environment. "They are proud of what they've achieved," he said. "They accomplished something marvellous that has held firm for possibly 1,300 years." He added: "Show them a photo you took of Hani people dressed up in their traditional clothes, with their fancy jewellery and whatnot, and they'll shrug. Show them a picture of the rice terraces and you'll get a big smile and a thumbs-up."

Villages in Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

According to UNESCO: The Hani that reside in the rice terrace area live in 82 villages situated between the mountaintop forests and the terraces. According to UNESCO: The villages feature traditional thatched “mushroom” houses. The inhabitants worship the sun, moon, mountains, rivers, forests and other natural phenomena including The resilient land management system of the rice terraces demonstrates extraordinary harmony between people and their environment, both visually and ecologically, based on exceptional and long-standing social and religious structures. [Source: UNESCO]

“Eighty-two relatively small villages with between 50 and 100 households are constructed above the terraces just below the mountain top forests. The traditional vernacular buildings have walls built of rammed earth, of adobe bricks or of earth and stone under a tall, hipped, roof thatched with straw that gives the houses a distinctive ‘mushroom’ shape. At least half the houses in the villages are mainly or partly of traditional materials.

“Each household farms one or two ‘plots’ of the rice terraces. Red rice is produced on the basis of a complex and integrated farming and breeding system involving buffalos, cattle, ducks, fish and eels. This system is under pinned by long-standing traditional social and religious structures, based on symbiotic relationships between plants and animals that reinforce communal obligations and the sacredness of nature and reflect a duality of approach between the individual and the community, and between people and gods, one reinforcing the other.

“Each of the villages is under the administration of village committees. The Tusi Native Chieftain System is still an important part of the terrace culture in Ailao Mountain. Two Tusi governments, namely, Mengnong Government and Zongwazhai Government in Yuanyang County, are involved in the planned area. As the basic unit of Hani People society, each village has developed a series of customary laws for managing natural resources and solving the inner discords of villagers and exterior grievances against other villages.”

Problems Maintaining the Hani Rice Terraces

Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide wrote in the China Daily, ““In this seemingly paradise-like existence, seeds of discontent have been sowed by the challenges of encroaching urbanization. As we wandered among the rice terraces, some patches of fields were lying fallow, the surface cracked with neglect. It is not that these particular segments are any less fertile, it is because there is no one to tend them. The families they belong to cannot afford to employ farm workers, and the young are away in the big cities. Those left behind, the elderly, no longer have the strength to work their rice fields. [Source: Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide, China Daily, June 10, 2012 ==]

“Part of the problem, like many similar lowland agricultural enclaves, is the poor prices the grains command in the open market. While the micro-ecology of the rice terraces can comfortably feed a family, there is little or no money for other modern day necessities like the electricity bill, televisions, computers, the post-'80 and post-'90 must-have gadgets of smartphones and tablets. ==

The rice varieties planted here are heirloom species, and do not yield the huge harvests of cross-bred rice plants. Another reason cross-bred rice does not do well here is the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which the Hani wisely resist. Their terraces are fertilized by organic waste of buffalo, pigs, chicken and ducks, as well as green compost from fallen leaves and rotting weeds. Their plants are kept pest-free by foraging chickens and ducks. ==

They are also fiercely protective of the red rice varieties grown here and would eat nothing else. The red rice is descended from wild species cultivated for more than a thousand years since the first Hani settlers came to the Honghe region. By now, it has evolved to include more than 20 sub-species including white, red, purple, glutinous and non-glutinous varieties. To keep the gene pool healthy and disease-resistant, the Hani regularly exchange seed rice with neighbors from another village or another side of the mountain. ===

Preserving the Hani Rice Terraces

Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide wrote in the China Daily, “Local authorities and concerned community elders are grappling with the problems of a restless younger generation eager to try out the attractions of the big city. These temporary temptations can do permanent damage to the Hani heritage if another type of balance is not brought about soon. How do you tread the tightrope of giving the Hani all the advantages of 21st century life while helping them preserve a precious, proven self-sufficiency? [Source: Wang Hao, Pauline D. Loh and Cang Lide, China Daily, June 10, 2012 ==]

“To solve at least some of these headaches, the Hani Rice Terraces Association was set up in 2003. It is headed by Zhang Hongzhen, also the director of the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces agriculture board, a dynamic advocate of Hani culture who has gathered a dedicated team about her. One of the association's recent achievements had been to get the rice terraces listed, in June 2010, under the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Pilot Sites (GIAHS) of UNFAO, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. The current buzz for the Rice Terraces is an application to get recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site as a cultural landscape. ==

“Right now, the whole question of conservation hangs on the balance. Living standards are comparatively low, and fall way below the national average. To catch up, the Hani must push their products beyond their homes. They also need to welcome more visitors with spending power. Tourism is a double-edged sword that must cleave a balanced path between profit and preservation. While it can and should be encouraged, too many feet trampling about the rice terraces may also destroy what the visitors came to see. It has to be wisely managed. And most of all, it is the Hani people and their way of life that must enjoy the benefits of tourism. Not the profiteers nor opportunists, whether they be private or corporate entities.” ==

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2022

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