Chinese culture, boasting a lengthy history, is composed of numerous sub-cultures. The agricultural way of life, centered around rice, has played an important part in the country’s history.
For thousands of years, the Chinese have been diligently cultivating their land. Blood, sweat and tears have been shed over their soil in the pursuit of favorable harvests. This reliance on the land for so many thousands of years accounts for China’s strong rural essence. The need for rice production has led the Chinese to pay particular attention to irrigation technologies, improving cultivation. The agricultural way of life, centered around rice, has had a strong influence on the social, economic, political and ideological developments of ancient China. In this sense, traditional Chinese culture may be considered a “rice culture.”
While exploring the status of rice in Chinese culture a number of developments become apparent. According to Professor Zhang Deci, an expert on cultivation, rice first grew when people, who had lived mainly on hunting, fishing, and fruit collecting, happened to leave some seeds in low-lying areas. Later, these people began developing the land, making it more suitable for farming. Weeding, rice transplanting, and irrigating all originated in the Yellow River Valley region in the north, and Hanshui Basin region in the northwest. To date, traces of rice have been found in Hemudu of Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, Yangshao of Mianchi, Henan Province, Dachendun of Feidong, Anhui Province, Miaoshan of Nanjing and Xianlidun of Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, Qianshanyang of Wuxing, Zhejiang Province, Qujialing and Zhujiazui of Jingshan, Shijiahe of Tianmen, and Fangyingtai of Wuchang in Hubei Province. Archaeologists have confirmed that China started planting rice at least 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. In the 1970s, seeds of long-grained non-glutinous rice were unearthed from the Neolithic ruins at Hemudu in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, the earliest records of rice planting in China, and the world.
By the time the western Zhou Dynasty (c.1100 BC - c. 771 BC) was in power, rice had become well accepted and extremely important, as can be seen from inscriptions on bronze vessels used as containers for storing rice. At this time, rice was a central part of aristocratic banquets.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC), rice became an important part of the diets for Chinese people. Later, in southern China, especially with the development of meticulously intensive farming techniques during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), rice rose to occupy an important position in Chinese culture.
The cultivation of rice led to the development of an economic lifecycle centered around agriculture: ploughing in spring, weeding in summer, harvesting in autumn, and hoarding in winter. In ancient China, vast amounts of land, including the present middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River region and North China region, were suitable for planting rice, with most Chinese working the land in particular ways during the different seasons.
Rice farming influenced many other aspects of the old Chinese economy. For instance, to be viable Chinese farming depended on sophisticated irrigation techniques. The importance of irrigation was outlined in the Twenty-Four Histories, a collection of books chronicling 4,000 years of Chinese history, which recorded dynastic histories from distant antiquity up until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). Books discussing rice agriculture appeared as early as the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC), demonstrating the long history of China’s agronomy. Daopin (Strains of Rice), by Huang Xingsi, a book specializing in the rice planting techniques of the Ming Dynasty, was widely regarded as a complete collection detailing the improvements of rice through its many strains. The book also illustrates the significance of rice agriculture in traditional Chinese economy.
China was built on agriculture. During the period before the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), rice had become a specially prepared food. It was also used to brew wines and offered as a sacrifice to the Gods. What's more, rice was delicately made into different kinds of food, which played an important role in a number of traditional Chinese festivities.
First, rice is a central part of the Spring Festival (or lunar New Year) Eve dinner. On this occasion, Chinese families make New Year’s cake and steamed sponge cake from flour turned from glutinous rice. The cake is called “gao” in Chinese, a homophony to another “gao,” meaning high. People eat these cakes in the hope of a better harvest and higher status in the New Year. The cakes and the New Year’s dinner symbolize people’s wishes for a better future.
Second, rice dumplings are made on the 15th night of the 1st lunar month. This is the first day the full moon can be seen each New Year. People eat rice dumplings, known as Yuanxiao in the north and Tangyuan in the south (“yuan” means of satisfaction in Chinese), hoping everything will turn out as they wish.
Third, zongzi, eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, is also made of glutinous rice. It is said that people eat zongzi on this day to remember Qu Yuan, an official of the Chu State (about 340 BC - 278 BC), who committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River. People throw zongi into the river to prevent fish eating Qu Yuan’s body.
Fourth, rice is made into “Double Nine” festival cakes on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month each year. As people have just harvested their crops during autumn they can make these cakes with fresh new rice. Many people also follow the tradition of climbing a mountain on this day.
Finally, people eat porridge on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month. The porridge is made with rice, cereals, beans, nuts and dried fruit. It is said that Sakyamuni attained Buddhahood on this day, drinking chyle presented to him by a shepherdess, which he believes led him to enlightenment. As a result people bathe Buddha statues and eat porridge on this day.
(China.org.cn edited and translated by Li Jinhui, October 2, 2002)