To see a world in a grain of rice, not just a meal
During a recent press tour of Sanming in Fujian Province, one of our stops was an expanse of rice fields in a village known as a high-yield hybrid seeds production base, at the foot of a lush hill.
In decades of my reporting assignments, this was the first time something as basic as a rice paddy had been chosen as something newsworthy.
Probably slightly unsure of presenting such a humble object for the visiting reporters, a drone had been deployed nearby to dramatize how technology had weighed in for spraying fertilizer and pesticides.
A distant look at rice easily waxed idyllic, or poetic, bringing to mind a famous line by Xin Qiji (1140-1207): "In the sweet smell of rice flowers, frogs croak in chorus, singing of a harvest."
Then my memory turned to the rice paddy in rural Lianyungang, where I spent a couple of years in the 1980s. Frogs could be heard singing in the pond, but the rice paddy was frankly redolent of chemical fertilizer – or were they pesticides?
Liberal use of chemicals and pesticides has cheapened our food to such a degree that most young people no longer need to be lectured about wasting food as a cardinal sin, as suggested in the family precepts of Zhu Bailu (1617-1688), who warned for posterity that "yizhou yifan, dangsi laizhi buyi. Bansi banlu, hengnian wuli weijian," or "Whether broth or cooked rice, remember it is not easy to come by, for half a piece of silk or cotton thread, think of the difficulty in production."
Since Zhu was a southerner, from nearby Kunshan in Jiangsu Province, fan (meal) would be understood to be rice. In the north, this same word fan would refer to food made of wheat, noodles or steamed buns, a distinction I had become sensitive to since I settled in the south some years ago.
Ironically, today one of the best known rice species is produced in the north, because there is only one crop a year.
In my native place in north Jiangsu, rice was a crop grown in rotation with wheat, which was harvested in early June. In the warmer, tropical Hainan, there are three annual crops of rice.
As a matter of fact, partly as a result of rice, China manages to feed 20 percent of the global population with only 9 percent of arable land in the world.
It's a feat worth adulation, but some observers are pointing an accusing finger at the plant, as a cause of global warming, similarly as cows are scapegoated for the methane they give off.
For instance, the Economist concluded in April that "The world's most important crop is fuelling climate change and diabetes."
"By starving soils of oxygen, paddy cultivation encourages methane-emitting bacteria. It is a bigger source of greenhouse gas than any foodstuff except beef. Its emissions footprint is similar to that of aviation. If you count the conversion of forestland for rice paddies – the fate of much of Madagascar's rainforests – that footprint is even bigger," the article claimed.
Part of the hypocrisy for staking such a claim lies in the writer's comparing aviation to rice cultivation, without noting that rice is a source of nutrition for subsistence.
Rice is also said to be guilty of litany of other offenses. "White rice is more fattening than bread or maize, and is not especially nutritious. In South Asia, rice-heavy diets have been linked to high rates of diabetes and persistent malnutrition." That's a strange way of arguing, as if Coke and McDonald's did not exist.
That does not mean our current rice cultivation is not without its problems. Like in other fields of modern endeavors, our relentless pursuit of efficiency, as evidenced in excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, is depleting our soil, resulting in ecological degradation, calling for a re-examination of our traditional means of cultivation.
From June 17 to September 2, a series of programs will be aired on CCTV prime time as a tribute to Chinese culture and history viewed through the prism of a grain of rice, focusing on the evolution of rice cultivation as unique to Chinese civilization, on a bowl of steamed rice as a staple food, and the social structure, ideology and traditions that have developed in tandem.
When I think of it, I realize rice used to feature so largely in our national psyche. I am reminded of a series of pictures in the 2021 Summer Palace Calendar. This calendar for the Year of Cow featured about 20 poems written by emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) celebrating the many phases of rice cultivation, from soaking seed in water, planting sprouts, to cultivation, thrashing, all the way to the granary. It was followed by a series of 46 pictures featuring Qianlong (1711-1799), who was depicted as a peasant engaged in the full range of activities in growing rice.
Each picture was set off with a poem written by the emperor in his elegant hand.
As I gazed at these pictures and elegant poems, many times, I was mesmerized by the rustic beauty and harmony suggested in the pictures and poems.
In one picture, the crown prince joined a peasant early one morning in inspecting the rice paddy after a timely spring rain, obviously delighted.
In another picture, the prince stood in the fields with his bosom partly revealed, fanning himself, while a peasant woman was pulling a jug of tea and food to the field, with a baby in tow.
I know it has never been easy eking out a living from the soil, and the elegantly and immaculately dressed woman probably belonged more properly to the court, but I also know while most modern people are spared the backbreaking endeavor of toiling in the paddies, they are also spared the joys experienced by a peasant after a bumper harvest, to say nothing of the many of our festivals that are essentially agrarian.
So during our recent visit to Shaxian, where we were let into the history of the famed snacks, our guide, surnamed Lu, said: "People here were known for their originality in devising all sorts of festivals, sometimes just to find an excuse to indulge themselves. For instance, when the new rice crop was harvested, villager women would make thin rice sheets from the juice of ground rice, and it became a delicacy."
Rice should be more than just a source of nutrients in this troubled world.