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Terraced Fields in Yuanyang
Yuanyang County is in the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province. Thousands of years ago, the Hani people living in this place created a wonder by developing large areas of terraced fields on the mountainsides and in the valleys. Nowadays, those terraced fields still support the Hani people both materially and spiritually. The fields are food sources for a population of 350,000, the 640 square kilometers of forests on the mountains hold the water for daily use and irrigation, and a total of 4,653 canals in the county carry water to irrigate the terraced fields. The terraced fields also play a central part in the religious ceremonies of the Hani people.

Unlike those now inoperative historic relics such as China's Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Egypt's pyramids, and India's Taj Mahal, also unlike those simply natural resorts such as Taishan Mountain, Huangshan Mountain, and Niagara Falls, and unlike those simply cultural establishments such as the Confucian Temple in Qufu, the Potala Place in Tibet, and the Summer Palace in Beijing- unlike all of these, the terraced fields in Yuanyang are witness to the harmonious relationship between the Hani people and the Ailao Mountains and to a perfect combination of nature and human culture. It is the terraced fields, in fact, along with the mushroom-shaped houses, that visitors to Yuanyang find the most interesting.

Yuanyang is at the foot of the Ailao Mountains on the south bank of the Honghe River in southern Yunnan Province, south of the Tropic of Cancer. Among the many hills and mountains in the Ailao range, there are two mountains named Guanyin. These two mountains are capped with dense forests, and on the mountainsides are fertile fields. In addition, the area enjoys abundant rainfall. Thus, the natural conditions are favorable for terraced fields.

A long time ago, the ancestors of the Hani people went deep into the mountains to avoid war. There, they created a miracle: over thousands of years, the Hani people, together with the people from the Yi, Han, Dai, Miao, Yao, and Zhuang ethnic groups, developed 130 square kilometers of terraced fields on 2,891 square kilometers of undeveloped land on the mountainsides and formed the brilliant Terraced Fields Rice-Planting Culture.

The terraced fields in Yuanyang are called Ladders toward Heaven by the Hani people and are known for four characteristics: First, they are vast in area. Small-sized terraced fields in odd shapes connect with one another and form larger fields, each covering an area of about 0.6 square kilometers.

Second, compared with other terraced fields in the world, they are on steep slopes, ranging from 15 to 75 degrees in gradient.

Third, there are many terraces. The number of terraces on a single slope may even exceed 3,000.

Fourth, they are high in elevation. The terraced fields stretch from the river valleys up the mountainsides 2,000 meters above the sea level, the highest area where rice can grow.

Standing on the top of a mountain 1,600 meters high, you will sigh in admiration at the magnificence of those terraced fields. But at the same time, you will wonder how the Hani people bring water for irrigation and daily use to such high elevations.

A saying of the Hani ethnic group goes that water can reach as high as any mountain. The arrangement of the Hani people for bringing water to where they need it will make you marvel at their wisdom. The locations where the Hani people have built their villages and opened their terraced fields are cleverly chosen between forests and river valleys. Above are dense forests. The small wooded areas- symbols of the village god- and the forests under the village's ownership are strictly protected, and villagers who want to cut trees must obtain approval beforehand.

Below are deep river valleys. Because of the high temperature in the river valleys, water vaporizes and forms clouds and fog. When the clouds and fog rise to the forests on the mountains, they are cooled down to water droplets by the tree branches and leaves. Numerous droplets come together and become streams, then flow downward. The Hani people draw stream water to their villages for daily use, and they channel water to irrigate their terraced fields. The forests, villages, terraced fields, and river valleys, one below the other, form an ecosystem that works day after day, year after year.

In fact, the terraced fields have become part of the life of every Hani person. The traditional child-naming ceremony of the Hani ethnic group shows us how. When a Hani child is born, the family members hold a ceremony. First, they draw squares on the ground in the courtyard to represent a terraced field. If the baby is a boy, then a 7- or 8-year-old boy will pretend to plow in the symbolic terraced field. If a girl, a 7- or 8-year-old girl will pretend to pick snails and mud eels in the field. Then, the child will receive a formal name and become a member of the village. The Hani people work all their lives in the terraced fields, and after death, their bodies are buried beside their terraced fields, allowing them to keep watch on their lands from the other world.

The Hani people have developed a set of scientific and rational methods of farming. They usually choose sunny and humid areas on gentle slopes for their terraced fields. Here, crops can escape from strong wind and insect and bird pests. During the first three years after the terraced fields are developed, the Hani farmers grow crops that do not need irrigation. Starting from the fourth year, they begin channeling water to the terraced fields, turning them into paddy fields.

The surfaces of terraced fields need to be flat, but there were no measuring instruments in ancient times, so how did the ancestors of the Hani people do it? They did it with the washing power of water, showing the great wisdom and creativity of the ancient Hani people.

After water, the fertilizer is the most important factor for growing rice. Utilizing the geographic condition of villages above and terraced fields below, the Hani people have invented a laborsaving method for channeling fertilizer. Every Hani village has public manure ponds for collecting stable dung. In spring, when people begin plowing their terraced fields, farmers dig the manure ponds out and pour manure with water down along a canal to the terraced fields. To make all the manure flow smoothly, people line up along the canal and use hoes and rakes to dredge the flow. At that moment, the whole village celebrates with great joy. All the villagers-men and women, young and old-feel elated, as if it were festival time. In fact, some already wear festival clothes.

Usually, the Hani people graze their cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep on the mountainsides, and a great deal of excrement piles up there. In June and July, when the heavy rains comes, the excrement is carried downward by rainwater to the terraced fields. At that time, the rice is growing and needs to be fertilized.

The Hani ethnic group is in harmony with nature and calls itself the Sons of God. Over the past thousands of years, it has developed its own cultural and religious festivals and ceremonies, including the Aimatu Festival in the second lunar month for offering sacrifices to the guardian god Aima and preparing the people for the coming spring cultivation; the Kuzhazha Festival, also known as the New Year of the Sixth Lunar Month, where people adjust themselves both physically and mentally for the coming harvest and the sacrifices to the gods; and the Zalete Festival, also known as the New Year of the Tenth Lunar Month, where people celebrate the harvest and offer sacrifices to the ancestors.

The In-the-Street Banquet is the main activity for celebrating the New Year of the Tenth Lunar Month and lasts five or six days. At the beginning of the festival, every family kills a red rooster in the courtyard and cooks it on the spot. According to tradition, the rooster cannot be taken inside the house. Every member of the family, except girls who are about to be married, will eat some of it. Then, the family will cook three rice balls and some meat for the oldest of their kin. The In-the-Street Banquet brings the people to the highest joy. Every day in the village, nearly a hundred tables connect with one another, looking like a dragon, so the banquet is also called the Long Dragon Banquet. Every family presents its best dishes. Before the banquet starts, there is a ceremony of offering sacrifices to the ancestors and showing respect to the elderly. Then people toast one another to celebrate the harvest.

Transportation: One should go to Gejiu or Jianshui County first from Kunming, then take a bus to Yuanyang and the journey takes about 3 hours. Terraced Fields (Titian) spread around the county town.

Favorite Season to Visit: November -- April

(China Pictorial February 20, 2003)

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