While there are only seven well-recognized wonders, there are far many more spectacular structures and landscapes in the world than only those that are most widely recognized. One such landscape is China’s multi-generational rice terrace. The asymmetrical terraces, some as big as football pitches are some of the most spectacular man-made landscapes in the world.
The Yuanyang rice terrace in Yunnan was listed as a world heritage site in 2013. It is located to the south of Ailaoshan mountain, Yuanyang county, in Yunnan province. The terrace is a result of the dexterity of the Hani people and extends along the Hong River. Although there are numerous rice terraces in China, the Yuanyang rice terrace is the largest in China.
The terrace sits on almost 170,000 acres, and the fields are divided into three scenic plots. They include Laohuzui, Bada, and Duoyi Tree areas. All the rice terrace fields sit on hills, and the highest mountain has about 300 terraced fields.
From a vantage point, the terraces can be defined by dark, curving walls of compact mud slots packed together. In the spring and winter seasons, when the terraces are filled with water, they reflect the sky and appear as a lozenge-like panel in a swirling stained-glass window. They shimmer a vibrant emerald in the summer and glow in shades of tangerine and indigo when the terraces are filled with water. With every sunset and sunrise, these mystifying terraces glow in gold, deep magenta, and sparkling turquoise.
Over a Thousand Years of Tradition
The Hani farmers began working on the mountain during the Tang dynasty between 618-907 AD. The terraces have expanded, extending from the riverbank, and are often described as “the stairways to heaven.” What is more mind blowing is the fact that the terraces were hand-made.
Most parts of its history were recounted from oral accounts. What we do know is that the Hani people built canals and ditches to divert spring water and irrigate the forest fields. Since the number of ditches required was huge, no individual or village could afford to carry out the project independently. As a result, the collective effort of communities in synergy with nature and the land created the terraces we see today.
The Hani farmers collected moisture and rainfall from dense mountain fog in forested catchment areas on high slopes and channeled spring water in order to irrigate the terraces. Pooled water evaporates to form clouds, and gathered clouds fall as rain on the high forest to form an endless cycle.
This strategy is sustainable for the terraces and the environment around them since water flows through the engineered landscape at all times. Even in the winter months, the villagers use the terrace for snails, fish, frogs, and other small foods they can eat.
The Terrace Today
Today, more than 80 villages are served by the terrace. Each village has an official water guardian that ensures even water distribution from the terraces. As a result, everyone receives the same amount of water, regardless of the village’s altitude in relation to the terraces. The terraces have steadily climbed from riverbank locations at less than 500m above sea level to more than 1,800m and on inclines as steep as 70-degrees. This distribution is thanks to a system of dividers, dykes, and channels that move water through the space.
The Hani people are proud of what they have accomplished with their environment. In a world where natural resources are depleting, over 370,000 residents of Yuanyang county have prospered and benefited from their spectacular rice terraces and systems put in place to keep them thriving.