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Hani Terraced Fields Apply for World Heritage Listing
The Hani ethnic group lives on a vast mountainous area of Ailao and Wuliang Mountains between Honghe River and Lancang River in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. It has a population of 1.25 million according to the 1990 census, mainly distributed in the Honghe, Hani and Yi Nationalities Autonomous Prefecture and in Mojiang, Yuanjiang, Jiangcheng and Pu’er counties.

Recently the Hani people have applied for World Heritage Listing for their terraced fields. The application is based not only on the fields themselves but also on the rich heritage of the lifestyle that has grown there over the centuries.

A thousand years in the making

Standing on the south bank of the Honghe River, the eye is drawn towards a procession of terraced fields winding over one mountain then another. Never-ending terraces take on the appearance of stairs hanging from the very tops of the mountains then cascading to their feet They are at once both delicate and imposing. Each step is a ripple and each stair the waves of a distant ocean. Bathed in the light of the sun, the whole mountain takes on a sparkling mantle.

On the Ailao Mountain to the south of the Honghe River, the terraced fields are the scene of an ancient battlefield. Seen from afar, the terraces seem to extend in all directions, perhaps even to heaven. They are great silent giants. Magnificence and delicacy combine in a real wonder of the world.

For more than a 1,000 years, little has been recorded of the mountains. The Hani people started this great labor using only the simplest of tools. As the years passed by, they were able to look on a wonder they had created themselves. This is no lesser project than the Great Wall. It just happens to be better known.

In the past 1,000 years, scores of generations of Hani people have devoted themselves to tending the terraced fields. They have shed their blood and tears and even sacrificed their lives to the development of these mountains. A century has passed, then another and another always working on with the high mountains and towering ridges ringing to the sound of hoe and axe. The land absorbs the Hani people’s blood and sweat, just as it receives sunlight, moonlight, heat and water.

This is an endless labor tinged with solemnity and cruelty. No builder’s name was placed on the record. No moving stories were passed down. Just like the Great Wall it is a wonder of mankind resting on the very bones of man.

Built against unyielding mountains, the terraces stretch long and unbroken. Some cover several hectares; others are as small as a desktop. Following the contours, they embrace the whole potential of the mountain.

One cannot help but admire the imagination of the Hani people. In a place named Laohuzui (meaning tiger mouth) in Yuanyang County, the terraced fields flow with a special majesty, creating a great symphony between heaven and earth.

With their diligence and wisdom, the Hani people could have founded a great city. However, they did not. For 1,000 years, they lived in stockades. This was as result of the topography of the area. Halfway up the Ailao Mountain, there is no level plain to be developed into a city. Instead, the Hani people have put their energies into building terraced fields.

No greater effort in the struggle against nature

According to some ancient Chinese texts, the Hani ethnic group comes from the old Qiang tribe who lived in the confluence of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

In the 3rd century BC, the Qiang people were forced out of their original homeland. Those who migrated to the south were known as the “Heyi.” Later through the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-25AD) dynasties and on into the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589AD), the ethnic groups to the west reorganized. The Hani people emerged as an offshoot of the Heyi. In these times they were called the Heni. Again they went southward leaving behind not only their flocks but also their old language. They forded the Honghe River and rested on the south bank. The Ailao Mountain then finally changed their fate, turning them from a wandering tribe herding sheep into a settled farming people who sowed and harvested rice.

The rugged and precipitous Ailao Mountain would have spelt hardship and suffering for others but the Hani have nurtured this isolated environment. First brought here by war and natural disaster, they have found in the terraced field a way of life in harmony with nature. A once nomadic tribe has put down its roots.

In Ailao Mountain, there is a saying, "However high the mountain is how high the water goes." Here the Hani people have created a great water conservancy network. Silver belts of water encircle the mountain. Below each main irrigation canal, hundreds maybe a thousand terraces are laid out. Water flows down to the farmland through countless branch ditches. Since the main canals have the capacity to hold rainfall all the year round, the terraced fields always get enough irrigation. The water progresses down step by step. When it finally reaches river level it supports an ecological system which favors agriculture here too.

Remarkably, grain levies paid to the state as taxes in this area are no lower than in lowland areas. Yuanyang County can export 15 million kg of grain in one year. This really is a wonder in such a mountainous area. Ethnologists believe that none have worked harder or been more successful than the Hani people, both in struggling against nature and in reaching harmony with nature.

World heritage

The lifestyle of the Hani ethnic group is little known to outsiders. It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644AD) that records were made of the terraced fields. In the Ming, the famous agronomist Xu Guangqi went on a fact-finding expedition to southwest China’s mountainous areas.

He was astounded to see the terraced fields. He realized that the impact they made on him was not just visual but ideological. In his Book of Agriculture he listed the terraced fields as one of the "seven farmland systems of China."

However, any Hani person who has been involved with this wonder since birth, may seem not to notice and keep silent. He never knows which step he made and which his ancestor. All are integrated in a unified whole.

Some travelers have "found" this amazing place. “The Ailao Mountain terraced fields in Yuanyang County are really the most marvelous spot in the world,” a foreign journalist once declared. “What a wonder the Hani terraced fields are! How great! They must be preserved!” said a Ford Foundation official from the United States of America.

Shi Junchao of the Ethnic Literature Institute of Yuan Academy of Social Sciences, has devoted himself to the study of Hani culture for some 20 years and has many published works.

In 1998, he put forward a first application for World Heritage Listing for the Yuanyang terraced fields. His subsequent publications in support of the application have generated unprecedented pride and excitement in the Hani people. Shi’s efforts have aroused considerable interest from all walks of life.

Hani terraced fields are clearly a material treasure with their mountains, forests and a sea of cloud. However, they are also rich in the cultural heritage of the Hani people. Consequently, the application is in the "World Cultural and Natural Heritage" category.

In January 2001, Asian officials of the World Heritage Evaluation Committee visited Honghe Prefecture in Yunnan for a formal inspection. It may take three, five or perhaps even ten years to win a place in the World Heritage List. The Hani people are well able to wait. Their world is founded on a labor of many centuries.

(china.org.cn by Li Jinhui, July 10, 2002)

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